Grandfather Knows Best: Pope Benedict on Clergy Sexual Abuse

The White House announced on March 28 that the month of April is designated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. On its official website, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains: “Every April, child and youth serving organizations, including Catholic dioceses, parishes, and schools, participate in National Child Abuse Prevention Month to highlight the importance of protecting minors from abuse.” Billboards along highways communicate the same strong message: protect, safeguard, and raise awareness for the protection and well-being of children.

For Catholics, in view of the greatest crisis of abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, April has some added significance. One cannot help but think about the most recent reflection of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the scandal of sexual abuse in the Church. Why did Benedict choose April to make public his analysis of the crisis? He may have had Child Abuse Prevention Month in mind, or he may be responding to developments on this subject in Germany where the essay was first published. More generally, another question might be posed: why is Benedict—who is the grandfather of grandfathers, as Pope Francis referred to his predecessor in 2014—choosing now as the time to speak out, after having promised a life of prayer inside the Vatican?

Benedict probably knows of the significance of April for the American Church and the American people. As the Church in the U.S. is still suffering from the sexual abuse scandal which exploded last August, Benedict, as the grandfather of all grandfathers, wants to join his voice to those of all who are fighting abuse. He shows his interest and skill in detecting the problem and offering his seasoned wisdom as an elderly bishop who has, in a unique way, dedicated his life to the Church. After all, the elderly are expected to share the wisdom of their lives, as Pope Francis said in his morning meditation on November 19, 2013:  “The elderly pass on history, doctrine, faith, and they leave them to us as an inheritance. They are like a fine vintage wine; that is, they have within themselves the power to give us this noble inheritance.” This is accurate: the elderly pass on history, doctrine, and faith—and this is exactly what Benedict is doing this April before the Easter season of regeneration. Their lessons are treasures to cherish, preserve, and pass along.

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Scripture is also clear on the elderly and their role in society. The Letter to the Hebrews (13:7) specifies: “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”

What is Benedict’s wise message? Return to the love of God, return to the Faith of the elders—and remember that when people refuse to apply these two principles, the power of evil and abuse increases. Evil is nothing other than a refusal to love God. Benedict’s is a simple but theologically profound lesson. Only through and in God’s company, by learning to love God and make God part of one’s life, can men set out on the path of human redemption.

Benedict’s analysis points to the sixties, the Sexual Revolution, and the 50-year-old effects of the revolution, which the Church is now facing. He explains that the Church’s moral theology was not taught appropriately in seminaries, and therefore the Church does not and cannot have her own morality. As a result of the effects of the Sexual Revolution and the Church’s mishandling of this societal change, the authority of the Church in moral issues was brought into question, and eventually the Church was “forced … to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.”

Benedict’s argument regarding the 1960s and the laxity of moral norms is backed by the data provided by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Report: “The majority of priests with allegations of abuse were ordained between 1950 and 1979 (68%). Priests ordained prior to 1950 accounted for 21.3% of the allegations, and priests ordained after 1979 accounted for 10.7% of allegations.” Morality and the world made a deal whereby morality became worldly. The “end justifies the means” way of thinking became definitive.

The theological laxity brought about moral laxity, and consequently sexual abuse of children was “diagnosed as allowed and appropriate,” as the letter points out. An uncritical opening up to the world caused the critical abandonment of the wisdom of tradition and the wisdom of the elders. A new and modern Catholicity was forged, seeking to discontinue the millennia-old tradition. Abandoning God and sound morality led to a demoralized society, which allowed the rise of pedophilia. The “dissolution of the moral teaching authority of the Church necessarily had to have an effect on the diverse areas of the Church,” which included those priests who committed crimes against young people. Moreover, “homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” Conciliarity replaced the Church’s authority to act as mater et magistra—mother and teacher—of all nations, according to Benedict.

