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The Disappointing Reign of Pope Benedict, Continued

By Margaret Carlson
February 14, 2013 7:01 PM EST

This week Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are discussing the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Previously, Ramesh responded to Margaret's column.

The thing about the pope, Ramesh, is that he's as close to all-powerful as we have in this vale of tears. He’s the president without Congress holding him down. He’s infallible when he wants to be. He has no H.R. department telling him whom he can and cannot fire.

As head of the euphemistically named Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, charged with handling the sex-abuse scandal, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger  knew the magnitude of the problem. According to the U.S. Conference of Bishops, since 1950, there have been 6,100 accused priests and religious and 16,000 victims.

As head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI could have dramatically cleaned house.

As the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, he let us down.

Granted, as you say, Benedict did meet with a handful of victims on occasion, the type of earthly gesture an American politician or corporate executive would make. But it hardly affected the thousands of victims. 

And the letter to the Catholics of Ireland that you quote, Ramesh, makes me want to tear my hair out. "Acknowledgement" and "sorrow" are baseline emotions inadequate to the task of addressing the pain the church has caused. He wants to protect children "from similar crimes in the future" but fails to adequately punish the hierarchy for its crimes of the past. Throughout, the pope prescribes prayer ("intense prayer" comes under the "concrete initiatives" section, which also promised a visit to Ireland). His earthly prescription was to "submit to the demands of justice," which the church had little choice about. His realm may not be of this earth, but if he could recognize the "filth" in the church, then he could give them some papal punishment here.

The emphasis on prayer reminds me of the evangelical's movement to "pray the gay away." Prayer is wonderful, but it's private, as is confession and penance. Cardinal Bernard Law was sent to live la dolce vita in Rome after the Boston scandal. Even after the revelation of the cover-up in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony is, as I write, jetting to the Vatican, to have the honor of voting for Benedict's successor.

Where's the public shaming and punishment of these men by the church? Should they be denied any sacraments? If there was a new day under this pope, as you imply, why would protection of prelates who protected abusive priests persist? Last September, Bishop Robert Finn of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, was convicted for failing to report child abuse. Yet Finn is still running his diocese. Only the pope can remove a bishop.

The Catholic Church often comes up in discussions of the Penn State scandal, although in scale and expectations they're different. University officials allowed a child-abuse scandal to go on for far too long, and failed to discipline and punish the coaches involved even after they knew enough to do so. But in the end they did act, and I'm gratified that my alma mater saw fit to shame and punish these men. I expect the same of my church.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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