Investigative journalist, Joe Rigert, and abuse campaigner, Richard Sipe, have upped the stakes in the continuing controversy of clerical sexual abuse by suggesting that Pope Benedict and all bishops complicit in the scandal should voluntarily resign. They argue in this commentary especially prepared for Catholica "the Catholic Church today is in need of a reformation as profound (and breathtaking) as any in its history".
What can Benedict do to resolve the sexual crisis of Catholicism?
by Joe Rigert and Richard Sipe
The world knows that Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the billion-member Roman Catholic church, has a horrible problem of child sex abuse in his church, especially in North America and Australia. Now a surge of alleged abuse cases in Europe, including almost 500 in tiny Belgium alone, shows that the problem is far more widespread than originally believed, reaching right into the papacy itself. Along with other bishops, Benedict was complicit earlier in tolerating and covering up the crimes of the priests.
But the abuse scandal, even if the worst in the history of the modern church, should not be treated in isolation, for it is a symptom of a systemic problem rooted in church structure and teaching. It is a symptom of an outmoded, in some cases ludicrous, teaching on sex and sexuality. In short, the pope—and his church—have a sex problem.
The pope's problem with sex is seen in the excommunication of a nun hospital administrator for allowing an abortion to save the life of a mother. It is reflected in the ban on birth control, even though practiced by a majority of Catholics. It is tragically shown in the effort to prevent the use of condoms to curtail the spread of AIDS, which has made millions of children AIDS orphans.
Obviously, however, this pope and other popes have been unable to fully enforce their teaching on sex, even in the priesthood. They have professed to maintain a no-sex celibacy in the clergy, but they know that a high percentage of priests is or has been sexually involved. They also brand homosexual acts as intrinsically evil, despite conservative estimates that a third or more of priests are homosexual as a genetic predisposition. (Not to mention the futile prohibition of masturbation, or of divorce and remarriage.)
This papal "sex problem" puts Catholics in a position of having to choose between what the church teaches and what they actually believe and practice. And it means that secular governments must contend with bishops, the pope's men, who use the power of their religion to lobby against practices like abortion.
An "obsession" dating back centuries...
The Catholic hierarchy's obsession over sex dates back centuries when church "fathers" viewed it as sinful, to be allowed, within limits, only in traditional marriage, and to this day to be defined by the all-male caste of an archaic monarchy. And within that context, the sexual abuse of minors is not new either, having been a serious problem throughout the history of the church. What's new in recent times is that church leaders have no longer been able to keep it a secret; it blew up in their faces and now, has implicated the pope.
Five times, as Archbishop and then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope was slow to act or allowed pedophiles to remain in the priesthood despite sexual abuse of boys or young men. In two of the cases, Ratzinger rebuffed requests from bishops to defrock clergy abusers. In one case, Ratzinger declined for years in the 1980s to defrock a California priest who had tied up and molested two boys. The future pope, then a high Vatican official, said he delayed a decision for the good of the "universal church" (but not for the good of the victims). In another case, Ratzinger and other top Vatican officials refused in the mid-1990s to defrock a Wisconsin priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys. The priest said he had repented.
Earlier, as an archbishop in his native Germany in the 1980s, Ratzinger permitted one of his priests to remain in the ministry after he had brutally abused a boy—along with the abuse of at least two others--after a psychiatrist had warned that the priest should no longer be allowed to work with children. The warning was ignored and the priest went on to sexually abuse more boys, even after he was convicted of the crime and put on probation. (Now the pope says pedophile priests should be excluded from any contact with the young.)
That case involving Ratzinger was not a matter of sexual fondling or touching, as the abuses by priests are often described. This was a terrible assault on the child. The alleged victim, now an adult, said in an interview that the priest gave him alcohol, locked him in his bedroom, took off his clothes and forced him to perform oral sex. He was 11 years old. Any priest now credibly accused of such conduct should be defrocked, stripped of his priestly functions. Could any bishop who kept such a priest in the ministry be seriously considered as a credible candidate for pope?
We can't say, nor can anyone, what role the many sexual "problems" has played in the sex-abuse crisis. We do know of compelling evidence that celibacy, as perpetuated in the culture and clergy of Ireland, has been a factor in the scandal. But the church leadership has closed off, even forbidden, any studies or discussion that might shed light on the relationship of these many sexual questions. Case closed.
We do suggest, however, that to deal with any one or two of the teachings, such as celibacy and the male-only clergy, won't be enough to solve the problems of the pope and his bishops because the tangle of sexual issues clog up their agenda. They have built and now maintain a house of cards that would come crumbling down if they were to upset the interrelationship of the parts.
Benedict's failure to deal fully with his "sex problem" of abuse illustrates that interrelationship. He can't purge the bishops who covered up the abuse for decades because he has been compromised by his own failures. If he were to remove them, moreover, he would undermine further their power and moral authority, which already is badly damaged. The all-powerful bishops, answerable only to the pope, make up the bedrock structure of the church.
