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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the Opinion Page. The scandal over sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops erupted in this country 10 years ago. Now, there are similar charges from several countries in Europe that seem to place some responsibility and blame at the door of Pope Benedict XVI, as a bishop in his native Germany, later as a high-ranking Vatican official. But in an op-ed in the New York Times, John Allen, senior correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, says before we rush to condemn the pope as part of the problem, we must first understand that he's also been part of the solution.

Catholics in our audience, we'd like to hear from you today. Almost five years since he took office, has the pope done enough to clean up the church's sex abuse scandal? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter joins us now by phone from his office in Denver. John, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Senior Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Hey, Neal. It's always a pleasure.

CONAN: And you write that then-Cardinal Ratzinger experienced a conversion of sorts on this issue almost 10 years ago.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, one point that is often forgotten in this discussion - because in some reporting, it's been suggested that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the guy who is now the pope was somehow the Vatican's point person on sex abuse for the entire arch of his 25-year career in Rome. And that's not really correct. In fact, he didn't get any direct responsibility for this until 2001, when Pope John Paul II put him and his office in charge of it.

And by all accounts, it triggered what I have described - I mean, it's my language, not his - but what I've described as something of a conversion experience, because prior to 2001, in the very few public statements Cardinal Ratzinger had made about this crisis, he came off to be frank, as just another Roman cardinal in denial. But after 2001, when he actually had to sit down and read all the case files for every Catholic priest, everyone in the world who had credibly been accused of sexual abuse, he began to talk much more openly about what he described as filth in the Catholic Church and became much more aggressive about prosecuting abusers. And that has followed into his - flowed, rather, into his papacy, where we see him as the first pope to embrace a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse, the first pope to meet with victims, the first pope to, in effect, break the Vatican's wall of silence on this issue.

So, look. I mean, whether he has done enough, I think, is a matter of fair debate, but I think what is inarguably is that he has at least done something, and by something I mean considerably more than any of his predecessors ever have on this issue.

CONAN: And you also note - and I think any student of history would have to agree, the church's progress on almost any issue can be glacial to those of us on the outside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, the saying around the Vatican is that they think in centuries. I mean, I have to sometimes joke that the working motto is talk to me on Wednesday, and I'll get back to you in 300 years.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. ALLEN: Now, look. I mean, that's not to defend their slowness and ambivalence on this issue. I think - and quite honestly, you know, by contemporary 21st century standards, the response from Rome on this and many other things has been abysmally slow. But it is nevertheless to say that from the pope's own point of view, the kind of progress he's made on this issue in the last eight years is, by historical standards, quite remarkable.

CONAN: And we hear the stories - and this happens to be the start of holy week. It happens to be the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, so there are issues that the Roman Catholics would rather focus on other than this crisis. But nevertheless, the crisis is not going to go away. But we keep hearing the stories of then-Bishop Ratzinger overlooking the parish priest in - back in Germany when he was responsible for this. And nevertheless, there are other stories that we don't hear so much about. If you would tell us how, as pope, he has handled an institution called the Legionaries of Christ.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. This is - I suppose for Catholic insiders, the Legionaries of Christ would be one of the more high-profile new religious orders in the Catholic Church, founded in the middle part of the 20th century and known for being very - or I should say fairly conservative and very loyal to the pope, loyal to the Vatican. The founder was a high-profile Mexican priest by the name of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who actually died in 2008. Father Maciel was one of these sort of charismatic figures who was very skilled at generating a following, and very skilled at ingratiating himself in senior levels in Rome.

For several decades, there had been sex abuse allegations lodged against him. One case filed under church law came from a handful of ex-members. And it went to then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office at the Vatican in the mid-'90s, where, essentially, the Vatican set on the allegation until 2001. After 2001, with this change I've described in Cardinal Ratzinger's attitude to this issue, they re-launched the investigation against Father Marcial. Even so, it was widely believed that nothing would happen to him, because Father Marcial was protected at the most senior levels of the church, all the way up to and including Pope John Paul II.

So that when Benedict was elected, a matter of just months after his election, in effect, the hammer came down. Father Marcial was taken out of priestly ministry and was instructed by the new pope to go live a life of prayer and penance. This is widely taken to be a finding of guilt. And, essentially, the conclusion that Catholic insiders drew from that episode is that even someone as prominent and well connected as Father Marcial - if even that guy is not safe under the new pope, then no one is. I mean, in other words, the conclusion was there's a new sheriff in town.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. If there is indeed a new sheriff in town, is it too little too late - I guess, is the question we're asking. Let's go to Shawn(ph), Shawn with us from Fort Lauderdale.

