We are witnessing a cruel irony of history: Joseph Ratzinger, one of the few ecclesiastics to evidence genuine horror at the sexual abuse of children by priests and the one pope since perhaps Pius V to act against corruption in the Church, is receiving a massive international attack for his failures in handling abuse cases. 

It is not entirely undeserved. Ratzinger worked within the system and accepted how it handled sexual abusers: treatment and secrecy, and no regard for the victims. He seems to have come to a genuine awakening and determined to change the Church once he became pope, and he did immediately act against abusers, such as Maciel, whom John Paul had protected. 

But Ratzinger too had failed to protect children, chiefly through negligence. At the very least, he did not monitor Peter Hullermann, he did not forbid Hullermann to work in a parish, he did not read the memo (perhaps) that Hullermann has been assigned to parish work within days of arriving in Munich for therapy for the “disease” of pedophilia. 

Nor in the correspondence I have read in other cases did Ratzinger, the son of a policeman, ever suggest that the police be contacted, or that victims be cared for. 

He was disgusted by the behavior of the abusers, but he did not show much awareness of the harm that was being done to the victims.  

Criminal justice is necessary to vindicate the victim. The criminal, especially the sexual abuser, had by his actions shown he regards his victim as sub-human, as a mere object for his use. When the community punishes the criminal, it vindicates the victim, demonstrating that it regards the victim as a person whose worth is recognized. This is true of the penal sanctions of the state and of the Church. 

Commentators on the Commonweal blog defended Ratzinger’s decision not to laicize the abuser Murphy at the end of his life – why Murphy was no longer a threat to children, and to laicize him before his death would have been “vindictive.” Yes, precisely, it would have vindicated the victims, as criminal prosecution would have done. 

Ratzinger was simply following policies of the pontificates of John Paul and probably John XXIII; but if he were to point this out, he would be asked the question – Why then are you canonizing these men as saints? 

Underlying Ratzinger’s failure was of course clericalism and a desire to preserve the image of the priesthood. But even deeper than that is a voluntaristic tendency in Western morality that he himself has noticed and criticized. God forbids certain actions not arbitrarily (as the voluntarists says), but because the actions harm the goodness and beauty of the creatures whom He made and loves. 

Therefore God forbids sexual abuse because it harms both the abuser and the victim. Even if the abuser repents (and which ones ever have?) the harm to the victim remains, and can never really be undone. It must be atoned for – but atonement, expiation, has vanished from the Catholic mind, and has even been explicitly rejected by the head of the German bishops’ conference. Of course, because otherwise the bishops and the pope would have much to atone for, and atonement is humiliating and painful, and bishops and popes do not like to be humiliated.

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