Helpless in the Vatican: The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI

The pope's reluctance to take a firm stance on sexual abuse by priests is expanding into a crisis for the Catholic Church and fueling outrage over his papacy. Some Catholics are now even calling on Benedict, who has committed a series of gaffes since becoming pope in 2005, to resign. By SPIEGEL staff.

Photo Gallery: The Fallible Pope Photos

"Lord!" the man begins. It is night, and the torches cast flickering shadows on the ancient walls. "Your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side." It is a somber statement, particularly coming from a senior member of the Catholic Church.

The priest continues, speaking of weeds in the fields of the Lord, and of how much "filth there is in the Church," the result of priests' betrayal of God. "The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again." He beseeches God, saying: "Have mercy on your Church; even within her, Adam continues to fall again and again."

These were prophetic words. They reflected a bitterness and lack of illusions that could only have been expressed by an experienced cardinal who had exhaustively studied the files outlining the "filth in the Church."

The speaker was Joseph Ratzinger. He was chastising his own church during the Easter holiday five years ago, in 2005. It was a bitter indictment by a veteran of the Church, who apparently had little hope and was on the verge of retirement. It was meant as a legacy and as a warning, but what Ratzinger did not do was to specify the actual misconduct.

At the Center of the Filth

Five years later, the situation in the Church has caught up with Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The filth in the Church has seeped out of the secret dossiers and hidden corners of vestries, seminaries and schools and has been brought to light. As the head of the Church, the captain of this battered ship, Ratzinger now finds himself at the center of the filth.

The pope is now confronted with accusations from all over the world, accompanied by increasingly urgent appeals to finally render his ship seaworthy again. The sex abuse cases which were initially a problem only for national bishops' conferences, particularly in the United States, Ireland and Germany, have merged into a crisis for the entire Catholic Church, a crisis that is now descending upon the Vatican with a vengeance and hitting its spiritual leader hard. Meanwhile that leader seems oblivious to what has happened so suddenly.

In Germany, churchgoers are demanding to know why Benedict has not said a word about the crimes of priests in his native country. Christian Weisner, a senior member of the reform movement "We Are Church," is deeply disappointed by the pope. Benedict XVI, says Weisner, has "not understood the true scope of the distress."

Demands for Repentance

The Poles are angry with the pope, because they fear that his inaction in the face of the crisis could harm the reputation of "their" pope, John Paul II, whose beatification they expect to take place soon. "A public mea culpa would have given him credibility in the fight over the purity of the Church," wrote the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The Irish, to whom Benedict wrote a pastoral letter in which he assigned the responsibility for the abuse cases to local bishops and, in what was not exactly a sign of remorse, to the "secularization of Irish society," were disappointed in the pope. Writing in the Sunday Tribune, an Irish Sunday newspaper, columnist Maurice O'Connell demanded: "Why, for example, can Benedict not jump on a plane, come to Ireland, and, on Maundy Thursday (as he will be doing in Rome), wash the feet of 12 victims?"

Finally, in the United States, where about 12,000 abuse cases have come to light in the last few decades and the media are already accusing the pope himself of having covered up the scandals, the attorney of one abuse victim even wants to force the pontiff to appear in court. Many Catholics who suffered as a result of the sexual urges of their priests 30 years ago have given up hope that the pope will show any remorse at all. David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), accuses the pope of ignoring the suffering of the victims. "Actions, not words, protect innocent kids and heal wounded victims," says Clohessy.

Papacy In Jeopardy

Suddenly, the worldwide chorus of outrage seems to be putting the German pope's entire papacy in jeopardy.

Benedict XVI began his papacy by embarking on a project of reconciliation which went beyond the Church itself. The newly elected pope wanted to rule with the word, and with discourse, not prohibitions. That was what he had been doing for 23 years in his previous position, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). And now he was suddenly advocating an open, self-confident dialogue on several fronts: with the secular world, with Islam, with the Jews and with the traditionalists within the Church. Perhaps even with the followers of Martin Luther.

Now, after five years in office, Benedict has seen his project fail and himself become a spiritual shepherd lost in a world that no longer understands him. The secular world now views the pope with, at best, indifference, if not downright hostility. The Church's dialogue with the Jews suffered a serious setback in the wake of the scandal surrounding Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. An icy silence still predominates in parts of the rabbinate, and the planned beatification of Pius XII, whose role during the Nazi era is controversial, will hardly change that.

Many Muslims have never forgiven Benedict for a lecture he gave in Regensburg in 2006, where he examined the issue of violence and Islam in a bold but ineptly executed move. The speech unleashed a torrent of protests in the Muslim world.

Even radical opponents of reform, such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalists, have not hurried back to Rome, even though the pope has opened all doors for them, declared the Latin mass to be equally valid and reversed the excommunication of SSPX's bishops. Meanwhile, Benedict's gesture of reconciliation toward the extreme right fringe has angered more liberal dioceses in Germany and France.

