Dissident Catholic Bishop Calls for Pope to Resign over Sex Abuse Scandal

Human Rights

Editor's Note: The Vatican has denied a series of media reports alleging that Pope Benedict, before being elected pontiff, may have looked the other way in cases of abuse in his native Germany and in the United States. Last week, the Vatican strongly defended its decision not to defrock the Wisconsin-based priest Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused some 200 deaf boys in the 1950s and ’60s. The National Catholic Reporter, perhaps the US's most influential Catholic publication, published a line-in-the-sand editorial saying the Pope must be ready to answer questions and called the scandal “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history":

The Holy Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role -- as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope (2005-present) -- in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

We urge this not primarily as journalists seeking a story, but as Catholics who appreciate that extraordinary circumstances require an extraordinary response. Nothing less than a full, personal and public accounting will begin to address the crisis that is engulfing the worldwide church. It is that serious.

To date, as revelations about administrative actions resulting in the shifting of clergy abusers from parish to parish emerge throughout Europe, Pope Benedict XVI's personal response has been limited to a letter to the Irish church. Such epistles are customary and necessary, but insufficient.

With the further revelations March 26 by The New York Times that memos and meeting minutes exist showing that Benedict had to be at least minimally informed that an abuser priest was coming into the archdiocese of Munich and that he further had been assigned without restrictions to pastoral duties, it becomes even more difficult to reconcile the strong language of the pope in his letter to Irish bishops and his own conduct while head of a major see.

No longer can the Vatican simply issue papal messages -- subject to nearly infinite interpretations and highly nuanced constructions -- that are passively "received" by the faithful. No longer can secondary Vatican officials, those who serve the pope, issue statements and expect them to be accepted at face value.

We were originally told by Vatican officials, for example, that in the matter of Fr. Peter Hullermann, Munich Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger approved the priest's transfer to the archdiocese, but had no role in the priest's return to parish ministry, where he again molested children. Rather, it was Fr. Gerhard Gruber, archdiocesan vicar general at the time, who, according to a March 12 Vatican statement, has taken "full responsibility" for restoring the priest to ministry. Gruber, subsequent to his statement, has not made himself available for questions.

We are told, moreover, that the case of Hullermann is the single instance during Ratzinger's tenure in Munich where a sexually errant priest was relocated to a parish where he could molest again. If true, this would be a great exception to what, in the two-and-a-half decades NCR has covered clergy abuse in the church, has been an ironclad rule: Where there is one instance of hierarchical administrative malfeasance, there are more.

Given memos and minutes placing the pope amid the discussions of the matter, we are asked to suspend disbelief even further. ...

The focus now is on Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?

The questions arise not only about his conduct in Munich, but also, based also as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A March 25 Times story, citing information from bishops in the United States, reported that the Vatican had failed to take action against a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school from 1950 to 1974. Correspondence reportedly obtained by the paper showed requests for the defrocking of the priest, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, going directly from U.S. bishops to Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican secretary of state. No action was taken against Murphy.

Like it or not, this new focus on the pope and his actions as an archbishop and Vatican official fits the distressing logic of this scandal. For those who have followed this tragedy over the years, the whole episode seems familiar: accusation, revelation, denial and obfuscation, with no bishop held accountable for actions taken on their watch. Yes, there is a depressing madness to this story. Time after time, this is a story of institutional failure of the deepest kind, a failure to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a failure to put compassion ahead of institutional decisions aimed at short-term benefits and avoiding public scandal.

The strategies employed so far -- taking the legal path, obscuring the truth, and doing everything possible to protect perpetrators as well as the church's reputation and treasury -- have failed miserably.

We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.

It is time, past time really, for direct answers to difficult questions. It is time to tell the truth.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman spoke with Bridget Mary Meehan, spokesperson for Roman Catholic Womenpriests on the growing scandal.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church in both Europe and the United States that’s enveloping Pope Benedict XVI. As questions emerge over the Pope’s role in covering up clerical abuse, protesters in London called for his resignation. The National Catholic Reporter says the Pope must be ready to answer questions and called the scandal, quote, “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history.”

