In a way, the recently released German report on sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which faults Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for mishandling four abuse cases during his brief tenure as archbishop there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, tells us nothing we don’t already know. Astute observers with a healthy lack of clericalism have known for years that the abuse crisis is not one that had very many, if any, “heroes” or prelates who “did enough” by today’s standards. Psychologists for much of the twentieth century held what we now know to have been the disastrous views that child sexual abuse was not uniquely damaging to the child, and that a tendency towards perpetrating it was easily treatable in an adult. The bishops, in most of the same period and perhaps for most of Catholicism’s entire history, “thought in centuries” in a way that made doing right by each generation of laity seem less important than the “long game” of upholding the Church’s influence and prestige across the sands of time. Thus there were few if any bishops during this time period who took the actions that they should have taken and treated the subject with appropriate seriousness. It shouldn’t be shocking that Joseph Ratzinger was among the bishops who did not.
What is shocking is that Benedict is one of the figures in the Church most associated with the view that truth and morality do not vary according to a culture’s or an individual’s willingness to accept them. If he is the kind of man and the kind of theologian that we have believed him to be for over half a century now, he will reject the idea that the cultural history laid out here in any way excuses or relativizes his own actions. It’s possible that he does reject the idea, but if so, we don’t know about it, because of the other shocking aspect of the Munich report, which was his 82-page response to the report denying any wrongdoing on his part to the point of at first falsely claiming that he did not attend a meeting that he demonstrably, provably did.
The denial of wrongdoing past the point of believability to a rational observer, like the “I apologize if my actions made anybody uncomfortable” fauxpology, is a familiar part of the commedia dell’arte that plays out whenever a public person is credibly accused of committing, covering up, or failing to act on sexual abuse. We see it over and over again in Church abuse scandals, including cover-ups by bishops and misreporting by Catholic journalists. We see it also in secular #MeToo scandals; the only secular celebrity “#MeToo’d” in the past decade or so whom I clearly remember actually apologizing was the comedian Louis C.K.–and even in his case there were those who perceived his apology as insincere and his contrition short-lived. Even if we take the already unacceptably cynical view that the Venn diagram of people who would be complicit in sexual abuse and people capable of meaningful remorse is effectively two separate circles, one would think that at least some famous men (and women, but usually men) in the former circle would have agents, publicists, lawyers, even friends and family members to impress upon them the importance of at least appearing to also be in the latter circle. Yet this isn’t what we see. Why not?
One potential problem here is with legal liability. Admitting fault works against the interests of the person who does it in most systems of civil law (as opposed to criminal law). I myself have had to refuse to apologize for traffic accidents that I manifestly caused and for which I genuinely did feel sorry because to apologize would have been to set myself, my family, and my insurance company back hundreds or thousands of dollars. As the stakes–financial and reputational–in civil cases get higher, so too does the perverse incentive against expressing remorse, at least until all possible legal proceedings have been concluded and all possible legal consequences have been incurred. (In the case of sexual abuse, often this means “until everybody involved is dead.”) Indeed, according to America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast, Benedict’s 82-page submission to the German law firm that produced the report implicating him bears clear signs of having been vetted by lawyers to make sure that it included enough stock liability disclaimer language.
This is a core structural sin of contemporary civil law, and it’s difficult to know how it could be redressed without substantially reconsidering the entire way modern societies handle non-criminal claims and grievances between individuals. Letting a party to a lawsuit off the hook just because he or she apologizes is arguably even more unjust, as a matter of natural and human justice, to the wronged party than is the current situation of disincentivizing expressions of remorse. The entire premise of adversarial relationships between people that underlies the concept of legal action, a premise that obviously reflects the reality of many of these situations rather than being a mere legal fiction, is difficult to sustain without taking a firm position on whether repentance should redound to the perpetrator’s credit or discredit, and either option is unpalatable through the eyes of justice, even though through the eyes of grace and mercy the current system is obviously worse. A truth and reconciliation process that involved legal immunity might solve this problem, but at the expense of creating others, namely a lack of real consequences for wrongdoers.
And so we are at an impasse where it is next to impossible to know if Benedict—or Cardinal Marx, or Cardinal Wuerl, or Al Franken, or Brett Kavanaugh, or John Lasseter, or any of thousands of others—really do feel any contrition or not. We might be charitable and assume that they do; we might be severe and assume that they do not; we might be human and assume that the ones we like do and the ones we dislike do not—but in any case, how are we to know? God knows, and God’s justice is perfect; none of us should ever doubt that. The uniquely horrifying and disillusioning nature of sex abuse in religious spaces comes in large part because it does make us doubt that. Is reminding ourselves of God’s knowledge and God’s justice enough, especially when human justice is so oriented around human sin that the process of pursuing it actively deters atonement? Should that be enough? Can it be?
I don’t know whether that’s enough.
I do know the heroic, the—I dare to say—saintly thing for a priest or a bishop to do in this kind of situation, even when facing this kind of liability. The heroic, saintly thing would be to apologize anyway, to express repentance and remorse and express it sincerely, regardless of potential legal or financial consequences in the civil, secular world.
Sooner or later somebody is going to realize this. Sooner or later we will finally see a priest or a bishop or a pope fall on his sword, repent anyway, don his hair shirt regardless of what his PR team or legal team say, risk being treated unjustly for the sake of atonement and amendment of life, for the sake of healing the Church and the world. When, and only when, that happens, we laity will know that the clergy and the hierarchy seriously understand the wrongs that they have done and the wrongs done on their behalf.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.