What the New Pope Can Learn from the Boston Archdiocese

It's time to clean up the sex abuse scandal for good.

(Photo by Matt Kalinowski, from Resurrection)

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world today with his announcement that he will resign at the end of February, making him the first pope to step down early in 600 years. And while Benedict claimed his resignation was due to his age (he’s 85 years old), I have to think that he must be exhausted from dealing with the constant stress of the office. In particular: The sexual abuse scandal.

When Benedict took office in 2005, the scandal in the United States was three years old—it broke in Boston in 2002—but was still gaining momentum elsewhere. It continued in Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Los Angeles; San Diego; and abroad, in Europe and South America. Billions in settlement money has been paid out to victims, and eight American dioceses have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Benedict, to be fair, took some steps to try to put the scandal behind him, including praying with victims and changing the Church’s legal code. But, he didn’t go far enough. As the AP points out, “he never took action against bishops who ignored or covered up the abuse of their priests or moved known pedophiles to new posts where they abused again.”

That’s a problem. In fact, only two Church officials have ever lost their jobs to the scandal: Boston’s Cardinal Law and Philadelphia’s Monsignor William J. Lynn. That’s right: Despite billions paid to tens of thousands of victims, only two Catholic officials were removed from their positions. And one, Law, resigned on his own.

Dealing with scandals is Public Relations 101: Apologize, investigate the problem, fix it, explain to the public how it happened and why it won’t happen again, and apologize some more. If you don’t, the problem will continue to fester, as Cardinal Law discovered. It took a successor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, to really clean up the Archdiocese and start it on a path to recovery. He released the names of the abusers, closed churches, tightened seminary admissions, and apologized profusely. O’Malley may not have gone as far as some critics would like, but in many ways, he’s been more public about Boston’s process than the vast majority of other dioceses. Some in the Church seem to understand this—less than two weeks ago, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez reprimanded his predecessor, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney, for his mishandling of the scandal—but many don’t. Benedict didn’t, either.

That’s why, eight years after Benedict became pope, the drip-drip-drip of the scandal continues to slow any potential recovery. In July, Monsignor Lynn was sentenced to a prison term of 3-6 years for his role in covering up abuse. Then, in September Bishop Robert W. Finn—the head of the Diocese of the Kansas City-St. Joseph—was convicted of failing to report a pedophile priest and received two years of probation. A petition for his resignation has collected 110,000 signatures.

The message is clear: if the Church can’t hold itself accountable, others will. The new pope, whoever he might be, should take great pains to excise the problem. Only then will it be able to move on.