By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
For the second time in a row, Benedict XVI has opened a papal trip by tackling the issue of sexual abuse in comments to reporters aboard the papal plane.
In April, Benedict responded to a question from NCR during his flight to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., by saying that he is “deeply ashamed” by the sex abuse scandals, stressing that pedophiles must be “absolutely excluded” from the priesthood, and vowing that the church will strive to bring “justice and healing” to victims.
Today en route to Australia for the opening of World Youth Day, the pope once again took a question about the sex abuse crisis. As with the flight to America, the pope spoke in English.
"The problem is essentially the same as in the United States," the pope said. "I felt obliged to speak about it in the United States because it is essential for the Church to reconcile, to prevent, to help and also to see guilt in these problems, so I will essentially say the same things as I said in America."
"As I said, we have three dimensions to clarify: the first, I mention, is our moral teaching. It must be clear, it was always clear from the first centuries that priesthood, to be a priest, is incompatible with this behavior, because the priest is in the service of Our Lord, and Our Lord is holiness in person, and always teaching us – the Church has always insisted on this. We have to reflect on what was insufficient in our education, in our teaching in recent decades. There was, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the idea of proportionalism in ethics: it held that nothing is bad in itself, but only in proportion to others. With proportionalism, it was possible to think for some subjects – one could also be paedophilia – that in some proportion they could be a good thing. Now, it must be stated clearly, this was never Catholic doctrine. There are things which are always bad, and paedophilia is always bad."
"In our education, in the seminaries, in our permanent formation of the priests, we have to help priests to really be close to Christ, to learn from Christ, and so to be helpers, and not adversaries of our fellow human beings, of our Christians. So, we will do everything possible to clarify what is the teaching of the Church and help in the education and in the preparation of priests, in permanent formation, and we will do all possible to heal and to reconcile the victims. I think this is the essential content of what the word ‘apologize’ says."
"I think it is better, more important to give the content of the formula, and I think the content has to say what was insufficient in our behavior, what we must do in this moment, how we can prevent and how we all can heal and reconcile."
The Vatican has not announced whether the pope will meet with victims of sexual abuse while in Australia. In Washington, Benedict met with five victims in a private encounter in the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, the chief organizer of World Youth day, told reporters that if a meeting were to take place, "I expect it would be like in the United States, very private."
The Catholic church in Australia has been repeatedly rocked by sexual abuse scandals in recent decades.
In just the law few days, those wounds have been reopened by reports that Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, the official host of World Youth Day, was aware of credible accusations against an abuser-priest named Fr. Terrence Goodall in 2002, but failed to take action against him. Some have also charged Pell with dishonesty in his handling of the case.
In 2005, Goodall was convicted of indecent assault against the victim who complained to Pell in 2002. Just days before the pope’s arrival in Australia, wiretaps were played on national television in which Goodall admitted to the victim that their sexual encounter was not consensual.
That revelation has been especially damaging to Pell in light of a letter he sent to the victim in February 2003 in which he wrote that the encounter may have been a matter of “homosexual behavior between two consenting adults.”
In a further embarrassment, Pell stated in the same letter that he was not aware of any other allegations against Goodall, yet the Australian Broadcasting Corporation unearthed another letter from Pell, dated the same day, referring to a report that Goodall had sexually abused an 11-year-old altar boy.
Given that context, Benedict’s comments on the sexual abuse crisis are likely to be carefully scrutinized by the Australian press and public.