SHAWN (Caller): Yes. I was just wondering - it seems to me, I agree that the - this pope has been moving quickly, probably, for obvious reasons. My question is more throughout the world church. I know Mr. Allen is very familiar with what's going on in the church. Is this more of a problem, at this juncture, of looking back? In other words, we're looking at offenses, very grave offenses that occurred in the '50s, '60s, maybe into the '70s, and that we're not really talking about an ongoing problem. Is there - there's no widespread problem, or is there a widespread problem of abuse currently in the Catholic Church? And that's my question, and I can take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Shawn, thanks very much. John?

Mr. ALLEN: Sure. Well, look. I think you can always find individual problems of abuse if you're looking around. But let me take a step back and say that I think from the beginning, what we now talk about is the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has really been two interlocking, but distinct problems. There's the problem of priests who abused, and there's the problem of bishops who covered it up - that is, who should have known better and failed to act.

Now, I think on that first problem - that is the need to adopt tough policies to try to prevent future acts of abuse - I think most people would give the Catholic Church, in general, and in this pope, in particular, fairly high marks. I mean, today, zero tolerance is more or less the official policy of the Catholic Church.

Today, it is abundantly clear whether we're talking about Europe or North America or Africa or Latin America or wherever, it is abundantly clear that if a priest sexually abuses someone - and in particular, if he sexually abuses a minor child - that that priest is going to be immediately yanked out of the priesthood and he's also going to be turned over to the cops. So, in that sense, the church, I think, today is paying the price for failures in the past, as opposed to failures in the present.

But the other piece of the puzzle is, of course, what about senior management that allowed this to happen? That is, what about bishops who just drop the ball? Who - and in some cases, who overtly try to cover this up rather than deal with the problem? There, I think, a lot of people would say that that is the big piece of unfinished business from this crisis. And it's not clear what new accountability measures the church might be able to adopt to give some teeth to the idea of accountability for bishops. And that, frankly, is what makes these revelations about the pope's track record both as archbishop in Munich from '77 to '82, and also as a Vatican official.

It's what makes those revelations so explosive, because ultimately, what's at stake here is his moral authority to deal with this unfinished bit of business. Because what people will ask is: Is it credible to believe that Benedict can crack heads with other bishops if, at least prior to 2001, his own record really isn't any better? And that's the hard question the pope is going to have to answer.

CONAN: Well, just continuing along the lines of the question, just the case of Father Marcial, the cases we've heard about - North America and Europe, for the most part - are people concerned that there may be other shoes ready to drop in South America, in Asia, in Africa?

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, absolutely. Look. I mean, this crisis today has broken in - it broke first, really, in Canada in the late '90s, then Australia, the States, Ireland, to some extent the U.K., now Germany and some other places in Europe. And now that's a lengthening list of countries, obviously. But, I mean, let's bear in mind that two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world today live in the Southern Hemisphere - that is Latin American, African, Asia. By mid-century, that'll bee three-quarters.

Basically speaking, I think if we adopt the premise that this problem probably is a global Catholic problem - that is, it's no more likely to flare up in North America or Europe than it is in Latin America or sub-Saharan African - then the truth is, there's probably at least two-thirds of the Catholic world where this crisis has not yet erupted, but where it very well could. And so if I were in senior leadership in the Catholic Church today, if somebody were trying to tell me that we're rounding a corner, that this story is almost over, I would be deeply skeptical of that.

CONAN: To your knowledge, are there efforts underway to, well, be a little more proactive this time around and unearth these problems before they come to light on their own?

Mr. ALLEN: Neal, I think there are some bishops and some other church leaders who sort of on their own have taken it upon themselves to try to, in effect, to diffuse the bomb before it goes off - that is, who are well aware that this crisis could erupt in their zone of competence and who have tried to look into among their own, to establish what the record is, and to be transparent about it. And I certainly think anyone who has watched this crisis play out in other places ought to draw that conclusion, that it's far better for the church to get this out all at once and on its own terms rather than to suffer death by a thousand cuts.

But, on the other hand, I can also say that there is no formal policy, either from the Vatican or anyplace else, that instructs bishops to do that. So I would say that at the moment, it's sort of catch-as-catch-can. Some people are trying to get ahead of the curve, and others are simply holding their breath, hoping this won't happen to them.

CONAN: John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, also the author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Mark on the line, Mark with us from Tulsa.

