JUST AS Pope Francis struggles to stop his well-regarded papacy being overshadowed by charges of laxity over child abuse, his predecessor has emerged from retirement to make an unexpected intervention. Benedict, the pope emeritus who turns 92 next week, has blamed a surge of criminal acts against children by clerics on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
He offered this diagnosis in an essay of nearly 6,000 words that was published in a German monthly, Klerusblatt, and rapidly retransmitted across the Catholic media. The stated purpose of this contentious piece of writing, which varies from personal reminiscence to dense theological argument, was to assist the deliberations of the current pontiff, who convened a global meeting on child abuse in February after reports of dreadful crimes and cover-ups in countries ranging from Ireland to the United States, and from Chile to Australia. But many supporters of Francis, as well as those who observe the church from outside, will find the older cleric’s analysis far from helpful. Benedict resigned unexpectedly in 2013, becoming the first pontiff to step down for 600 years, and he has lived quietly in Rome since then.
Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, opens his essay by recalling how he, as a young cleric, experienced the permissiveness that suddenly swept over his native Germany, like all other Western countries, half a century ago. He describes how:
Sexual and pornographic movies became a common occurrence…I still remember seeing, as I was walking through the city of Regensburg one day, crowds of people lining up in front of a large cinema, something we had previously only seen in times of war…I also remember arriving in the city on Good Friday in 1970 and seeing all the billboards plastered with a large poster of two completely naked people in a close embrace.
This anything-goes attitude had an effect on the atmosphere in which Catholic priests were trained, and “in various seminaries homosexual cliques were established,” according to Benedict. He links this to a liberal trend in theology which tried to argue that there was no action which could unconditionally, and in all circumstances, be described as evil. Pope John Paul II, taking office in 1978, had done good work to stem that movement and re-affirm absolute standards in morality, in the retired pope’s view.
Benedict writes that the child-abuse scandal was a reflection of collapsing ethical norms which in turn flowed from a collapse of private and public faith in God. “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God…After the upheaval of the second world war, we in Germany had still expressly placed our constitution under the [principle] of responsibility to God. Half a century later it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution.”
In the places where clerical abuse has been most extensively investigated, such as the American state of Pennsylvania or the Dublin area, this analysis will be received sceptically. Reports have emerged of awful abuse occurring well before the 1960s, indeed as far back as anyone now alive can recall. The Pennsylvania report published last summer goes back 80 years. If there is a common theme in the whole story, it is that abuse can occur in any situation where representatives of the church (or any other powerful institution) feel they are immune from scrutiny or accountability. One of the ways in which clerics developed that sense of impunity was by presenting themselves as emissaries of God.
Benedict’s argument does contain serious points which would be worth deliberating in a different context, for example a cultural-studies debate. It is perfectly true that in the 1960s and 1970s, public opinion in the Western world was far too inclined (from a 2019 perspective) to turn a blind eye to the sexual manipulation of children. It seems extra-ordinary now that a so-called Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was allowed to operate openly, and campaign for the lowering of the age of consent, in Britain from 1974 onwards. What looks obvious now is that the PIE was cynically trying to conflate the campaign for sexual freedom between consenting adults with the exploitation of minors.
Indeed, one of the conclusions of the child-abuse summit in Rome in February was precisely that homosexual relations between adults, and child abuse, are two different things which should not be confused. So the existence of “homosexual cliques” in seminaries is off the point for anyone who is trying to understand the root causes of sexual violence against the young.
What the world, and many rank-and-file Catholics, wants to know now is whether the church has the humility and honesty to acknowledge the ghastliness of child abuse, punish the perpetrators and regain public trust. Whatever the rights and wrongs of history, blaming some malign external influence will not do much to inspire fresh confidence.