For Christians and Jews everywhere, whether they celebrate Easter or Passover, this is the most holy time of the year. How unfortunate, then, that so many people chose this Easter season as a time to attack the Catholic Church.
Why are they all picking on Pope Benedict XVI? Don’t they realize he’s performed a great public service? More than any other pope, Benedict has taught us all valuable lessons on how not to respond to any public-relations crisis.
If, God forbid, any future pope ever faces charges of widespread child abuse by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up of their activities by church leaders, he won’t have to figure it out for himself. He’ll have the advantage of simply remembering Pope Benedict’s Six Rules for Dealing with Sexual Abuse – and then doing just the opposite.
Rule No. 1: Blame It on the Media. That was Benedict’s first mistake. After press reports that Benedict himself, first as bishop of Munich and later as head of the Vatican’s enforcement arm, had failed to seek prosecution of guilty priests, Cardinal William Levada attacked coverage in the New York Times as “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.” Yet Levada provided not one shred of evidence that media reports of then-Joseph Ratzinger’s actions were inaccurate.
Rule No. 2: Blame It on Homosexuals. This is a favorite theme of Catholic League President William Donohue, who insisted on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that most reported cases were not incidents of child abuse because they involved “post-pubescent” boys, ages 12 or 13, who are a favorite target of homosexuals. Note to Donohue: Sex with 12 or 13 year olds is still a crime and should be prosecuted as such.
Rule No. 3: Blame It on the Jews. In one of the dumbest moves by any Catholic leader (especially for a church that until 1960 prayed for conversion of “the perfidious Jews”), Benedict’s personal chaplain – in a Holy Week sermon, in the Vatican, with the pope present – compared criticism of Benedict to persecution of the Jews. Little did we realize that all those altar boys who were molested, and later complained to authorities, were also anti-Semitic.
Rule No. 4: Blame the Victims. Rushing to defend Pope Benedict, Vatican officials broadcast one central message: If only those abused children would sit down and shut up, as they were told, the pope wouldn’t be in so much trouble. On Palm Sunday, Benedict himself vowed he would not be intimidated by “the chatting of dominant opinions.” On Easter Sunday, Cardinal Angelo Sodano dismissed criticism of the pope as “petty gossip.” Note to Vatican: Pope Benedict XVI is not the victim here; thousands of abused children are.
Rule No. 5: Reassign Predators to Another Parish. Which, instead of reporting them to authorities, is what church leaders did for so many predatory priests. That, apparently, is what happened with at least one priest while Joseph Ratzinger was bishop of Munich. Same for Milwaukee’s Rev. Lawrence Murphy, under investigation for molesting as many as 200 deaf students, until Cardinal Ratzinger suspended an official investigation into his behavior after receiving a letter from Murphy pleading ill health.
Rule No. 6: Plead immunity. In their representation of victims of priestly abuse, several attorneys seek to question the pope about a 2001 letter in which he, then Cardinal Ratzinger, instructed bishops to send cases of clerical sex abuse directly to him, but to keep the proceedings secret. Is this the “smoking gun,” proving a Vatican-led cover-up? We may never know, because Vatican attorneys claim that, as head of state, Benedict XVI has immunity.
See what I mean? Nobody could have laid out a better plan on how not to handle a major public-relations crisis. But, despite the Vatican’s comic attempts at self-defense, the fact remains: Hundreds of priests molested thousands of young boys and girls; and, rather than report their crimes to authorities, church officials covered them up.
The only question remaining is: How can a man who was part of the cover-up continue to lead the church? Answer: He can’t.
In the history of the Catholic Church, it’s very rare, but not impossible for a pope to resign. The last was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1417 to help end the Western Schism.
For the good of the church, in other words, Gregory XII resigned. Benedict XVI should do the same.