The eighty-two-year-old Pope opened Holy Week at his Palm Sunday service in the Vatican without any direct mention of the scandal. But he did suggest he would not be, quote, “intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”

    POPE BENEDICT XVI: [translated] Man can choose an easy road, pushing aside all efforts. He can even fall to the lowest vulgar levels and sink into a swamp of sin and dishonesty. Jesus walks ahead of us and on a high path he encourages us towards that is pure and great, towards a life of truth, towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion, towards the patience of supporting others.

AMY GOODMAN: The Vatican has denied a series of media reports alleging that Pope Benedict, before being elected pontiff, may have looked the other way in cases of abuse in his native Germany and in the United States. Last week the Vatican strongly defended its decision not to defrock the Wisconsin-based priest Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused some 200 deaf boys starting in the 1950s. Internal documents show Vatican officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—then the Church’s top doctrinal official, now Pope Benedict—knew of the allegations but didn’t act.

On Thursday, Gigi Budzinski said her father was one of the deaf boys who was molested by Father Murphy.

    GIGI BUDZINSKI: He hopes they do something. I believe somebody should be punished for this. His innocence was stolen from him, his childhood. He was very depressed. He was not happy. He couldn’t enjoy his childhood. Everything was stolen from him. And now he’s sixty-one years old, and he’s still fighting for this.

 AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on this story, I’m joined now from Tampa, Florida by Bridget Mary Meehan. She’s a former Catholic nun who’s now a spokesperson for Roman Catholic Womenpriests. In 2006, Meehan was ordained as a priest by three female bishops. She’s now a bishop, though her ordination is not recognized by the Vatican. In a recent article, she calls for accountability within the Church and the creation of an independent truth commission.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bridget Mary Meehan. How massive is this crisis right now?

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s very wonderful to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: How serious is this crisis right now for the Church?

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: This is very, very serious, because standards of accountability must apply from the top down. There needs to be an entire shake-up of the whole Catholic system. And we need to begin by truth-telling. Roman Catholic Womenpriests are calling for a truth commission, made up of the non-ordained, the victims, and people of integrity, to examine the crisis in its implications for Church structure, for renewal, for reform. And we believe that any structural change must include the end of mandatory celibacy, married priest, and women priest. We must really change the way the Church does business and become a more accountable, open, transparent and just Church.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you lay out for us the scope of what is understood right now? What has happened in Germany, in Ireland, in Europe and in the United States?

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: The main thing that has happened is a betrayal of Catholics. Catholics have faith—have had faith in their leaders, that they were people of integrity. And what has happened is they have discovered that there have been case after case of sexual abuse of children and vulnerable youth that has been covered up. And the cover-up, unfortunately, goes all the way to the top. It goes to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, headed.

And the Lawrence Murphy case in Wisconsin showed that the Vatican actually ignored the bishops of Wisconsin, who asked for a defrocking of Father Murphy, who, allegations said, abused up to 200 children. And Father Murphy went to Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote a letter to him appealing this proposed trial that would defrock him, and obviously he was allowed to continue his ministry for the next, I believe, twenty-four years of being with vulnerable children and continuing the abuse.

So what is happening is that the institutional church, in case after case, has ignored often the cries of the victims for justice. They have sided with protecting the institution from scandal and have conducted these secretive trials, beginning in 2001, in the Vatican, these canonical trials, which the Vatican officials actually said they covered 2,000 or 3,000 cases, and 20 percent of those 3,000 cases they actually dealt with. And a very small percentage of those priests, ten percent, I believe, according to their statistics, were even defrocked. So it was a very small number of priests have been punished.

