Time for answers: The Vatican must address a growing crisis

Written by Susan Mannella on .

This is a harrowing time for the Roman Catholic Church. A series of pedophilia scandals involving priests made fresh headlines last week in several countries, and the news is disconcerting to both devout Catholics and nonmembers around the world who respect the Vatican's moral authority.

* On Wednesday Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Irish Bishop John Magee for not reporting molesting priests to police. The bishop apologized to victims of any pedophiles who worked in parishes in the two decades he ran the diocese of Cloyne. On March 20 the pope issued his own apology to Ireland on 16 years of church concealment of offenses there. Government investigators are checking for more abuse coverups.

* The Vatican came under fire for a decision not to defrock the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, an American priest who was accused of molesting 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin. Records show that two Wisconsin bishops in the 1990s wanted permission from Rome to put the priest through a church trial, but that the deputy of the Vatican's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now the pope, declined. The reasons given were that the alleged offenses occurred decades earlier and Father Murphy, by then old and ailing, should be allowed to repent and serve out his life as a priest (he died in 1998).

* The New York Times reported that the pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had been kept more carefully informed of a sexual abuse case in Germany than earlier statements by the church said. The cardinal, then in Munich, was copied on a memo that said a priest he had OK'd for therapy in 1980 to deal with pedophilia would return to pastoral work within days of starting treatment. The priest was later convicted of abusing boys in a different parish.

Some of the pope's staunch defenders see these developments as part of an insidious plot to bring down the religious leader. That is hard to figure, given the independent tracks and timelines on which these unfortunate cases in multiple nations have unfolded.

One thing seems clear. If the Vatican had dealt with misconduct in the strict way employed by Donald Wuerl as head of the Pittsburgh diocese, it's doubtful that church leaders would be on the defensive. Now the archbishop of the Washington, D.C., diocese, Bishop Wuerl at the time gained attention and respect for dealing firmly with child-abuse charges, often permanently barring from parish ministry any priest against whom there was a credible accusation of molesting a minor.

On Friday, the National Catholic Reporter called on Pope Benedict to answer questions about the latest episodes involving pedophile priests. "The strategies employed so far -- taking the legal path, obscuring the truth and doing everything possible to protect perpetrators as well as the church's reputation and treasury -- have failed miserably," the editorial said.

In an interview published Saturday, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a top Vatican official, defended the pope's handling of sexual abuse cases but called for a "housecleaning" and said "we need a culture of attentiveness and courage." For a thorough cleansing, the Vatican must address the coverups of abuse, the failed dismissals of priests, the lack of accountability for bishops and the role played by Cardinal Ratzinger in cases that came before him.

This growing crisis is real and it tarnishes the dedicated work, daily sacrifice and Christian witness of the overwhelming majority of the church's priests. For their sake and the sake of their flocks, it is time for the pope himself to speak out.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.