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How the Catholic Church could end its sex scandal

Pope Benedict XVI speaks at a youth gathering outside the Vatican on Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks at a youth gathering outside the Vatican on Thursday. (Gregorio Borgia/associated Press)
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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, March 26, 2010

How in the name of God can the Roman Catholic Church put the pedophilia scandal behind it?

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I do not invoke God's name lightly. The church's problem is, above all, theological and religious. Its core difficulty is that rather than drawing on its Christian resources, the church has acted almost entirely on the basis of this world's imperatives and standards.

It has worried about lawsuits. It has worried about its image. It has worried about itself as an institution and about protecting its leaders from public scandal. In so doing, it has made millions of Catholics righteously furious and aggravated every one of its problems.

So instead of going away, the scandal keeps coming back, lately in a form that seems to challenge Pope Benedict XVI himself. It was sickening to read Thursday's New York Times story reporting that Vatican officials "did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church."

The priest, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, worked at a Wisconsin school for deaf boys from 1950 to 1974. He died in 1998.

In Germany, the pope's home country, more than 300 victims have come forward in recent weeks, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose party has Catholic roots, called the scandal "a major challenge for our society."

In the case of Murphy, the Vatican did what every institution does in a scandal: It issued a statement putting the best face on its decisions.

"In light of the facts that Father Murphy was elderly and in very poor health, and that he was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said, "the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that the Archbishop of Milwaukee give consideration to addressing the situation by, for example, restricting Father Murphy's public ministry and requiring that Father Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts." Murphy, he noted, "died approximately four months later without further incident."

The statement is representative of what's wrong with the church's response. It is bureaucratic and self-exculpatory, even asking us to feel for this priest because he was "elderly" and "in very poor health."

The spokesman called the case "tragic," but tragic does not do justice to the outrage here. Yes, the statement included an acknowledgement of the "particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what [Murphy] did," and that he had violated his "sacred trust." Is this the best Father Lombardi could do?

During his visit to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict started moving toward a better approach. He seemed genuinely pained and angered by the scandal. He repeatedly apologized and said he was "deeply ashamed" of the abusive priests who had "betrayed" their ministry.

But while this was a step in the right direction, apologizing for the misbehavior of individual priests will never be enough. The church has been reluctant to speak plainly about the heart of its problem: In handling these cases, it put institutional self-protection first.

The church needs to show it understands the flaws of its own internal culture by examining its own conscience, its own practices, its own reflexives when faced with challenge. As the church rightly teaches, acknowledging the true nature of our sin is the one and only path to redemption and forgiveness.

Of course, this will not be easy. Enemies of the church will use this scandal to discredit the institution no matter what the Vatican does. Many in the hierarchy thought they were doing the right thing, however wrong their decisions were. And the church is not alone in facing problems of this sort.

But defensiveness and institutional self-protection are not Gospel values. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it."

The church needs to cast aside the lawyers, the PR specialists and its own worst instincts, which are human instincts. Benedict could go down as one of the greatest popes in history if he were willing to risk all in the name of institutional self-examination, painful but liberating public honesty, and true contrition.

And then comes something even harder: Especially during Lent, the church teaches that forgiveness requires Catholics to have "a firm purpose of amendment." The church will have to show not only that it has learned from this scandal, but also that it's truly willing to transform itself.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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