So far, Benedict has met with victims and decried what he calls the heinous crime of abuse of children. He has said more and done more than his predecessor, John Paul II. But he has failed to hold himself to account for his part in the scandal as an archbishop and cardinal, even though he has blamed his bishops for their failures. In a recent letter to the "Irish faithful" in that abuse-plagued country, he referred to errors of judgment and failures of leadership that undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the bishops. He urged them to renew their sense of accountability. More recently, on a trip to Britain, he admitted the failure of church leaders to respond properly to the scandal. In each instance, he could have been referring to himself.
In fact, for more than two decades as the Vatican's chief morals enforcer, before being named pope, Ratzinger was part of a culture of non-responsibility, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction, according to the New York Times. His Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was "an office that failed to act," the Times concluded. Now the pope and the Vatican have engaged in a bumbling public relations effort to respond to criticism, first dismissing the scandal as petty gossip, then shifting to blame it on sin within the church. At the same time, however, they have looked foolish in proclaiming that the devil made the priests do it, and have appeared ludicrous in equating the sin of pedophilia with the ordination of women as priests. As politicians, which the church leaders are, they would have a tough time winning an election among Catholics.
What can Benedict do?
What can Benedict do to resolve the sexual crisis of Catholicism? At the very least he could open up for discussion and study the antiquated sexual teachings on such common practices as birth control, use of condoms and sex outside of marriage. Further, he could lead the way to making celibacy optional for priests and allow women in the ministry. (Would women have taken part in, or allowed, the sex abuse scandal?) And he might call for a representative church council to consider all of these basic reforms.
But it is unlikely that any of these reforms will happen as long the aging pope and the old men of the Vatican persist on retaining their power and control. They must be willing to share their authority and then undertake a Sexual Copernican Shift in their basic assumptions about sexual teaching and discipline, a shift recognizing that our core sexual nature is a bio-diverse reality, not a theological construct. Only then will the pope and his men begin to address the crisis now inundating the church.
And now we get to the hard part, the need for a courageous act. The pope could initiate this change by resigning from the papacy and calling for the resignation of all the other bishops, like him, who were complicit in the abuse scandal. (In Ireland, the archbishop of Dublin proposed such action, and five bishops offered to resign.) Other popes have quit. In centuries past nine of the 265 Roman Catholic popes have resigned or been forced out of office for the good of the church. The most recent was Gregory XII who abdicated in 1417 to help settle the claims of three competitors for the papacy.
The need for a reformation...
The fact is that the Catholic Church today is in need of a reformation as profound (and breathtaking) as any in its history. The voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could be an epic gesture that would match the epic challenge that faces Catholicism today.
Such leadership by example might help break the pattern and practice that holds the church hostage to a past that no longer meets the spiritual needs of the people. As presently constituted, the church structure allows male leaders—no women allowed—to maintain their power and control in an archaic monarchy; to regulate all sexual behavior, and to suppress any "sinful" deviation. A reformed church, open to the involvement of all people, would move from its obsession over sex to a healthy regard for human sexuality.
It's the only way to deal with the sex problem of the pope and his church.
Joe Rigert, a veteran investigative journalist, is author of the book, An Irish Tragedy: How sex abuse by Irish priests helped cripple the Catholic church. It's a story, told for the first time, of how Irish immigrants, who had helped to build the American Catholic church, later undermined it. They were products of an Irish culture of rigid sexual repression that fostered a bizarre and criminal sexual expression, and a tragic abuse of children. Though a tiny country, Ireland had been a chief exporter of these abusers to America. The cases Rigert documents range from a priest who as a youth was molested by priests in Ireland and then went on to abuse up to 50 girls and boys in America, to a bishop who had never dated a girl in his home country and later turned to boys for sexual satisfaction in an American seminary. Rigert revealed that abuse by Irish priests mirrors a sexual disorder in the Vatican itself. The late Pope John Paul II looked to Ireland to maintain his strict view on sexual morality, but could not enforce it even in his own nation state. The author also showed how the Pope's men--the bishops--condoned, covered up and even took part in the sexual misconduct in both countries, while the Vatican looked the other way. (Before retiring, Rigert produced investigative reports for a quarter century at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis; served as president of the international organization Investigative Reporters & Editors, and is the author of two other books, Europe on Eight Kids a Day and All Together: An Unusual American Family.
Richard Sipe, is the author of eight books on sex and celibacy in the Catholic church, most recently as co-author of Sex, Priests and Secret Codes. He also has been an advocate for hundreds of victims of child sex abuse in the church. After spending 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest, he was trained as a clinical counselor to deal with the mental health problems of priests. During that training and therapy he conducted a 25-year ethnographic study of the celibate/sexual behavior of the clergy population. His study, published in 1990, is now considered a classic. Internationally known, Sipe has participated in 12 documentaries on celibacy and priest sexual abuse aired by HBO, BBC, and other networks in the United States, United Kingdom, and France. He has been widely interviewed by media including CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, People magazine, Newsweek and USA Today.
Further information can be found on Richard Sipe's website: www.richardsipe.com
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©2011A.W. Richard Sipe
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