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1. We do not have to pick on the Pope just because he is German
Norberto_Tyr 04/07/2010
Unfortunately all this corruption and corrosion affected the church as it affects everything. Polansky is in gaol in his Swiss chalet, and there are numerous cases of pedophilia outside the church. The issue is more general. For example there is the industry of sex tourism; today a conservative paper will show photographs in the main page that would be considered pornographic 20 years ago. The truth, is that the West (whatever this means today, not Christianity any more) have lost its moral compass, it has been utterly subverted, and the Church is not an exception. I am not a moralist, I believe that an adult have their own right on his / her sexuality; the issue here is about minors, education, mass media, the right of the parents to educate their own children in the way they want to be educated. It is clear that this is impossible today due to peer pressure, the sate educational system, and fundamentally, mass media permeating all. We all have a right to live with the people we want surrounding us. Why ? Because this is the only way we can educate our kids in the way we want to be educated. But, this is impossible now, the state chooses the people we MUST live with based on the obscure and fallacious argument of ‘multiculturalism’. In the past, believing that Jesus Christ was God was the main tenet of the Western society, today this is irrelevant, the principal mantra is multiculturalism. This is wrong. If I want to educate my children as Christians, it is very difficult if my neighbors are atheists mocking about the Virgin Mary’s virginity, Christmas (Santa Claus, a Coca Cola advertising), and the Holy Spirit. It is very difficult to ask our teenagers to be chaste if their neighbors and ‘friends’ run sexy parties every week, and the TV, movies (‘I like to movit movit…’), and the whole mass media entertainment actively encourages them in the opposite direction with the complicity of the secular environment imposing the use of prophylactics and sexual education in the manner and WHEN they decide. There are serious studies proving that early ‘sexual education’ greatly reduces the age of the first sexual experience in kids (average). The real issue here is the obvious and colossal fact that we cannot place the fox with the chickens in the same cage. It does not matter how much education in tolerance we give to the incumbents, it is nature, it is as simple and natural as it is sex. The problem, as things are now, is that the fox, if he is expelled, will cry foul and appeal to the sacrosanct MULTICULTURALISM to avoid having to go and hunt (and be hunted) by himself.
2. Should I continue to think of you as credible?
sribeiro 04/07/2010
I signed Der Spiegel newsletter under advice of a Professor, who told me this was a credible and important newspaper because of its good journalism. Sadly, I find it very difficult to see this in previous week’s news on the Catholic Church and the Pope and the sexual abuses question. In fact, each day you have a new text on the subject that gives the impression that Catholic Church is the meanest institution on earth and that the Pope is the devil in person. If this was the only information source I had, it would seem like the whole world is against the Church and the Pope is some kind of a mafia chief felt in disgrace within its organization and that he will be replaced anytime… In fact, haven’t been able to find in this newspaper one text – only one – presenting the Catholic Church’s and the Pope’s defence, point of view or even an independent study on the issue as to let your readers know the other side of the story or just plain facts on child abuse worldwide and over the years; percentage of catholic priest involved in these cases; what this Pope has in fact done and is doing in order to address the problem, etc.. I find it difficult to believe you do think these problems are only felt within the Church, or mainly in the Church – DS journalists do know better. Then why, if I may ask, this one-sided, inequitable, way of presenting the news on this subject? I’ll have to go back to my Professor and discuss this with him – is DS really reliable? Should I take it for granted that the news you publish are in fact news… or just opinion articles, and not what democratic free societies consider news (even if formally they look like news, and are put in the news, not opinion, section)?
3. ...unless they make him an offer he can't refuse
plotinus 04/07/2010
---Quote (Originally by sribeiro)--- ...the Pope is some kind of a mafia chief felt in disgrace within its organization and that he will be replaced anytime… ---End Quote--- The pope *is* a mafia chief, but he won't be replaced anytime soon. .
4. Why?
endovelico 04/07/2010
Catholic priests come often from very strict families, where sex is, at best, an undesirable subject. Future priests often repress their sexuality beyond what would be advisable. Once they grow up and become priests this excessive sexual repression means that they have never dealt properly with their sexuality. In many cases, sooner or later, this will lead to adults trying to "fix" their unsolved sexuality by focusing on the age group which should have had their attention when they were children or teenagers. Child molesting is not a consequence of priest celibacy, but of excessive sexual repression as youngsters. It's a cultural problem which has no quick solution. And the question is: would normal children, with a normal sexuality, ever become interested in becoming priests in a Church which sees sexuality as disgusting? If not, then I'm afraid child molesting is going to remain a problem for the Catholic Church.
5. This church has no future...
goliah 04/07/2010
"The waves of accumulating scandal engulfing the roman catholic church will look a mere trifle compared to the 'perfect storm' that is shortly coming. For these growing, worldwide sexual scandals and endemic institutional corruption, having destroyed virtually any remaining 'moral' authority or presumption to understand human nature, are just setting the stage for the 'churches' worst nightmare: the questioning of it's very origins! And that has already begun on the web. Not by any atheist ravings, but with first wholly new interpretation for 2000 years of the Gospel and moral teachings of Christ. Redefining everything from the nature of faith to the Resurrection, for the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new claim to revealed truth, a moral tenet not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief!* This is not reformation but revolution. We may very well come to 'remember' the church as two thousands years of hubris, theological self deception, retailing a counterfeit copy of revealed truth. Check it at: "*
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