Abuse Crisis Reveals Church's Management Issues

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The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church have some debating whether Pope Benedict should resign. Religion journalist and papal biographer David Gibson talks Mary Louise Kelly about the inner workings of the Catholic church. He says it's been centuries since a pope has resigned. Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict, says the scandal points to the church's management flaws.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We're going to take a moment now to take a look at the workings of the Catholic Church and the role of the pope.

Journalist David Gibson has followed the pope since the days when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And Gibson joined us on the line from his home in Brooklyn.

David Gibson, welcome.

Mr. DAVID GIBSON (Journalist; Author, "The Rule of Benedict"): Thank you. Good to be here.

KELLY: Great. So let me start with the pope himself. I wonder if one factor that is at work behind the scenes in this crisis is the whole mystique that surrounds the pope: the vestments and the smoke puffs and the pageantry. One of the key jobs of the pope, obviously, is maintaining the dignity of that office.

Mr. GIBSON: Very much so, and that's one reason I think you've seen, as these cases and as these reports have gotten closer and closer to Joseph Ratzinger himself, there's been an increasingly defensive attitude, because there's so much at risk here for the church. Popes do not resign. Even if you'll get the occasional bishop to resign and have his resignation accepted by the pope, that does not happen for the pope. And so there are two dangers here: There's one for the pope himself, Joseph Ratzinger, and for the papacy.

KELLY: I gather even if the pope wanted to resign - and as you say, there's absolutely no indication that he plans to do so - that it might actually quite difficult under church rules?

Mr. GIBSON: Yes. The church rules and Canon Law are really a mess. The church sort of prides on sort of black-and-white prescriptions. It's amazing how vague the issue of papal resignation and retirement is. Canon Law, for example, has just one line about the potential resignation of the pope, and it says the pope can resign, but it can be accepted by no one. In other words, he's so high at the top of this pyramid, that it's not clear that anyone could accept his resignation. And, indeed, no one - no pope has resigned, really, since the Avignon Schism was healed back in the 14th century.

KELLY: Could he be forced out? Has a pope ever been forced down?

Mr. GIBSON: Not in centuries, so there's really no way to depose a pope under any reasonable scenario. It's up to him.

KELLY: Okay. So, we have been talking about the head of the church, the pope. Let's spend a minute on the internal court system of the church. Walk us through what typically would happen when an allegation of abuse comes to the attention of church officials.

Mr. GIBSON: Well, in 2001, with a growing number of cases emerging in dioceses around the world, Cardinal Ratzinger went to John Paul II, his predecessor, and said, look. We need to centralize our means of dealing with all of these cases. Let's have these cases come to me at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and we will deal with them through church tribunals, or other means.

KELLY: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - this is a special Vatican office that was specifically set up to deal with these cases?

Mr. GIBSON: No. It's really the successor to the Holy Office, the home of the Inquisition, as everyone likes to recall. It's a very powerful office. It's really only second only to the papacy. Ratzinger, he was very powerful under John Paul II. For him to say I want to deal with all these cases was an unusual move, but one that certainly had to be done, because otherwise there would be no uniform justice.

KELLY: And if this office decides that a certain allegation is worth investigating, what happens? They can bring a priest to trial within the church system?

Mr. GIBSON: Yeah, because there's a - the church has its code of Canon Law, which is almost like a parallel, internal, you know, judicial code of laws to deal with all sorts of internal church issues, and defrocking priests is one of them. And so priests can go through tribunals, which are secret trials, and nobody can face their accuser and that kind of thing.

The Vatican says, look. This is not like a civil or a criminal trial in the secular world. We're trying to protect confidentiality. That's their story. Many would disagree.

KELLY: David Gibson, thanks very much.

Mr. GIBSON: Thank you.

KELLY: David Gibson is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."

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