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Pope to Address Church Sex Abuse Scandal

March 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Pope Benedict XVI is speaking out about the child abuse scandals that have riled Catholics in Ireland and Germany. Gwen Ifill talks to John Allen, a journalist with National Catholic Reporter.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on how the church is coping with this fresh crisis, we turn to John Allen, senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”

Welcome back, John.

Have these allegations, these concerns, have they been percolating for a while now?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, if you mean by that, the revelations in Ireland and Germany, I think the answer to that would be yes.

As you know, at a sort of big-picture level, in some ways, these crises are a replay of what happened in the United States in 2002, 2003, a very similar trajectory to the story. I think what tends to happen is that, in any Catholic community in the world, there is an awareness that there’s the potential for this kind of crisis.

What it takes is some kind of triggering incident in each place to sort of kick-start it and to bring it out into the open. And — and that’s why I think that senior officials in the church who are looking into this are aware that, as bad as it was in the states and as bad as it presently is in some countries in Europe, this story is probably far from over, because there are other parts of the Catholic world where a similar sort of crisis could erupt.

GWEN IFILL: We have — we heard that the pope said about things in Ireland and the church in Ireland being severely shaken. Is it fair to say that the Vatican is also severely shaken by these latest allegations?

JOHN ALLEN: Oh, I think so. I think, any time there is a Catholic nation in crisis, that’s going to be of deep concern to the Vatican. And then you add to that the fact that the scandals currently unfolding in Germany have, for the first time, at least in an indirect way, suggested a link to the pope himself and to his record as an diocesan bishop in Munich from May of ’77 to February of ’82.

Obviously, that link to — to the pope himself is of extraordinary concern to the Vatican. The concern, of course, would be that it might erode his moral authority, particularly his ability to help lead the church out of this crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and the — and the Vatican has pushed back pretty vigorously about any suggestion that there’s a connection between the pope’s behavior in Munich and — and anything else that we’re now learning about what happened there.

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, that’s right.

I mean, the argument coming both from church officials in Munich and from the Vatican is that, even though this priest came into Munich on then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s watch, that the cardinal wasn’t involved, the man who is now the pope wasn’t involved, in any of the decisions about him, including the decision to put him back into the field as a priest, which actually came a few months after Cardinal Ratzinger had — had already left for Rome.

On the other hand, you know, what critics will say is, even though he may not have been aware of it, that he should have been, that is that, ultimately, the buck in the Archdiocese of Munich stopped on his desk, and that, at least with the benefit of hindsight, this is something that — that he should have involved himself in and should have been sure that this priest could never again function in the field in a place where he could abuse others.

GWEN IFILL: Well, so, John, what’s…

JOHN ALLEN: And, of course, you know, the other fear in the Vatican, I think, is that this may not be an isolated case.

People right now, of course, are combing through the records from the years that Cardinal Ratzinger was in Munich. The concern would be that, in drips and drabs, we might hear of other such cases.

GWEN IFILL: So, John, whether it’s in Ireland, or Austria, or Germany, or the Netherlands, or the United States, these investigations, are they more about the priests who may have committed these crimes or about the bishops or the cardinals who may have been looked the other way?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think you have put your finger on — on what many people would see as the unfinished business of the sex abuse crisis in the church, because, from the beginning, this crisis has been composed of two interlocking, but distinct, problems, the problem of priests who abused and the problem of bishops who failed to clean it up.

I think, to date, most people would give the church generally, and this pope particularly, fairly high marks for the way they have dealt with that first problem. Today, it is abundantly clear that, if a priest abuses someone, he is going to be pulled out of ministry, probably expelled to the priest — from the priesthood, and also reported to the police.

But it is that second piece of the puzzle, the managerial failure of the bishops, when they should have known better, to step in and stop this, that there, I think, many people would have question marks. And that, of course, is what makes the story out of Munich so potentially damaging to the pope, because, particularly if there are other cases, if a pattern emerges in which guys were simply moved around on his watch, then I think some people might ask the question, will the pope credibly be able to discipline other bishops, if it turns out that, during his time as a bishop, he had many of the same problems?

GWEN IFILL: Does the Vatican have the resources, more — as important, the seriousness of purpose to investigate this flood of allegations which have now been coming in for years and years to Rome?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think, in terms of the infrastructure in the Vatican, they do.

It’s — it’s worth noting that it has only been since 2001 that it was the policy of the Catholic Church that these cases had to be referred to Rome. In the initial stages after that edict, particularly at the height of the American crisis, the official in charge of the Rome end of things has said there was an avalanche of cases.

The Vatican did, during that time, find itself overwhelmed. I think now they have sort of geared up to the point where they have the personnel to review the cases and to move them through, and in reasonably speedy fashion.

I think the — and they certainly have the — a new awareness of the gravity of this crisis and the need to project an image of dealing with it aggressively. I think what critics, however, would ask is, at the end of the day, until there are new accountability measures for bishops, so that we are sure the kind of lapses in judgment that we saw decades ago cannot be repeated, then I think there still are going to be many people who are not convinced that, ultimately, the problem has been solved.

GWEN IFILL: John Allen of National Catholic Reporter, thank you so much for joining us again.

JOHN ALLEN: You’re welcome.