And one of the other main things is, the Church has not really clearly said that the bishops should turn over these cases to the law enforcement to investigate. They said, “Well, we never prevented you from doing that,” but their guidelines did not tell the bishops, this is number one, turn over these cases to civil investigation. And that should have happened, because justice for the victims should have been the top priority, because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the moral thing to do, and it’s because, I believe, is what Jesus has called us to do, to be open, honest, fair and just, both to the victim and to the accused.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s quite remarkable. If a priest is discovered to be gay, he will be defrocked immediately, excommunicated. But if he is an abuser of children, you see this record over and over of protecting them. I’m looking at your blog, Bridget Mary Meehan. You said, in the United States “the sex abuse scandal has destroyed the lives of victims and their families, bankrupted some dioceses and cost the Church over two billion dollars. Approximately two-thirds of sitting US bishops were alleged in 2002 to have kept accused priests in ministry or moved them to new assignments. Nineteen bishops in the United States have been accused of sexual abuse.” Why has what you’ve proposed, what you laid out at the top of this discussion, do you think this will start to deal with this issue? For example, the ordaining of women priests.

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Well, we already now have women priests. We have Roman Catholic women priests in the United States. There are seventy of us in this community, and the community is growing all the time. We are setting out a renewed priestly ministry in which women are part of the community. It’s a circular model, a discipleship of equals, and accountable collaborative model where we see ourselves united with the people at the heart of the community and accountable to the people we serve. It’s not a hierarchical secretive system.

And bishops—and I’m one of the bishops in the southern region to serve our communities in that area of the country—our main job is to prepare qualified candidates and to communicate a renewed vision of priestly ministry that is in union with the people we serve. We do not have—we do not focus on titles or any of the—we don’t have any of this power, and we’re not administrators. Our leadership circle is made up of others, and bishops will never be on or elected to the leadership circle of our community that do the administrative side. So we’ve carefully structured ourselves to be a renewed kind of model that’s working within the community, not apart, not hierarchical, but part of, and very much accountable

AMY GOODMAN: You have called for a truth commission. What exactly would that look like?

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Well, I believe that that should be made up now internationally of people from different countries, and the non-ordained should be a big part of that, because in canon law, unfortunately, orders and powerful leadership, decision-making is connected. So the Church has—does not have a role for the non-ordained in a leadership position that’s decision-making at the heart of our view of Catholicism. That needs to happen. So it needs to be made up of a decision-making body of people, and especially including the victims from these different countries, and of ordained and non-ordained. And I’d like to see married priests and women priests be part of that truth commission.

We have got to get to the bottom of the roots of this crisis. And the roots go to how we do ministry and where power is in this church. And power is in the hands of an all-male leadership hierarchy that protects itself rather than focuses on, you know, renewing the Church and living the Gospel with the people and doing justice for all. The protection of children should be a very high priority, rather than protecting its own reputation.

So all of this needs to be dealt with, and there needs to be structures of accountability put in, where people—if there’s a complaint, there is a set of standards and groups that will investigate that. But one of the first things one would need to do is turn it over to law enforcement, and that would be a principle. These kinds of things need to happen with our church in order to really be renewed. We need a reformation, a new Pentecost, where we come together because we love our church and because we want to change it.

And the bishops who have kept these pedophile priests in ministry should resign. In Ireland, they’ve taken leadership on that. Five priests—five bishops have volunteered to resign because of their role, and the Pope has only accepted one of these resignations up to now. But that is, I think, an important thing for Catholics to do, call for the resignation of the bishops who kept pedophiles in ministry and a call for a renewed Vatican III type of new Pentecost for our church, where we truly deal with reform and reform of the structural, organizational part of our church.

AMY GOODMAN: Bridget Mary Meehan, do you think that the—

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: That is eminent. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Pope should resign?

BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Yes, I think he should, because I think they’re in denial. Right now it’s sad to hear him—hear that speech that you played. He should be owning his responsibility in this particular abuse, at the heart of it. Since 2001, he was the one who issued that letter calling the bishops to turn over all the cases of sexual abuse to his congregation in Rome under pontifical secrecy. And that was—that kept it under wraps, kept it secret.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.


The first thing the Church needs to do is to open up and be transparent and just for everyone.

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