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Pope Benedict's Most Underappreciated Achievement

By Ramesh Ponnuru
February 13, 2013 9:31 AM EST

This is a response to Margaret Carlson's column on Pope Benedict XVI.

The sexual crimes of so many Catholic priests; the malfeasance of bishops who “failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse”; the tardiness and inadequacy and excuse-making of the official response when word of these horrors began to spread: The sex-abuse scandal is a wound that feels like it will never heal.

Naturally we want to hold someone accountable, in our hearts and minds as well as our courts and prisons. As well we should.

Pope Benedict XVI is a tempting target. He is the CEO of the Roman Catholic Church, and where does the buck stop if not with him? But the pope is not a CEO, the church is not run like a corporation or a military. Even our rage should be reasoned. Our search for villains must be honest and fair. The defense must get a word as well as the prosecution.

Margaret, you're right to suggest that it is a black mark on Pope Benedict’s record that, as archbishop of Munich, he apparently approved as Father Peter Hullerman, an abuser, was merely put in therapy. (The pope, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, does not appear to be responsible for Hullerman’s subsequent reassignment to pastoral work.) Too many clerics at that time thought of sexual abuse as something that could be cured.

Ratzinger’s record, however, has been distorted by critics. When he commented in 1990 that the standards of the world can’t always be applied to the life of the church -- a claim that has to be true for any religious grouping -- he wasn’t talking about how to handle allegations of sex abuse. He was telling theologians not to follow the polls.

Responsibility for dealing with the sex-abuse cases was centralized in Ratzinger’s office in 2001, and most observers say that the church’s record since that time has been much better than it had been before -- and that it continued to improve once Ratzinger became Benedict. The longtime Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr., while critical of the defensiveness of officials (including Benedict) at the first signs of widespread abuse, wrote in 2010 that “as pope, Benedict XVI became a Catholic Elliot Ness -- disciplining Roman favorites long regarded as untouchable, meeting sex abuse victims in both the United States and Australia, embracing ‘zero tolerance’ policies once viewed with disdain in Rome, and openly apologizing for the carnage caused by the crisis.”

That improvement is cold comfort for the victims, of course, but it is relevant to a fair assessment of the pope’s record. What does not make sense, Margaret, is indicting Pope Benedict because crimes that predated his pontificate became known during it (his tenure, you write, "was marked by cover-ups coming to light”).

“Under his leadership,” you continue, "the church continued to deny its perfidy.” Allen notes that during his 2008 trip to the U.S., the pope said, “We are deeply ashamed.” He met with victims of the abuse.

This is from the pope's letter to Ireland's Catholics, which I quote in my first paragraph above: “In order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.” Read the letter in full and tell me that the pope failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the horror -- or the malfeasance of many bishops.

Instead of cleaning house, you write, Benedict “directed most of his energies to keeping gays and women out of the priesthood and reprimanding nuns who were paying insufficient attention to his pronouncements.” To the extent it seemed that way, I suspect it has more to do with the priorities of the U.S. press than with the actual daily work of the Vatican.

The church does not teach that even those popes it considers saints always made the right decisions. Ratzinger did not recognize the full extent of what he later called the “filth” in the church, and the church moved too slowly to respond. Yet he responded to this crisis far better than his detractors are willing to concede, and Catholics, including Catholic children, are safer for his labors.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him in Twitter.)

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