The pope comes up short

Confronted by a cascade of new sexual abuse revelations, Pope Benedict XVI has issued a pastoral letter expressing “shame and remorse” for “sinful and criminal acts.” Addressing Catholics in Ireland, where the hierarchy has been embarrassed by a government commission’s report on widespread abuse, Benedict wrote that the bishops’ response was “often inadequate” and that the crisis was aggravated by “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal.” Bishops, he said, should cooperate with “civil authorities in their areas of competence” -- apparently a reference to law enforcement.

The pope’s condemnation is completely appropriate. But just as important is what he left unsaid -- and undone. He failed to say, for instance, that bishops in Ireland and elsewhere who have been found to have covered up abuse should leave their posts. It’s bizarre that his letter was presented in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh by Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Brady was present in 1975 when two children who had been abused by a priest were pressured to remain silent, supposedly so they wouldn’t influence each other’s accounts. Brady did not report the abuse to law enforcement.

Some critics link the pope’s aversion to disciplining errant bishops to the fact that during his tenure as archbishop of Munich, the archdiocese allowed a priest who had molested an 11-year-old boy to return to ministry; according to church officials, the move was made without the knowledge of the future pope. More likely, but equally disturbing, is that the pope remains overly influenced by the same concern for the image of the church that he himself, in his pastoral letter, called misplaced. Ironically, attempts to avoid scandalizing the faithful have the opposite effect.

As for the sexual misconduct that so many bishops sought to hide, the pope in his letter shifted blame to psychologists who gave bishops “conflicting expert advice” about dealing with pedophiles. He also echoed the theory, popular with Catholic conservatives, that priestly abuse can be attributed to the liberalization of the church following the Second Vatican Council. Never mind that abuse reaches back into the pre-Vatican II era.

For all the pope’s expressions of contrition, the church’s credibility will continue to suffer until bishops complicit in the culture of denial and coverup are removed -- and not just transferred to a Vatican sinecure like the one bestowed on Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston. Unless more mitered heads roll, the pope’s protestations of shame will ring hollow for many Catholics.