The pope will deliver a letter tomorrow addressing abuse in Ireland as more critics call on him to resign over the Church's sex scandal in his native Germany. Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the upcoming Beast Book Angel Face about Amanda Knox, reports.
On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI is expected to deliver a much-anticipated pastoral letter to the Catholic faithful in Ireland, somehow explaining how decades of pedophilia and sexual abuse by Irish priests should not reflect poorly on the church. The pope’s letter is unlikely to go into much detail. After all, it would be difficult to justify how predatory priests like Father Brendan Smyth were shuttled between dioceses to cover up the abuse. When authorities finally stepped in and had him arrested in 1994, he had been accused of molesting 90 young girls and boys in Northern Ireland, Britain, and the United States. Eventually he pleaded guilty to 74 counts of sexual abuse against minors and was sentenced to 12 years behind bars. He died of a heart attack after his first month in prison. There are literally thousands of priests like Smyth. In the last several weeks, parishioners from the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and the pope’s home country of Germany have come forward by the hundreds to report alleged abuse.
“Benedict XVI’s resignation would not clean up the church,” says Barbara Blaine, president and founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). “But the days of lofty words are over, what we need is true action.”
Victims of priests like Smyth worry that the forthcoming letter from Pope Benedict XVI will be another failure on the part of the Vatican to address the problem at hand: the fact that the church actively covers up for badly behaving priests. To victims, the extensive cover-up of the sex crimes is often seen as a larger issue than the crimes themselves. Barbara Blaine, president and founder of a 9,000 strong global support group for victims of the church, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), was abused by her local priest when she was 12 years old but didn’t come forward until many years later. She recalls the complicated emotional journey that many victims encounter, from guilt and shame to blatant lies by her local clergy. She says that when she finally told her parents about the abuse, they didn’t call the police. They called the local bishop who said that she was the first to report this particular priest. Nothing was done. Years later Blaine found out that the same priest that abused her had also sexually abused dozens of others, and each one was told that she was the first to report abuse. “This is truly organized crime—a conspiracy to cover up child abuse,” she told The Daily Beast. Blaine and other victims believe that there are no negative consequences for priests who abuse. Instead they are protected. “The predator priests are empowered, enabled and coddled, protected from law enforcement.”
Like a similar church sex scandal that rocked the United States in 2002, the European phase is being handled quietly and swiftly by promises of change and financial compensation to the victims. In the United States, more than $1 billion has been paid to victims of abuse. Most claimants receive somewhere between $5,000 and $500,000, depending on the length and level of abuse. Others have received millions, especially those who were abused by multiple priests over a period of years. Dioceses in Ireland have already earmarked more than $1 billion to pay for the sins of their clergy and the other countries are tallying up the bill. In Ireland and Germany, convents and monasteries are being closed up and sold to help offset costs. But Blaine says that compensation to victims is not nearly at the level most people believe. “Clearly most victims across the globe have not been compensated,” she says. Instead, the vast majority are offered counseling for six months—not nearly enough to get past the issues most victims have. “There is tons of guilt and shame involved,” says Blaine. “As children, we were convinced that the abuse was our fault. We were told that we caused it.”
In the United States, serious efforts like “Safe Touch Education” and other programs have been put into place to safeguard children and to ensure transparency within the diocese. But unlike the American version of these sordid crimes, the European scandal hits much closer to home. Before he became pope, Benedict XVI was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger in charge of the diocese in Germany in which a priest known simply as “Father H” was accused of sexually abusing young boys. That priest, who was dismissed in 2008, was moved from Essen to Munich in the 1980s where he was given counseling and eventually returned to his own parish—all under the current pope, though the Vatican says he had never been told the particulars of why the priest was moved. A Vatican spokesman calls the insinuation that the pope played any part in a cover-up a blatant move to discredit the Holy Father.
But if Pope Benedict XVI did know that Father H was accused of molesting young children, it means that the leader of the Catholic Church was involved in protecting known child abusers. “At a bare minimum, this pope should resign,” says Blaine “Benedict XVI’s resignation would not clean up the church,” she says. “But the days of lofty words are over, what we need is true action.”
The Holy See handles its own criminal investigations and their lead prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, says that he has investigated roughly 3,000 cases of sexual abuse over the past decade. Of those, only 10 percent are true pedophilia. The majority, 60 percent, involved priests’ homosexual relationships with adolescents, and the rest are heterosexual abuses. But he admitted to an Italian newspaper that only 20 percent of the cases he sees ever make it to a Vatican tribunal. The rest are simply dropped and the alleged abusers remain free to minister to children. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi condemned the abuse against children, but hastened to say that pedophilia is a problem in other professions as well, pointing to statistics that show that married people are far more likely to abuse minors than celibate priests. Lombardi notes that this pope is a vigilant crusader against those who molest children. He told reporters last weekend that this pope would “confront, judge and punish these crimes under ecclesiastical rules.”
Some outside the Vatican blame celibacy for the prevalence of predator priests, but the Vatican insists that there is no link. In fact, the Vatican says most of the offenders had long given up celibacy before they start abusing the children. Others disagree. Earlier this week, Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke told a German radio program that some sexual misfits are naturally drawn to the priesthood. “The celibate lifestyle can attract people who have abnormal sexuality and who cannot integrate sexuality into their lives. That’s when a dangerous situation can arise.”
Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia suggests that placing women in greater decision-making roles in the Vatican could stem some of the problems. In the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, she likened the secrecy around the abuse cases to an “omerta” or pact of silence normally used by Mafia families. “Women in fact, both religious and secular, are naturally more inclined to defend young people in the event of sexual abuse, avoiding serious damage to the church that covering these despicable actions have brought.”
Neither Scaraffia nor Barbara Blaine hold much hope for the pope’s upcoming pastoral letter. “What we would like to see is true reform. Those who are engaged in cover-up should face dire consequences—they should be fired and prosecuted,” Blaine says. “If, in his upcoming letter, the pope is just offering to pray for the victims and promise to stem the abuse, we would see it as empty words.”
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.