Retired Pope Blames Child Abuse Scandal on the 1960s Sexual Revolution

Benedict XVI’s words are in striking contrast with the Vatican’s policy under Pope Francis

Retired Pope Benedict XVI made a rare public statement Thursday with an essay on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis, linking it to a breakdown in sexual morality in the 1960s and warning against an excessive focus on the rights of accused abusers.

The retired pope’s words are in striking contrast with the Vatican’s policy under Pope Francis, which has increasingly emphasized the rights of the accused and reduced punishments for abusers on appeal.

Pope Benedict’s statement could provide encouragement to proponents of the “zero tolerance” approach to clerical abuse, which requires the removal from ministry of any priest found guilty of even one instance of abuse of a minor. Bishops in the U.S. and a handful of mostly English-speaking countries promote zero tolerance for use by the church at large, but the Vatican hasn’t endorsed the policy for global application.

.. Pope Benedict’s essay also deviates from statements by Pope Francis, who generally has played down sexual morality and attributed the abuse crisis largely to a culture of “clericalism,”or excessive power in the hands of the Catholic hierarchy.Pope Benedict wrote that his 6,000-word essay, published Thursday by German, Italian and English-language outlets including the Catholic News Agency, was in response to an international summit on sex abuse held at the Vatican in February.

“Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself—even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible—what I could contribute to a new beginning,” he writes, noting that he obtained the permission of Pope Francis to publish his thoughts.

During his own pontificate, Pope Benedict extended the statute of limitations for abuse of minors and Vatican judges hardly ever reduced the sentences of defrocked abusers on appeal.

In his essay, Pope Benedict, who will turn 92 on Tuesday, blames clerical sex abuse of minors in large part on the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, which he says was fomented by sexual education in schools. Increasingly available pornography in that period promoted violence and revealing styles of clothing “equally provoked aggression,” he writes.

“Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ’68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate,” Pope Benedict wrote.

At the same time, Catholic theologians largely abandoned the “natural law” school of moral philosophy in favor of a relativism that denied the existence of absolute right or wrong, he wrote.

The combination of those trends led to a corruption of the clergy. Influential “homosexual cliques” formed in seminaries and students there sometimes watched pornographic films, while the future pope’s own theological writings “were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.”

Pope Benedict called for more rigor in prosecuting cases of clerical sex abuse by church authorities. An overemphasis on the rights of the accused has at times made it practically impossible to convict abusers and that mentality remains prevalent, he wrote.

“This is an alarming situation which must be considered and taken seriously by the pastors of the church,” he wrote.

A prominent Italian activist against clerical sex abuse rejected Pope Benedict’s diagnosis of the roots of the crisis.

“The times have changed and the church hasn’t been able to do likewise” on matters of sexuality, said Francesco Zanardi, spokesman for Rete L’ABUSO. “But he would do better to look at all those times that the church has closed an eye and covered up” in cases of clerical sex abuse.

Why Celibacy Matters

How the critique of Catholicism changes and yet remains the same.

The rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, whether its sources are Protestant or secular, has always insisted that the church of Rome is the enemy of what you might call healthy sexuality. This rhetorical trope has persisted despite radical redefinitions of what healthy sexuality means; one sexual culture overthrows another, but Catholicism remains eternally condemned.

Thus in a 19th-century context, where healthy sexuality meant a large patriarchal family with the wife as the angel in the home, anti-Catholic polemicists were obsessed with Catholicism’s nuns — these women who mysteriously refused husbands and childbearing, and who were therefore presumed to be prisoners in gothic convents, victims of predatory priests.

Then a little later, when the apostles of sexual health were Victorian “muscular Christians” worried about moral deviance, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too hospitable to homosexuality — too effete, too decadent, too Oscar Wildean even before Wilde’s deathbed conversion.

Then later still, when sexual health meant the white-American, two-kid nuclear family, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too obsessed with heterosexual procreation, too inclined to overpopulate the world with kids.

And now, in our own age of sexual individualism, Catholicism is mostly just accused of a repressive cruelty, of denying people — and especially its celibacy-burdened priests — the sexual fulfillment that every human being needs.