MARK (Caller): Yes, hello. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MARK: Great show, by the way. Mr. Allen, thank you for all your work.

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, you're very welcome, Mark. What's your question?

MARK: A comment, more so. As a 30-year-old male from the Midwest - in Tulsa, specifically - of mixed ethnic background, many of us - we applaud the pope for what he has done, but it's all relative, more or less. When an institution, for centuries, has moved at a snail's pace and you're going to tell me that slightly faster than that is all we can do right now, we take what we can, but at the same time you throw your hands up in arms. Because as your guest just said, this has not erupted throughout two-thirds of the known Catholic world. And we look at Ireland, how that has flared up recently in the past year. We just dont know when it's going to end, or if it's even started, to tell you the truth.

CONAN: There was - the pope did accept the resignation of one of the Irish bishops this past week.

MARK: Yes, that's right. There are, basically speaking, now five Irish bishops who have offered their resignations in the wake of this crisis, two of which have been accepted, and the other three are sort of still waiting on the pope's desk for him to act.

I mean, part of the problem here, Neal, is that on the one hand, it may well be the case that accountability is going to require more bishops to resign. On the other hand, there is a cultural and historical problem here, which is the Vatican never likes to see bishops step down under fire, because in their mind, thinking historically, this is an invitation for people to mount pressure campaigns to try to bring down bishops for various reasons. That makes them very uncomfortable, and this is what communist regimes try to do, and so on. And the Vatican, thinking globally and thinking historically, can't help flashing on those kinds of memories.

In addition, the Vatican has a whole another understanding of what accountability means in a case like this, because their theological model for understanding a bishop is not that he is the CEO of a corporation, but he's the father of a family. And as we would say with regular human families, you know, when things get tough, you don't tell the father to walk away. You tell him to, you know, try to solve the problem. That's their understanding of what accountability means.

And so there's a lot that has to be weighted through there. But at the end of the day, I would say that in the court of popular opinion, this business of how do you hold bishops accountable for their failures, that would be the single most important bit of unfinished business from this crisis.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call.

MARK: Thank you both.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Bette(ph), Bette with us from Grand Rapids.

BETTE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Bette. Go ahead, please.

BETTE: About - I guess it was 1993 when I brought my case against the diocese here in Grand Rapids. I was molested by our parish priest when I was 12 and 13 years old. It went on for a year.

CONAN: I'm so sorry.

BETTE: I was one of several of his victims. And during the time that it was happening, there were several parents who tried to bring attention to what they thought was bad behavior on this priest's part. And the bishop, you know, ignored the problem, transferred him, and did all the things that they do. But I believe that the bishops do need to be held accountable, because when I brought my case forward, when I made my accusations, the bishop and the lawyers denied everything. They said that I was making things up, I had false memories, et cetera, et cetera.

And that went on for several, several months, until finally, the priest who molested me was put in front of a lie detector. And before he was hooked up to the machine, he confessed everything. He spent hours talking to the lie detector technician, confessing it all. And as it turned out, he had wanted to confess all along, but the lawyer and the bishop were sitting on him and insisting that what I was saying was all lies.

Mr. ALLEN: Bette...

BETTE: I wound up on being successful in my suit, and by success I mean that I got - I didnt want him defrocked, because I was afraid that he would just go to another state and pick up work (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Bette, we just have a few seconds left. I wanted to give John a chance to respond.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, Bette, actually, I wanted to ask you very, very quickly: When you say you want the bishop held accountable, what would that mean to you? What would accountability look like?

BETTE: Well, what happens when a person commits perjury in a civil situation like that? If they're asked directly if these accusations are true and they say no and they know, in fact, otherwise, what happens in those cases?

CONAN: That would be a criminal case.

BETTE: Right.

Mr. ALLEN: In other words, there would be some kind of criminal prosecution. Look, I - first of all, I'm dreadfully sorry for what happened to you, and I'm glad that, ultimately, you are able to prevail. I don't know exactly what should happen, because I know that the Vatican has to set policy for a global church. But I do know that when I talk to just ordinary people, the kinds of disappointment that Bette is describing, particularly about how the bishops seem - how the church seems to have dealt with its priest problem, but not its bishop's problem - that, to me, does seem to be the single biggest sort of neuralgic point in all of this. And somehow...

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're...

Mr. ALLEN: ...it's a question the pope is going to have to answer.

CONAN: Beth, thank you very much for the call. And I'm sorry to cut this short, but we're running out of time. And John Allen, thank you for your time today.

Mr. ALLEN: Neal, great pleasure.

CONAN: John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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