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Ex-Pope Benedict contradicts Pope Francis in unusual intervention on sexual abuse

Then-Pope Benedict XVI finishes his last general audience at the Vatican on Feb. 27, 2013. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

ROME — Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist “in this difficult hour.”

The 6,000-word letter, written for a small German Catholic publication and published in translation by other outlets Thursday, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with “homosexual cliques.”

The pope emeritus, in emphasizing the retreat of religious belief and firm church teaching, provides a markedly different explanation for the abuse crisis than that offered by Pope Francis, who has often said abuse results from the corrupted power of clergy.

“Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” Benedict wrote, according to the Catholic News Agency, which published the full text in English. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

Since abdicating the papacy six years ago, Benedict — living in a monastery inside Vatican City walls — had remained nearly silent on issues facing the church, in part to yield full authority to his successor. But Benedict’s decision to speak out highlights the unprecedented and awkward position facing the ideologically divided Roman Catholic Church, which has — for the first time in six centuries — two potential authority figures who hold sometimes differing views.

Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis

In his intervention, Benedict did not assess his own role in the crisis, during which he held power for decades, first behind the scenes and then for nearly eight years as pontiff. But the letter bears his hallmark: in particular, a conviction that Catholic teaching can show the way out of a crisis.

Pope Francis declared Feb. 24 an "all-out battle" on "abominable" abuse, at the end of an unprecedented Vatican summit focused on how to protect minors. (Video: Reuters)

“He speaks only a little about victims,” said Vito Mancuso, an author who has written books about Catholic theology and philosophy. “It’s almost an excuse for the one thing that he is truly interested in: the traditionalist restoration inside the church.”

Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, confirmed the authenticity of the letter in an email. The Vatican, which was not involved in the publication of Benedict’s letter but later reported on it, did not respond for a request for comment.

'I am here'

In the letter, Benedict wrote that he contacted both Francis and the Vatican’s secretary of state before proceeding. The pope emeritus finished his essay by thanking Francis for his work to show “the light of God.”

“Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself — even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible — what I could contribute to a new beginning,” Benedict said.

But theologians and church analysts noted there was little overlap between Benedict and Francis’s diagnosis of the church’s central problem.

Francis has been uneven in his handling of abuse and has failed to draw up significant concrete measures to help the church’s response. But he has described the issue with consistent language, calling abuse a “crime” and acknowledging that the church’s practice of protecting its own has contributed to the coverup of cases. Those themes also prevailed during a February sexual abuse summit at the Vatican that involved leading bishops from around the world.

Francis has faced forceful criticism from Catholic traditionalists, including some who claim that homosexuality lies at the root of the abuse crisis.

Benedict did not directly dive into that debate. But he devoted the first third of his letter to cultural changes inside and outside the church beginning in the 1960s that gave rise to “all-out sexual freedom.” He wrote that Catholic moral theology “suffered a collapse” during a period of major restructuring.

One outcome of the sexual revolution, Benedict wrote, is that “pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.”

Benedict did not expand on that idea. In the United States and many other countries, pedophilia is considered a psychiatric disorder, and sexual abuse of minors is considered a crime. Some analysts noted that clerical abuse cases existed well before the 1960s.

At Vatican summit, Pope Francis calls for ‘all-out battle’ against sexual abuse but is short on specifics

Since stepping down as pope, Benedict has remained largely in seclusion, quietly hosting visitors, reading and spending time in the Vatican gardens with the help of a walker. Still, some traditionalist Catholics have used him as a counterpoint to the more reformist papacy of Francis and at times encouraged him to speak out about church affairs.

“The way I explain [this letter] to myself is that the pope emeritus has at last responded to so many requests from a vast part of the public opinion, both lay people and believers from all over the world who have addressed him throughout these years because they felt like orphans,” said Marcello Pera, a friend of Benedict and former president of the Italian Senate. “He, after many years, has finally responded: I am here.”

As pope, Benedict defrocked hundreds of priests, and the Vatican was more forthcoming than it is now about releasing data on abuse.

But analysts say Benedict, like many church leaders, also had significant shortcomings and was slow to acknowledge the institutional problems that have enabled abuse to persist — including the role of bishops and cardinals in protecting accused priests.

“There is not one moment of recognition that the abuse crisis was also the result of a collective lapse of judgment by the entire church, including by the Vatican, for a long time,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology.

Faggioli said Benedict “tells a tiny part and a very idiosyncratic version of the story without mentioning his role in the Vatican for almost four decades.”

In the letter, Benedict also took aim at some of the shortcomings of church law for handling abuse cases. He said that church law traditionally favored the accused and that its justice system was “overwhelmed” by cases in which a “genuine criminal process” was required to impose a maximum penalty.

“All of this actually went beyond the capacities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the Vatican doctrinal office that handles abuse cases, Benedict wrote. He noted that Francis has since enacted unspecified “reforms.” Before becoming pope, Benedict served as head of that powerful doctrinal office.

Two voices

Benedict, who turns 92 next week, has remained in good mental health, according to those who have visited him, although he is physically frail. Several times in the past half-year, he has been photographed with Francis. But he has not spoken in detail about sexual abuse since stepping down from the papacy until now.

In 2013, he became the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to step down. Church historians say that decision — and his handling of the pope emeritus position — could define the role for future popes who might follow his lead in abdicating. Benedict made the decision after stepping down to remain in the Vatican and continue dressing in papal white. The German pontiff also chose not to revert to his given name, Joseph Ratzinger.

His decision to speak out on abuse adds an immediate new dimension to his role as pope emeritus and shows his willingness to interject — at least sometimes — in the most important debates within the church.

“Even beyond the content of the letter, it was not a prudent thing to do for a former pope,” said Brian Flanagan, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Marymount University.

“It’s not good for the church to have two voices,” Flanagan said. “If this is seen as Benedict attempting to give more context for his decisions, maybe this can be a helpful way to understand his mind-set. But this raises the specter of his voice being seen as an alternative to the papacy of Pope Francis. And that is bad for the unity of the church.”

Last year, in a landmark act of defiance, a former Vatican ambassador alleged that church higher-ups, including Francis and Benedict, had known about some of the sexual misconduct allegations against Theodore McCarrick, a onetime cardinal who was defrocked in February.

The accusations levied by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò were aimed chiefly at Francis. Viganò said Benedict had tried to privately sanction McCarrick at one point during his papacy. Benedict, in his letter, did not mention the case.

Instead, Benedict concluded his letter by describing a way forward, calling on God to play a more central role in daily life.

“A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him,” Benedict wrote. “Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside as a somehow ineffective phrase.”

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