The mix of change and consistency in anti-Catholic arguments came to mind while I was reading “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a purported exposé of homosexuality among high churchmen released to coincide with the church’s summit on clergy sexual abuse. The book, written by a gay, nonbelieving French journalist, Frédéric Martel, makes a simple argument in a florid, repetitious style: The prevalence of gay liaisons in the Vatican means that clerical celibacy is a failure and a fraud, as unnatural and damaging as an earlier moral consensus believed homosexuality to be.

The style of Martel’s account is fascinating because it so resembles the old Protestant critique of Catholic decadence. Instead of a tough-guy Calvinist proclaiming that Catholicism’s gilt and incense makes men gay, it’s a gay atheist claiming that the gays use Catholicism’s gilt and incense to decorate the world’s most lavish closet. Instead of celibacy making men deviant, celibacy is the deviance, and open homosexuality the cure. Celibacy used to offend family-values conservatism; now it offends equally against the opposite spirit.

The book is quite bad; too many of its attempted outings rely on the supposed infallibility of Martel’s gaydar. And yet anyone who knows anything about the Vatican knows that some of the book’s gossip is simply true — just as the other critiques of Catholicism have some correspondence to reality.

The Cowardly Face of Authoritarianism

But in a cult of personality, truth is replaced by belief, and we believe what the leader wishes us to believe. The face replaces the mind.

.. The transition from democracy to personality cult begins with a leader who is willing to lie all the time, in order to discredit the truth as such. The transition is complete when people can no longer distinguish between truth and feeling.

.. Cults of personality make us feel rather than think. In particular, they make us feel that the first question of politics is “Who are we, and who are they?” rather than “What is the world like, and what can we do about it?” Once we accept that politics is about “us and them,” we feel like we know who “we” are, since we feel that we know who “they” are. In fact, we know nothing, since we have accepted fear and anxiety — animal emotions — as the basis of politics. We have been played.

.. The authoritarians of today tell medium-size lies. These refer only superficially to experiences; they draw us deep into a cave of emotion. If we believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Africa (an American lie with Russian support), or that Hillary Clinton is a pedophile pimp (a Russian lie with American support), we are not actually thinking; we are giving way to sexual and physical fear.

.. These medium-size lies are not quite the big lies of the totalitarians, although Mr. Orban’s attacks on George Soros as the leader of a Jewish conspiracy come rather close. They are, however, big enough that they help to disable the factual world. Once we accept these lies, we open ourselves up to believing a whole raft of other untruths, or at least suspect that there are other, vaster conspiracies.

.. We imagine that we make choices as we sit in front of our computers, but the choices are, in fact, framed for us by algorithms that learn what will keep us online. Our online activity teaches machines that the most effective stimuli are negative: fear and anxiety.

.. As social media becomes political instruction, we prime ourselves for politicians who reproduce the same binary: What makes us afraid and what makes us feel secure? Who are they and who are we?

.. The empty heterosexual posturing, the shirtless photo ops, the misogyny and indifference to the female experience, the anti-gay campaigns, are designed to hide one basic fact: A cult of personality is sterile. It cannot reproduce itself. The cult of personality is the worship of something temporary. It is thus confusion and, at bottom, cowardice: The leader cannot contemplate the fact that he will die and be replaced, and citizens abet the illusion by forgetting that they share responsibility for the future.

The cult of personality blunts the ability to keep a country going. When we accept a cult of personality, we are not only yielding our right to choose leaders but also dulling the skills and weakening the institutions that would allow us to do so in the future. As we move away from democracy, we forget its purpose: to give us all a future. A cult of personality says that one person is always right; so after his death comes chaos.

Democracy says that we all make mistakes, but that we get a chance, every so often, to correct ourselves. Democracy is the courageous way to have a country. A cult of personality is a cowardly way of destroying one.

 

Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later

It was a tragedy for Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and America. He could have averted it by apologizing.

I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it—presidents and staffers don’t carry on like that. When I came to see it was true, I was angry. I wrote angrily in these pages.

I see it all now more as a tragedy than a scandal. I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Clinton made the epic political miscalculation of the 20th century’s latter half. He had two choices when news of the affair was uncovered: tell the truth and pay the price, or lie and hope to get away with it.

