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3 years after Benedict XVI retired, will his reforms endure?

Simcha Fisher - published on 02/12/16

“If he says it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.” That was my comment on Facebook three years ago yesterday, when the world first heard that Papa Benedict was retiring. Like so many other Catholics, I was baffled and troubled, but I made an act of will to trust this eminently trustworthy shepherd.

John Allen reminds us of the profound humility of his choice, saying:

Benedict was the first pope to renounce his powers, not in the teeth of schism, foreign armies, or internal power struggles, but rather as the result of an honest self-examination that he simply wasn’t up to the demands of the office any longer.

Allen shares some little-known facts about the way Benedict behaved during his papacy, and reminds us that this humility was no departure from the norm for Benedict, but was in fact the hallmark of this holy man’s eight years as Pope.

Elise Harris reports for CNA that the way he left office should not be allowed to overshadow his true achievements. Harris says that Vatican journalist Marco Mancini’s book about Benedict’s papacy describes

how Benedict XVI fought against scourges in the Church and in society such as the growing presence of relativism, the economic crisis, pedophilia, increasing global hostility toward Christians and the first “Vatileaks” scandal. … “Financial transparency and pedophilia are the two pillars of the process of reform that Benedict set up in the Church. He started,” Mancini said.

Did you know that? Did you know that Benedict was the first to take strenuous action against the Church’s shameful cover-up of sex abuse by clergy?

The standard story you’ll hear, instead, is that Benedict XVI spent most of his time in office covering for pedophile priests, and doing everything he could to prevent them from being brought to justice.  Here‘s a standard comment I got in one of my comboxes when I mentioned Benedict’s name:

[T]he practice of protecting pedophiles was a formal written policy of the church. It came directly from then-Cardinal Ratzinger and was backed by a threat of excommunication.

The commenter linked to a piece from The Guardian from 2005, with the headline:  Pope ‘Obstructed’ Sex Abuse Inquiry.

Did he,  now?

Remember, that story is from 2005.  Now, let’s read this post from 2010, in which Steven Kellmeyer drills down into the actual numbers of abuse victims in the Church, and finds what everyone should already know:  that your children are and always have been safer with priests than with teachers, safer with priests than with Muslim imams, far safer with priests than with the male population as a whole.

But here’s the fascinating part.  Kellmeyer reprints a chart from the John Jay Report on annual totals of accused priests and incidents of sexual abuse reported by year, from 1950 to 2005:

Horrible numbers.  But look at the shape of that chart.  Kellmeyer says:

Do you notice anything interesting? Do you see how that red line (number of cases) and that blue line (number of priests committing abuse) both begin a REALLY rapid descent? Well, if you look closely at the year when that rapid fall begins, that year would be 1981 – two years after John Paul II is elected Pope and the same year Ratzinger is picked to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Even though the CDF won’t streamline the process and gain sole jurisdiction over abuse cases until 2001, the chart shows that the minute Ratzinger became the head of CDF, someone, somewhere started shutting these abusive priests down. By 1995, most of the rat holes had been closed. The press didn’t pick up on what was going on until AFTER Ratzinger or one of his confreres had already finished most of the work.

Awfully strange behavior for a fellow who was so devoted to hiding and protecting pedophiles.  Did the Church hang back until the press held its feet to the fire?  Clearly not.  As soon as he had the authority, Benedict worked strenuously to rid the Church of the horrible scourge of sexual abuse; and the parishes who were guilty of shuffling offenders around were working in contradiction of his policies.

It’s hard to argue with numbers. Benedict’s legacy is a legacy of reform.

The question we face now is, will Ratzinger’s legacy be squandered? In 2015, the Vatican released the new statutes from the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was formed by Pope Francis and is headed by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley. The guidelines are in effect until 2018, and then they will be reevaluated and improved if necessary. So far, so good . . . if Pope Francis’ work is not impeded.

Benedict XVI knew only too well that reform is never welcome, and that the Church can be its own worst enemy. As we remember Benedict XVI’s papacy with love and gratitude, let’s pray that that bureaucracy and blindness will not hobble his good work that Francis is striving to carry forward.


A portion of this post was first published, in a slightly different form, at the National Catholic Register in 2014.

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