But Benedict is not just any brilliant elderly bishop and theologian. Benedict, before becoming Benedict and Bishop of Rome after the death of St. John Paul II in April 2005, was Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who had firsthand experience in detecting and trying to eradicate sexual abuse among the clergy. “Like good wine that improves with age,” Benedict is giving the youth and the Church the wisdom of his life.

Indeed, Benedict has had an impressive record of fighting sexual abuse in the Church, both before and after being elected pope. The very concept of zero tolerance towards sexual abuse of minors entered the vocabulary during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Benedict’s meditation on the Church on Good Friday, 2005, in the Via Crucis at the Colosseum is unforgettable. The corruption in the Church had reached such proportions that the Church was “about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion.”

A month after his election to the See of St. Peter, Benedict XVI revoked the priestly faculties of and defrocked Fr. Gino Burresi, founder of the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for crimes of pedophilia and the sexual abuse of minors who were under his care. Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was condemned and removed from all public positions in 2006, and, in 2007, Benedict annulled the fourth vow. This so-called “vow of silence,” which the Legionaries of Christ were required to take, bound the members of the religious order to not criticize anyone, especially their superiors. The revision of the Legionaries’ constitution started during the time of Benedict and was approved in October 2014 after several years of drafting. Aspirants to the religious order are now required to take only the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the 2014 Legionaries of Christ constitution.

In his October 2006 address to the bishops of Ireland on their ad limina visit to Rome, Benedict raised his voice and pointed his finger at what he called “egregious crimes.” He pointed to a similar theme in his April 11, 2019, letter: the need to focus on education, formation in seminaries via teaching, and explaining the Catholic teaching in its entirety. There is a continuity and consistency in Benedict’s diagnosis of the sexual abuse crisis, and he offers solutions taken from the well of tradition. This is what he had to say to the Irish bishops in 2006: “Sound catechesis and careful formation of the heart” are important. “Superficial presentations of Catholic teaching must be avoided, because only the fullness of the faith can communicate the liberating power of the Gospel. By exercising vigilance over the quality of the syllabuses and the course books used and by proclaiming the Church’s doctrine in its entirety, you are carrying out your responsibility to ‘preach the word … in season and out of season … unfailing in patience and in teaching’ (2 Tim. 4:2).”

During his pontificate, Benedict transferred the authority to investigate abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had headed before becoming pontiff, and made important changes in canon law to address the crime of sexual abuse of minors. We now know that Benedict laicized hundreds of abusive clergy.

Is Benedict’s essay a comprehensive treatment of the Church’s crisis? The answer is obviously no, it cannot be. The elderly former Bishop of Rome gave it his best shot in 6,000 words. Looking at Benedict’s record of fighting and legislating against sexual abuse would probably give people a more comprehensive view of how he has acted and reacted to fight and legislate against clergy sexual abuse.

Diverting attention to the office of the pope emeritus and his right or lack thereof to intervene in this critical time for the Catholic Church is diverting attention from the core issue which is the grave moral problem that Benedict is targeting. Benedict is a bishop emeritus before being pope emeritus, and a bishop remains forever a bishop even when he is emeritus because of the indelible mark of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The January 24, 2004, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Apostolorum Successores, approved by John Paul II, in Chapter IX explains the rights of the bishop emeritus in relation to the particular and the universal Church. Diverting our attention does not render a fair judgment to Benedict (bishop and pope emeritus) or to Francis (the reigning Pontiff) who granted permission to the grandfather at home to publish the essay. There is no political agenda behind Benedict’s essay—it is brilliant theology and catechesis, pointing to the problem, contextualizing it, and offering a time-tested solution from the Catholic millennia-old tradition. Benedict, the bishop emeritus, is sharing his wisdom which “like old wine improves with age.”

Benedict, like a good grandfather and a good bishop, is handing on the Faith.


  • Ines A. Murzaku

    Ines A. Murzaku is Professor of Church History, Department of Religion, Seton Hall University in New Jersey and until June 2016 was the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies. She earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books the most recent Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (2016).

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