The Lesson for Catholic Bishops from Benedict XVI’s Report: Excuse, Excuse, Excuse

(RNS) — Too many Catholic prelates believe that when it comes to clergy sex abuse, being responsible means never having to say you’re sorry.

Since the crisis has dragged on, lawyers for the bishops have advised many of them not to apologize, as it would be an admission of guilt that would come back as evidence when they are prosecuted.

Some were too arrogant and cowardly to admit their guilt.

Others have refused to apologize because they believe themselves blameless since they made decisions based on the advice they received from psychologists and canon lawyers who themselves were ignorant. Some even foolishly thought that admitting responsibility would somehow harm the church.

But either way, they clearly failed when they put themselves, their priests or the institution before the lives of the children. How much they sinned I will leave to God, but there is no doubt that they should apologize. They were either immoral or stupid – or both. Either way, an apology is in order.

All of these escapes are contrary to Catholic teaching, which affirms that we are all sinners who are required to confess our sins, do penance, repair and amend our lives.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, is a good example. When he was Archbishop of Munich, abusive priests were not treated properly. How involved he was in those decisions is irrelevant. He was the archbishop and the responsibility stops with him. Even though others made the decisions, he still appointed those people and delegated authority to them to deal with abusive priests.

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Those who defend Ratzinger argue that, thanks to the professional advice I cited above, virtually every bishop was wrong before 1982, the year Ratzinger left Munich. True, but all this shows that he was not better than the other bishops – not a high standard. And the failures of others do not excuse him from admitting his own failures.

Advocates also point to his actions as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the job he took on at the request of Pope John Paul II when he left Munich, and where he served until 2005 As prefect, he did more than any other Vatican Cardinal to respond to the abuse crisis. He continued to improve the church’s response when he became pope, including expelling hundreds of bad priests.

That’s certainly true, but any confessor will tell you that doing better today doesn’t excuse you from confessing your past sins.

FILE – With the towers of Munich Cathedral in the background, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI, bids farewell to Bavarian believers in downtown Munich, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 28, 1982. The Vatican on Wednesday, January 26, 2022 strongly defended Pope Benedict’s record in tackling clergy sex abuse and warned against seeking “easy scapegoats and summary judgments” after an independent report criticized his handling four abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Munich, Germany. (AP Photo/Dieter Endlicher, File)

When the prelates manage to present their apologies, they must be at the top of their lungs. Nobody wants to hear that “mistakes were made” or “we wouldn’t act the same way today” or “I’m sorry people are upset” or “I’m sorry for anything I would have could do harm.”

Prelates must know how to confess; after all, they do it every day at the start of mass. These are the words people want to hear from Benedict, Francis and other church leaders who have not dealt with abusive priests well:

I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned greatly, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have not done, by my fault, by my fault, by my most serious fault.

Prelates must confess that they have sinned greatly in their words (denying abuse and bullying victims into silence), in what they have done (moving abusive priests from one parish to another) and in what they didn’t (protect the children). They must recognize that it is their fault, their fault, their most serious fault.

Apologies must come from the Catholic liturgy and not be written by lawyers. When it comes to sin, in the Catholic liturgy, we do not beat around the bush.

Prelates must also avoid asking for forgiveness, which imposes a burden on the victims. It can even revictimize those who are not ready to forgive. Whether they forgive or not is between them and God, not between them and the bishops who have offended them.

“But we apologized”, some bishops will say; “Can’t we go on? »

No. A single excuse will not suffice. If a man is cheating on his wife, an apology will not suffice. If he wants to stay married, he will have to apologize somehow for the rest of his life.

In addition to apologizing, Benedict XVI could express his willingness to meet with any victim of abuse from his former archdiocese. In such encounters, he may listen to their stories and apologize directly. This can aid healing for survivors.

Some have called on Benedict XVI to do penance and renounce his title of “pope emeritus”.

Penance is a good idea, but given Benedict XVI’s age and health, any serious penance is out of the question.

On the other hand, I would like to see bishops spend Lent living on bread and water, encamped on the steps of their cathedrals. There was a time when public sinners had to do such penance, to be readmitted into the community at Easter. The bishop could live as a homeless person, but at the same time offer pastoral care to anyone, especially victims of abuse, who came to visit him.

Even a bishop not involved in the cover-up could assume such penance on behalf of his predecessors and the diocese.

Regarding the title of Benedict XVI, I argued that retired popes should in no way be called popes emeritus. If a pope resigns, he must stop wearing white and resume his baptismal name.

Thus, Benedict, after his retirement, should have become Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Bishop Emeritus of Rome. Upon his death, he may be buried as pope with all the liturgical pomp and ceremony befitting a pope, acknowledging his status and actions as a pontiff.

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There is no place for two popes in the Catholic Church. I hope that when Benedict dies church law will change to reflect that. I hope that if François resigns, he will put aside the white cassock and resume his baptismal name. When his successor is elected, he must kiss his hand and swear allegiance to him like any other cardinal.

Hollywood may believe that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but Catholic theology teaches that love always means saying you’re sorry. As Pope Francis said, the words people should say more often are, “Thank you. I love you. I am sorry.”

We need to hear “I’m sorry” from Benedict and all the other prelates of the Catholic Church. And it has to be said over and over again.

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