If he’d told the truth, even accompanied by a moving public apology, the toll would have been enormous. He would have taken a hellacious political beating, with a steep slide in public approval and in stature. He would have been an object of loathing and ridicule—the goat in the White House, a laughingstock. Members of his party would have come down on him like a ton of bricks. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans would have gleefully rubbed his face in it every day. There would have been calls for impeachment.

It would have lasted many months. And he would have survived and his presidency continued.

Much more important—here is why it is a tragedy—it wouldn’t have dragged America through the mud. It only would have dragged him through the mud. His full admission of culpability would have averted the false testimony in a criminal investigation that became the basis for the Starr report and the two articles of impeachment the House approved.

.. The American people would’ve forgiven him for the affair. We know this because they’d already forgiven him when they first elected him. There had been credible allegations of affairs during the 1992 campaign. Voters had never thought highly of him in that area. His nickname the day he was inaugurated was “Slick Willie.”
.. If he had chosen the path of honesty, Americans wouldn’t have backed impeaching him, because they are adults and have also made mistakes and committed sins.

And we know Mr. Clinton would have been forgiven because in September 1998—after the Starr report was released, amid all the mud and lies and jokes about thongs and cigars—a Gallup poll asked, “Based on what you know at this point, do you think that Bill Clinton should or should not be impeached and removed from office?” Sixty-six percent answered “should not be.”

Bill Clinton, political genius, didn’t understand his country’s heart.

.. and the year of hell, the cultural catastrophe, followed. That’s what it was, a year in which 8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie, angrily and consistently, and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it. It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy. All of America’s airwaves were full of the sludge—phone sex and blue dresses. The scandal lowered everything.
.. It was a tragedy because in lying and trying to protect himself, Mr. Clinton was deciding not to protect America. And that is the unforgivable sin, that he put America through that, not what happened with Monica.
.. The Starr report ran 452 pages and contained an astonishing level of sexual detail, of prurient, gratuitous specificity. Congress could have withheld it from the public or released an expurgated version. It didn’t have to be so humiliating. But Mr. Clinton’s enemies made sure it was.
.. Almost immediately on receiving the Starr report, Congress voted to release it in full, “so that the fullest details of his sins could be made public,” as Ken Gormley writes in his comprehensive 2010 history of the scandal, “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” They put it up on the web. Its contents wound up on every screen in America, every newspaper, every television and radio.
.. Lawmakers released the videotape of Mr. Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, so everyone could see the handsome presidential liar squirm.
Mr. Starr’s staffers said they needed extremely detailed, concrete specificity to make the American people understand what happened. At the time I assumed that was true in a legal sense. Now I look back and see mere blood lust and misjudgment.

I see the desire to rub Mr. Clinton’s face in it just as he’d rubbed America’s face in it.

Top to bottom, left to right, a more dignified government, one that cared more about both America’s children and its international stature, would have shown more self-restraint and forbearance. And there might have been just a little pity for the desperate, cornered liar who’d defiled his office.

.. It wouldn’t have so ruined the life of a woman who, when her relationship with the president commenced, was only 22. She paid a steeper reputational price than anyone. Charles Rangel, at the time a senior Democratic congressman, said on television that she was a “young tramp.” The White House slimed her as a fantasist. She went into hiding, thought about suicide.And in the end, 20 years later, she put the Clintons to shame.

.. Publicly for two decades she has reacted with more style and dignity than they, said less and with less bitterness and aggression, when they were the ones with all the resources, and a press corps eager to maintain good relations with them because Hillary would surely one day be president.

Monica told her side and kept walking, and even refrained from blaming her shaming on the Clintons. Feminists abandoned and derided her. She took it all on her back and bore it away. In my book, after all this time, she deserves respect.

Sometimes America gets fevers. They don’t so much break as dissipate with time. Twenty years ago we were in a fever. Others will come. The thing to do when it happens is know it’s happening, notice when the temperature is high, and factor it in as you judge and act, realizing you’re not at your best. Twenty years ago, almost none of our leaders were.