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A Loss of Nerve?

Some readers have wondered why we haven’t devoted much attention to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. this past April. The reason is simple: The Pope’s visit has been analyzed to death in both the secular and Catholic press; what good would yet another analysis do?

But we haven’t completely ignored his visit. We quoted from Pope Benedict’s speech to Catholic educators in our September New Oxford Note “A Question of Conviction,” and Lucy Carroll comments on the papal Masses in Washington, D.C., and New York City in her article “Why the Music Is so Bad” in this issue (p. 32). And we did have occasion, in our June New Oxford Note “Blaming the Victim — Again,” to address what we perceive to be the most significant aspect of his visit: “The clerical sex-abuse scandal was a recurring theme of Pope Benedict’s visit. He spent time praying with a few hand-selected abuse victims on April 17, his third day in the U.S. The Pope had told U.S. bishops the previous day that the problem of predator priests had been ‘very badly handled,’ and at the April 17 stadium Mass in Washington, D.C., he called on the Church ‘to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt’ by abusive priests.”

It was an unprecedented gesture and a valiant breaking of the long papal silence on the most horrendous scandal to hit the Church in modern times. It speaks to Benedict’s change of heart in regard to the nature of the clerical abuse: When the scandals broke in 2002 he dismissed the “constant news” of clerical sexual abuse as being “intentional, manipulated” attempts by the secular media to “discredit the Church.” He said, inaccurately, that “less than one percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type.” But he later called his Friday-morning duty, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to examine the seemingly endless number of files on abusive priests his “Friday penance.” Then on Good Friday in 2005 he famously bewailed the “filth” in the priesthood. Clearly this Pope grasps the gravity of the crisis.

During his July visit to Australia for World Youth Day 2008, Pope Benedict repeated his April gestures (meeting with abuse victims) and words (though this time he actually apologized, uttering the words, “I’m sorry”). In both Australia and the U.S., the Pope’s pastoral side shone through.

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