Pope Benedict offers poignant Christmas message on scandal

“We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen.”

So declared Pope Benedict XVI in his Christmas message to the hierarchy of the Vatican. The “thing” is the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests around the world, which has caused a scandal that continues to rock the church to its foundation. The sexual molestation of young boys has been made all the more evil by bishops and archbishops protecting the criminal clergy.

Last May, Pope Benedict admitted that the Vatican’s strategy of stonewalling and criticizing the press has not worked and publicly pledged that the church would investigate allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy and bring to justice the perpetrators. His Christmas message, as reported by the New York Times, was clearly a mea culpa aimed at reassuring the victims and their families that the past actions by the hierarchy, including the cover up of the crimes, would not be tolerated.

According to the Times, the pope conceded the child-abuse scandal has reached a “degree we could not have imagined” this year. But he also thanked “the many good clerics,” and “all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the church.”

This Christmas message is significant because it turns the spotlight on one of the darkest period in the church’s history while millions of Catholics around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is one of the holiest days in Christendom, and yet Pope Benedict has ensured the celebration will be tempered by the reality of the sex abuse scandal.

“We are well aware of the particular gravity of the sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility,” he said in his message to the leaders of the church.

Cardinal Ratzinger

Last summer, we argued that the true test of Pope Benedict’s commitment to deal openly and honestly with the growing worldwide scandal will come when he has to answer the myriad questions about his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At the time, he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and his duties included dealing with the allegations against priests. There have been reports that Ratzinger made a determined effort to sweep the scandal under the rug.

The Associated Press has reported that the cardinal was urged to defrock a California priest who had a record of molesting children, but he refused, citing “the good of the universal church.”

But the New York Times now says the Vatican has published a letter from 1988 in which Ratzinger had sought ways for swifter punishment for pedophile priests, but he was unsuccessful.

Be that as it may, there are many Catholics who still feel betrayed by the child-abuse scandal and want Pope Benedict to not only make sure the abusive priests are punished, but that the bishops and archbishops who protected them are called to account.