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Pope is unsparing in analysis of sex-abuse scandal

December 20, 2010

In a powerful address to the Roman Curia, looking back across the year 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said that the explosion of the sex-abuse scandal across Europe had gravely damaged and humbled the Church. He encouraged all prelates to ponder why and how it had happened, and what lessons could be learned.

Each year the Roman Pontiff meets with officials of the Roman Curia in mid-December for an exchange of Christmas greetings. The Pope’s address to the Curia has come to be regarded as one of the major papal policy statements of the year.

[The full text of the papal address is available in our library.]

Pope Benedict devoted most of his speech to the sex-abuse scandal. Reflecting on the damage, he said:

We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again.

The Pope argued, however, that the misdeeds of priests, while reprehensible, should be seen in “the context of these times in which these events have come to light.” He said that the prevailing attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s broke down the moral consensus against sexual exploitation. Citing the rise in child pornography, sexual tourism, and drug trafficking, he said that moral standards had broken down. The problem was regrettably allowed into the Church, Pope Benedict continued:

It was maintained-– even within the realm of Catholic theology-– that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a ‘better than’ and a ‘worse than.’ Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. … Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist.

The Holy Father began his address by citing the words of the Advent liturgy, imploring God to stir up his power and come to save his people. Those prayers, he remarked, were probably composed during a time of turmoil, as the Roman Empire was collapsing. The Christians of that era, he said, witnessed the “disintegration of the key principles of law and of the fundamental moral attitudes underpinning them.” They were shaken by a series of major natural disasters. In short their times were much like our own.

So, the Pope said, Christians today should renew those prayers as Christmas approaches, asking for God to bring new light and life to his Church. “Let us ask him, then, to wake us from the sleep of a faith grown tired, and to restore to that faith the power to move mountains–- that is, to order justly the affairs of the world,” the Pope said.

Looking back across 2010, Pope Benedict recalled how the Year for Priests had helped clerics to gain a new appreciation for the beauty of their vocation. It was especially painful, he observed, when ugly revelations came at the close of that year. He recalled that “to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.”

The Pope was unsparing in his condemnation of the abuse. He quoted at length from a mystical vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who said:

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests.

The Pope mentioned, too, that this time of reckoning is a good moment to offer thanks to all of the people who have offered their help to victims of abuse, and sought to obtain justice and support for them.

Pope Benedict’s address to the Roman Curia touched on a few other topics as well. He spoke about the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, and the steady gains in relations with the Orthodox world. “Even if full communion is not yet granted to us,” the Pope commented, “we have nevertheless established with joy that the basic form of the ancient Church unites us profoundly with one another.”

The situation in the Middle East is troublesome in other respects, the Pope said, especially because of the violence against Christians there and elsewhere in the world. Christians, he said, “are the most oppressed and tormented minority.” He called upon world leaders to “put a stop to ‘Christianophobia.’”

The Pope also mentioned his trip to Great Britain, and repeated the message that he had proclaimed there: that a great society based on a Christian culture cannot thrive apart from its Christian roots. He mentioned with pleasure the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, and said that Cardinal Newman offers a valuable witness to contemporary society, because he understood that the most important aspects of life are those that concern the soul, and that the search for truth is inevitably linked with the search for God.


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