A month ago, on Monday, Feb. 11, most of the world awoke to the shocking news that Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, chief of state of the Vatican, was calling it a day. The tweeting pope announced that day that he just didn’t have it in him anymore. A few weeks later, he retreated to his country castle to live a quiet life of contemplation.
While most of the world was taken by surprise at the pontifical abdication, faithful readers of the Syracuse New Times should have seen it coming. Three years ago in this very space, you may have read the first public call for the Holy Father to step down and hand over the keys to the Vatican.
On April 10, 2010, a Sanity Fair column entitled “Holy Disorders” suggested that Benedict could most successfully conclude his campaign to end “moral relativism” in the modern world by taking the dramatic step of resigning the seat of St. Peter. The column further suggested (not that anyone asked us) that in Benedict’s place the Church appoint a woman, Maurine Behrend, a California lay person with a proven track record of speaking out on clerical abuse of children.
Maurine Behrend, now retired, was the solitary and insistent voice dogging the pedophile priest Stephen Kiesle, who, even years after being defrocked and convicted of child molestation, was working in youth ministry in a parish near Oakland. Father Kiesle was a serial child abuser, who admitted abusing “tons” of children, male and female, even tying up some of them in the rectory. His case was so egregious that his own bishop, John Cummins, wrote to Rome in 1981 asking to have the offending priest defrocked. His letter was directed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, run by Cardinal Ratzinger. (Cummins wrote directly to Pope John Paul II a year later, but received no response.)
The bishop’s request went unanswered for nearly three years, and when a response finally arrived, it was in Latin, signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, asking for more documentation and stating that the Vatican needed more time to consider, among other things, “the good of the Universal Church.” Nine years after Kiesle’s first conviction for child abuse, the Vatican was still not willing to take seriously the unchallenged assertion that a wolf was tending the flock.
Weighing the rape of children and the good of the institution on some sort of ecclesiastical scale, that would seem to be the definition of what Pope Benedict frequently stated that he most abhorred: “moral relativism.”
But let’s go back to that April piece three years ago.
“… the simple recap is this: Maurine Behrend stands up to the bishop to keep the children out of reach of the known sex offender, while the future pope cautions ‘not so fast.’ In any church you might attend, who would you prefer to be in charge of Sunday school?
“For faithful Catholics, a papal resignation would finally do what none of the well-meaning retroactive measures undertaken by dioceses, including Syracuse, to rid the church of the stench from so many aging cases of child abuse by clergy, has been able to accomplish. It would signal accountability, repentance and a belated recognition of the gravity of the matter. It would signal, in a way no words ever could, that the Vatican understands the hell it has created for so many vulnerable youth, and has taken an irrevocable action leading to change.”
Back to 2013. A conclave of cardinals (every time I hear that, I can’t help but think of spring training) sits in Rome to select the next pope. All of the cardinals are male, all proclaim themselves celibate. Most have been selected by Benedict himself. Among the chosen few who will vote for his successor are more than a few who have been charged with covering up child abuse in their dioceses. Presumably, none of them read The New Times, and thus Maurine Behrend is not rumored to be among the papabile.
Whenever the white smoke rises over the Vatican, don’t expect it to be accompanied by winds of change.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.