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Pope Benedict Breaks 6-Year Silence To Comment On Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives at St Peter's basilica in 2015. Benedict has stayed largely silent on the church's sex abuse scandal for the past six years.
Vincenzo Pinto
AFP/Getty Images
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives at St Peter's basilica in 2015. Benedict has stayed largely silent on the church's sex abuse scandal for the past six years.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has broken six years of relative silence with the release of an outspoken letter on the clergy sex abuse scandal. Benedict's analysis differs significantly from that of his successor, Pope Francis, and thus leaves the world's Catholics with contrasting papal perspectives on the greatest crisis facing Roman Catholicism today.

In his 6,000-word essay, published Thursday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, with an English translation by the Catholic News Agency, Benedict blames the epidemic of clergy sex abuse largely on a collapse of moral standards in the 1960s and the subsequent failure of Catholic leaders to uphold traditional church teaching.

"It could be said," Benedict writes, "that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely." Among the changes, in Benedict's view, was that pedophilia became seen as "allowed and appropriate," and pornography became widespread and accepted. The priesthood, meanwhile, fell into crisis.

"Catholic moral theology," Benedict writes, "suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society. ... [T]here could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative moral judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances."

Though Benedict stops short of blaming gay priests for the epidemic of minor abuse, as some have, he claims that "homosexual cliques" were established "more or less openly" in Catholic seminaries, thus changing the seminary climate in such a way as to contribute to a breakdown in the preparation of priests for their ministry.

Benedict has espoused similar views previously, both as a cardinal and as pope, but in the six years since stepping into "emeritus" status, he has largely kept silent and let Pope Francis speak for the church. Francis has argued that the clergy abuse crisis is rooted in a culture of clericalism, where priests and bishops became so elevated that their word and authority dominate over the experience of the people they serve, thus contributing to a lack of accountability. He has expressed a more tolerant view of homosexuality.

In his letter, Benedict says he asked Francis in advance whether he would consider publication of the letter "appropriate," and at no time does he suggest any criticism of the Francis papacy. He says he was motivated to write his letter by the recent Rome summit on clergy abuse, convened by Francis, and that he intended his comments to be "a helpful contribution." At the end of his letter, he thanks Francis "for everything he does to show us, again and again the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today."

Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer and frequent commentator on Vatican issues, argued in a response to the Benedict letter that it should not be taken as an attack on Francis and that "on the fundamentals," the two popes have much in common.

It is, nevertheless, remarkable to have two popes speaking simultaneously on the most divisive issue facing the church, and Benedict's letter may well raise concerns that the Vatican can no longer speak with a single voice.

In his book The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, Anthony McCarten highlights the consequence of having two living popes. "For every papal pronouncement," he writes, "there walks and breathes the rebuttal, the living counterargument—invalidating it."

With two papal perspectives on the clergy abuse crisis now available, Catholics may feel free to choose between them, leaving neither one with the authority a papal position would normally carry.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.