There have been three broad kinds of reaction to a 6,000-word essay published last week by Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict XVI. Writing in a Bavarian magazine for the clergy, Ratzinger blames the ‘sexual liberation’ associated with the late 1960s for the sexual abuse cases in the Church. None of these reactions are completely satisfactory, however.

The main reaction, shared by many readers of this newspaper if online posts are indicative, has been to say that Benedict is living in a world where facts don’t matter. Given that Benedict is best known for his denunciation of relativism, being criticised for not caring for objective truth is virtually a charge of hypocrisy, if true.

The second reaction has come from socially conservative groups in the Catholic Church. They have championed this article. They had polished translations uploaded in record time. They love anything that identifies the 1960s with the works of the devil.

The third reaction has come from some of the Church’s own media, which have conspicuously ignored or minimised the article. It’s understandable. Silence – whether tactful or seething – is tempting. However, it lets others do the opinion-forming.

Charging Benedict with ignoring some of the salient facts about the child abuse scandals is right. He does appear to confuse paedophilia with homosexuality. He does seem to think the causes of paedophilia arise out of moral laxity and not from a permanent disfigurement of personality that is independent of the moral environment.

He ignores the fact that some of the notorious clerical paedophiles were raised in the moral environment that preceded the 1960s and Vatical Council II. Clerical paedophiles have included both liberals as well as theological and social conservatives, such as Cardinal George Pell.

Likewise, Benedict glides over the fact that the abuse cases almost always involve two crimes, not one: the sexual abuse itself and later the institutional cover-up by religious superiors, where sexual morality was not the issue; a culture of secrecy, inertia and perverse institutional loyalty was to blame.

However, although in one sense Benedict can legitimately be criticised for downplaying the abuse scandal, in another he actually underscores its radical nature. He gives a great deal of attention to showing why the abuses were attacks on the Faith, as such, not just on individuals.

One suspects that he published this article now because he thinks the recent meeting of bishops, on this same problem, gave the impression that the matter is one of justice (reparations), charity (proper pastoral love for the victims) and hope (that the Church can see this through). By saying it’s also a matter of the faith, Benedict is saying that it will take much more to heal the wounds. What needs to be recovered is the very meaning of the Body of Christ.

Then there is what he doesn’t say directly, possibly because he only half-puts his finger on it.

Benedict was never very strong in explaining contemporary social predicaments. But he has a real ability to identify the questions

Benedict is at pains to show that the Church prosecutions of abusing clerics was held up (in the 1980s) by the then existing state of canon law. One problem was a liberal conception of justice, in which due process means seeing that the rights of the accused cleric had to be guaranteed down to the finest detail. In practice it meant long delays even when guilt was evident. He also blames collusion and obstacles in the way of investigations.

In all of this there is a presence he does not name: bureaucracy. If there is one theme linking up all the abuse scandals, clerical and secular, that have come to light in recent years – in armed forces and large media organisations as well as churches – it  has been bureaucracy.

Large hierarchical organisations are clumsy when handling cases of sexual abuse. The predators are usually senior figures preying on junior ones (women, children or young men). Reporting abuse is difficult for the victim as the prestige of the predator might make the claims unbelievable.

If the abuse is reported, it may be in the first instance to someone who is him – or herself also junior to the predator, and who may therefore wish to push the problem away. Bureaucracies are adept at creative inertia by assuming the problem is someone else’s.

The point here is not to demonise bureaucracy. It’s to show that, even if the abuse can be explained by a sexual ethos, the cover-ups need to be explained by an organisational ethos.

In fact, predators are very good at spotting how an organisational ethos may prevent them from getting caught in the first place. Which is why routine sexual abuse, widely rumoured but not acted on, has been found in the BBC and the Hollywood machine, in Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church.

Modern bureaucracy is a wonderful invention. It helps rationalise the administration of very good things by depersonalising decisions and emphasising process. But it can also rationalise evil by its indifference. It can be weak when handling charismatic figures, which serial abusers often are, and informal networks, which abusers often have.

Recognising the organisational weakness of bureaucracy has two benefits. First, it should wipe the smirk off the faces of the complacent social conservatives jubilating over Benedict’s article. Modern church bureaucracy predates the 1960s by a long stretch. The conservative exaltation of Church hierarchy would leave unchecked the institutional framework that enables rogue clerics to get away with it.

Second, you cannot fix things without recognising the inherent weaknesses of a form of organisation, which will persist irrespective of the virtue of its personnel. This can only be done by incorporating procedures and personnel that bypass the blind spots and cognitive biases of bureaucracy and careerism.

It’s important not to miss what is valuable in Benedict’s article. He was never very strong in explaining contemporary social predicaments. But he has a real ability to identify the questions that need to be addressed and the guts to refuse to settle for popular answers.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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