Many have criticised the present Pope for his response to the child abuse scandals. In particular they have focused on his role in the 1980s in dealing with such cases.
His response in his Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland has been criticised as "Too little, too late"
In particular some critics have seized on some passages in which he appears to criticise the mind sets of some clergy in the 1970s and 1980s as being the result of a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Second Vatican Council.
In the 1980s the then Cardinal Ratzinger was a "hate figure" for many in Catholic circles. Yet when one looks at the historical record one sees that what the Cardinal was saying in the 1980s was prescient, indeed almost prophetic. Yet his voice appears at the time to have been a voice which did not reflect the view of many within the Church. It is within that context that one should judge the actions of the present Pope in the 1980s when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger.
In 1985 the then Cardinal Ratzinger was interviewed by the journalist Vittorio Messori. It was held in the seminary in Brixen, South Tyrol, and was published as The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. This interview dealt primarily with internal church issues. For younger Catholics, who were increasingly dissatisfied with the theology they were getting in the seminaries and (in particular) at the university level, it was an eye-opener. The interview was lengthy and wide ranging.
Chapter 3 of The Report discussed amongst other things the question of what was meant by the phrase: "The Church must always reform itself".
In discussing the matter, the then Cardinal stressed that one must never forget the individual responsibility for sins.
"The church presumed that anyone who celebrated the Eucharist would need to say: I have sinned, Lord, look not upon my sins.
It was the obligatory invocation of every priest: each bishop, the pope himself, like the least priest, had to pronounce it in his daily Mass. And also the laity, all the other members of the church, were called to unite themselves to that recognition of guilt.
Therefore, everybody in the church, with no exception, had to confess himself to be a sinner, beseech forgiveness, and then set out on the path of his real reform. But this in no way means that the church as such was also a sinner. The church—as we have seen—is a reality that surpasses, mysteriously and infinitely, the sum of her members.
In fact, in order to obtain Christ’s forgiveness, my sin was set over against the faith of his church. ...
Today this seems to have been forgotten by many theologians, priests, and laymen. It is not only the change from the I to the We, from personal to collective responsibility. One even gets the impression that some, although unconsciously, may reverse the prayer by understanding it in this way: ‘Look not upon the sins of the church but upon my faith. . . .’
Should this really happen, the consequences will be grave: the faults of individuals become the faults of the church, and faith is reduced to a personal event, to my way of understanding and of accepting God and his demands. I really fear that today this is a widespread manner of feeling and thinking. It is another sign of how greatly in many places the common Catholic consciousness has distanced itself from an authentic conception of the church.”
The full extract from the interview is set out below. The extracts are from The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne and introduction by D. Vincent Twomey, SVD Professor of Moral Theology, St. Patrick`s College, Ireland
That is probably part of the thinking of the present Pope when in his Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland regarding the Child Abuse Scandals of 19th March 2010 he wrote:
"Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings. ...
Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing....
7. To priests and religious who have abused children
...I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy. "
It is of course not the only or main factor in the matter of why the child abuse occurred in the 1980s or why the action of some bishops at the time defies comprehension. But to ignore this matter is to distort the role played by Cardinal Ratzinger at this time. More importantly to ignore or underestimate this factor is to make it more likely that such events are likely to recur.