SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The Vatican is facing renewed questions amid charges that Pope Benedict XVI mishandled priest sex abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich in the 1980s.
For more on this widening scandal and how it may affect the church, we're joined by John Allen. He's senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, joins us on the phone from New York.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Scott.
SIMON: Help us understand the dimensions of this crisis.
Mr. ALLEN: Well, there are sort of two dimensions to it, Scott. At one level, this is a massive global crisis that I think you could almost use the word unprecedented to describe. When it first erupted - that is, the sexual abuse crisis in the church in the United States almost a decade ago - there was a tendency in some quarters, I think, including in Rome, to see it as an American problem or at least a geographically limited problem. Today it is abundantly clear that it is actually a global crisis.
At another level, this is a crisis that is very personal to Pope Benedict XVI because what is being called into question now is not merely his corporate management of the overall crisis, but his personal track record, over 30 years of leadership in the church. That would include his five years as the archbishop of Munich, from 1977 to '82, and his 25 years of service as a senior Vatican official, where he was from time to time asked to deal with one of these cases. And in what is now under a microscope is what appears to be at least a couple of very clear instances in which, quite frankly, he dropped the ball.
SIMON: Well, follow up on that, because when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then, was the archbishop of Munich, cases like this apparently were brought to his attention, and certainly when he was in the Vatican. He had to deal with cases in a specific and personal way, didnt he?
Mr. ALLEN: Yes, that's right. Well, what have come to light are really two cases - one involving a priest in Germany who was sent from another diocese for therapy when then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was in charge. This guy then ended up in another parish, where he went on to abuse other people for which he was criminally convicted in 1986.
The other case that has come to light is a case from Milwaukee, one of the most appalling of all of these stories, a priest who in the '50s, '60s, and '70s apparently abused almost 200 hearing-impaired kids. This case eventually was reported to Rome in the mid-1990s, where then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office elected not to proceed with a full conical trial that could've ended with the guy being defrocked.
Both of these cases are ones in which Vatican officials and church officials at other levels are insisting that the future pope didnt know the details. The danger implied in all of these revelations for the pope, of course, is that ultimately they can call into question his moral authority. I mean, if you accept the premise that at the heart of this crisis is not only the problem that some priests abused people, but also that some bishops failed to clean it up, then the question really becomes, can Benedict XVI credibly discipline other bishops if it turns out that his own record on this issue wasnt any better? I think that's the nightmare scenario with which they're wrestling today in the Vatican.
SIMON: But correct me if I'm wrong, John - the pope's infallible, isn't he?
Mr. ALLEN: The gift, as Catholics would see it, of infallibility applies only when he teaches on an aspect of Catholic faith or Catholic morals. It doesnt mean that his administration and management on a day-to-day basis, that anyone is obliged to believe that that has to be infallible. And quite honestly, if you look at the track record of this papacy, and not just on the sex abuse crisis, there's plenty of grist for the mill there in terms of the fallibility of that kind of judgment.
SIMON: What about the possibility of schisms - maybe not in the fundamental way that's occurred in centuries past, but the chances of increasing numbers of congregations or even dioceses deciding that they want to spin off from the Holy Roman Church and do something on their own?
Mr. ALLEN: What I would say is that from the beginning of this crisis there has always been the fear that this is going to cause some kind of fundamental rupture - that is, that it will cause large numbers of people to stop going to mass, it will cause large number of Catholics to spot making financial contributions to church, and that some of them may decide to opt out of the system altogether and create a parallel church.
I think to date, the empirical evidence that we have is that that really has not happened. And I think at the end of the day the reason for that is fairly simple, that most typical mass-going Catholics learned a long time ago to make a distinction between what their faith is really based on, which is God, you know, the encounter with Jesus Christ and the sort of supernatural dimension of the church, to distinguish between that and the very fallible human beings who at any given time are sort of running the show.
For the most part, at least so far, it has not caused them to walk away from the faith.
SIMON: John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, thanks so much.
Mr. ALLEN: Scott, always a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.