Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandals

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: New evidence came to light this week that raises questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s response to the abuse scandal. Documents surfaced that suggest the Benedict, before he became pope, may have been involved in protecting abusive priests. Meanwhile, Benedict issued a letter of apology to Irish Catholics that was read at Sunday Masses. He also accepted the resignation of an Irish bishop. But many lay people criticized the Pope for not taking stronger actions.

Joining us is Father Tom Reese, Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Father Reese, welcome.


ABERNETHY: The allegations just keep coming about sex abuse by some priests, about cover-ups by some bishops—in the US, now in Europe, all over Europe, reaching into the Vatican, maybe, too. You’ve served the church all your life. How do you react to all that?

REESE: Oh, it just turns my stomach. I mean this is such an awful thing first of all that happened to these children. I have sat and listened to their stories, and it scarred them for life, and it’s a terrible experience for them, and it’s gut-wrenching to listen to these stories and to hear what happened to them and how they were treated by the church. I think it’s terrible and, you know, even though it was only four percent of priests that were involved in abuse, all of us priests feel shame and sorrow that this happened to children in our churches.

ABERNETHY: You feel betrayal by those who were leading the church?

REESE: Well, you know, there’s a lot of anger out there, not just in the pews but also among the priests that these bishops who didn’t deal with this properly have just scarred the church and hurt the reputation of all priests, even good ones.

ABERNETHY: There are allegations, as you know so well, that before he was pope, Benedict presided over offices in Germany and in the Vatican that were, let’s say, less than fully responsive to some of the allegations and situations that they faced. What should Benedict do now?

REESE: Well, I think it’s clear that Benedict grew in his understanding of this crisis. Like many of the other bishops at the beginning, he didn’t understand it. He thought it was overblown. For example, at one time they said that only one percent of the priests were involved in it. Well, that was what one study said at that time, and we found it was four percent. But he grew in his understanding because he listened to what the US bishops had to say. He in fact got it quicker than other people in the Vatican. He got it quicker than John Paul II did. So I think that we can say in his favor that he grew in his understanding and responded to it better as time went on.

ABERNETHY: But when he sent the letter last weekend to the Irish bishops, yes, he apologized and apologized, but he also did not go nearly as far in terms of discipline as a lot of people wanted to see.

REESE: I think that’s true, and the difficulty is that I think that the pope needs to be on message. In that letter he said a lot of things. He said good things. He said he was sorry, he said that this was a terrible crime and sin, he acknowledged the fact that bishops didn’t respond adequately. Those were good things that he said.

ABERNETHY: So what should he do? What should the church do, learning from what the US experience was?

REESE: Well, I think that the European bishops really need to learn from the US experience. They need to put into place a zero-tolerance policy, which means that any priest that is involved in abuse is never going to be acting as a priest again. They need to cooperate with the police in reporting these accusations. They need to have a child protection program in parishes and churches, where people are trained. They need to apologize over and over and over again.

ABERNETHY: You’re talking about the European bishops, but what about Benedict himself?

REESE: Well, I think, you know, he needs to apologize also, just as he did when he came to the United States. You remember in that visit he apologized in the plane on the way over, he talked to the US bishops about this, he met with victims of abuse. He needs to do more of that.

ABERNETHY: And what about punishment?

REESE: I think that priests that are involved in abuse should be totally banned from any ministry into the future. I think that the mistake that the US bishops made that the European bishops should learn from is that it is necessary for some bishops to stand up and say, “I did this, I had bad advice, I made a mistake, I’m really sorry, but I take full responsibility and I resign.” I’m glad to see that some bishops in Ireland have done that.

ABERNETHY: And do you expect that?

REESE: I hope so. The mistake that the American bishops made and I’m afraid the European bishops will also make is that they’ll think that this is going to blow over in a couple months. It’s not. We are going to see thousands of cases come forward in Europe over the next three to five years, if it’s anything like what happened in the United States. They need to get ahead of this, they need to be transparent, they need to call on victims to come forward now and respond to them right away. Otherwise this crisis will just continue to fester.

ABERNETHY: Father Tom Reese, many thanks.