In recent months, the Catholic church has been rocked by allegations that children were sexually and physically abused by clerics in numerous countries, including Austria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, and the U.S. Critics say that the scandal is indicative of fundamental problems in church doctrine and policies that need reform. Kenneth Howell is an adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois who focuses on the history, philosophy and theology of Catholicism. A senior fellow of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the U. of I., Howell has published four books on religion. He recently discussed the abuse crisis with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest.
Has the church faced a crisis of this magnitude before?
As far as I am aware, the controversies that the church has been involved in in the past have not involved anything of a sexual abuse nature, so this is a pretty unique situation.
In the past there have been a number of instances in which errant priests did things that were against the teachings of the church and perhaps even against the law. The church has dealt with those pretty thoroughly.
We live in a society today that is much more open in terms of airing problems and crimes than it was in the past. That's part of the reason why the abuse scandal is of such magnitude.
Pope Benedict has come under fire for his handling of cases while he was in charge of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Is there evidence to support allegations that the church covered up abuse cases, perhaps by shifting priests to new parishes rather than dealing with the problem directly?
When Benedict - then known as Joseph Ratzinger - was an archbishop of Munich and Friesing, Germany, there was an instance of an abusive priest in his diocese. People below him made most of the assignments of priests, and in fact the priest who said he was responsible for these assignments said that the abusive priest was reassigned without Benedict's knowledge.
When Benedict became the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1980s, there were beginning to be rumblings about abusive priests but there were no clear guidelines in place for dealing with the problem. The bishops of different dioceses independently began to implement certain procedures, such as establishing accusation review boards composed of priests and lay people to hear testimony and decide whether accusations were credible.
By the 1990s, cases began to emerge but the full extent of the problem had not been revealed yet.
In 2002, when Pope John Paul II became aware of it, he instructed Cardinal Ratzinger to give the cases a sort of legal review to make sure that alleged abusers were in fact guilty, and Cardinal Ratzinger let it be known that were would be a zero tolerance policy.
Father Lawrence Murphy, who was the head of a school for deaf children in Milwaukee, was a particularly egregious offender. But by the time it came to Cardinal Ratzinger's attention, Father Murphy was already very old and appeared to have only a few years to live. Cardinal Ratzinger was assured that he was apologetic and repentant, so the Vatican didn't pursue it directly. When the archbishop of Milwaukee pressed Cardinal Ratzinger to pursue it, Father Murphy died before any action could be taken.
At that time they thought that sexual abuse was largely an American problem, and in the last year or so cases have emerged in other countries. In the U.S. about 4 percent of the 45,000 Catholic priests have been accused of abuse and 1.7 percent have been found guilty of pedophilia.
The reality of it was, though, that there had been a sharp increase in cases between 1960 and 1984 and a sharp drop off thereafter, perhaps because diocese began implementing procedures for dealing with the problem. The majority of these cases did not come to light until later.
One child abused is too many, and I'm confident that that is how Benedict thinks. Pope Benedict said that all bishops must cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting cases. The recent revelations of cases of abuse in the Netherlands have prompted the Dutch bishops to ask a Protestant minister to head up their group handling these cases.
Will we see sweeping changes in church doctrine and procedures as a result of this scandal? Do you expect that church membership will decline?
The sense that I'm getting is that the church is opening up all the doors and windows, and there's going to be not even a hint of secrecy - they're going to deal fully with these issues.
Catholics are saddened and ashamed of their clergy because of this scandal. In the minds of most people, it lessens the moral authority of the church. But for faithful Catholics, it does not shake their faith in the church as the church of Christ, because their faith does not hinge on the goodness or badness of the priest but on other things, just as President Clinton's liaison (with aide Monica Lewinsky) didn't shake people's faith in the American democratic system.
The vast majority of priests are good and faithful men.
I think we're looking to a better future for the church in the U.S. and other countries.