WASHINGTON -- By any human standard, Pope Benedict XVI and the American Catholic Church are getting a bad rap in the current outbreak of outrage over clerical sexual abuse.
Far from being indifferent or complicit, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among the first in Rome to take the scandal seriously. During much of his service as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future pope had no responsibility for investigating most cases of sexual abuse. Local bishops were in charge -- and some failed spectacularly in their moral duties. It was not until 2001 that Pope John Paul II charged Ratzinger with reviewing every credible case of sexual abuse. While pouring through these documents, Ratzinger's eyes were opened. The church became more active in removing abusive priests -- whom Ratzinger described rightly as "filth" -- both through canonical trials and administrative action.
"Benedict," says the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, "grew in his understanding of the crisis. Like many other bishops at the beginning, he didn't understand it. ... But he grew in his understanding because he listened to what the U.S. bishops had to say. He in fact got it quicker than other people in the Vatican."
And the American Catholic Church -- once in destructive denial -- has confronted the problem directly. It is difficult to contend that justice was done in the cases of some prominent offenders and the bishops who protected and reassigned them. But it is also difficult to deny that the church has made progress with a zero-tolerance policy. The vast majority of abuse cases took place decades ago. In 2009, six credible allegations of abuse concerning people who are currently minors were reported to the U.S. bishops -- in a church with 65 million members.
Some will allow none of these facts to get in the way of a good clerical scandal. Editorial cartoons engage in gleeful anti-clericalism. The implicit charge is that the Catholic Church is somehow discredited by the existence of human depravity -- a doctrine it has taught for more than two millennia.