“If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6
(Note: This post references sexual abuse cases, which some readers may find disturbing.)
When I read that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had died, I could not deny a momentary response of schadenfreude. “On behalf of all the innocent victims of predatory child abusing priests,” I thought to myself, “I hope there’s a special corner of hell just for you, Joseph Ratzinger.” Then, acknowledging my hubris (… he that is without sin among you…), I admitted my fault with the very words I’d learned long ago as a Roman Catholic child: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
The irony is, of course, that I don’t even believe in hell, or in heaven, at least as I was taught of the two concepts. I do believe that we continue in spirit following the cessation of our physical bodies, and that we are required to review the successes and failures of our lifetime, and how much (or if) we grew in grace and goodness. That review is both our heaven and our hell.
Nevertheless, and while yet acknowledging that my opinionated response bore a karmic burden, I sat in judgement on Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict. Having read the conclusions of the Westphal Spilker Wastl report, I simply could not do otherwise. He knew. At least four times (and almost certainly more) he knew of the horrific abuse perpetrated upon innocent children. He could have acted. But he did nothing. He sheltered the abusers in preference to their victims. He protected the organization at all costs; at the cost of untold human suffering.
I kept flashing back to a discussion with an acquaintance, a very devout member of the Roman Catholic church, who explained to me why the priestly perpetrators of child sexual abuse had not been called to account at the time their crimes were discovered. They had, she pointed out, confessed, and been forgiven.
But what of their victims, I questioned her. What of the damaged, wounded children? She had an answer for that, too. “Back then, we just didn’t know. We didn’t know it would affect them for their whole lives. We thought children just got over stuff,” she remarked casually.
Despite my respect for this woman, I was utterly aghast. I might have further debated the question, but it was clear that any protest I made would be quite useless. She hadn’t merely sipped the Kool-Aid; she had drunk deeply of it. To her way of thinking, it mattered nothing that pastors, bishops, cardinals and popes had failed to report child sexual abuse to the proper criminal authorities, but instead quietly moved the abusers from one post to another. The predators, after all, had only to confess to be forgiven…and their victims ignored, silenced, discredited.
I longed to ask her, “Do you not remember the Roman Catholic concept of mortal sin? We were taught that it was the most terrible of sins; the one that, if a person died bearing that sin upon their soul, consigned them directly to hell. These little children, these innocent victims, were led into what they believed was mortal sin by the very religious figures they trusted! I cannot even grasp the agony of shame and confusion they must have endured. And when they dared to speak up, far from being given reassurance, counseling, comfort for their anguish, they weren’t even believed! They were belittled, silenced–even told that they had brought this upon themselves; that they, not their abusers, were the sinners.”
But I said nothing of this to the excusing woman. She had accepted the Church’s hypocrisy, for to believe otherwise would have shaken her worldview to its core. Older than I, and a devoted member of the Roman Catholic church for far longer than the mere 13 years I had adhered to it, it was much too late for her to change a lifetime of unquestioning acceptance of and obedience to the Church.
But there are, there never were, any excuses for what not just the Roman Catholic church, but many other religious organizations, allowed to happen to thousands of child victims. There is no justification for the cover-ups, the intimidation of witnesses, or the cossetting of sexual predators.
And so, hearing of Benedict’s death (and despite the fact that I, personally, was not one of these victims), I quietly accepted my karmic burden as I wished damnation upon him for the evil he knowingly, willingly, helped perpetuate.
I’m sure there are thousands of victims who did likewise.
Having left my childhood faith decades ago, I have formed and dedicated myself to a strong personal spirituality. Consequently, I acknowledge my fault—my sin, if you will–in playing God by pronouncing judgment upon the soul of Joseph Ratzinger. Therefore I hope, I genuinely pray, that the forgiveness I cannot personally extend to him, or to all the other priestly predators, is somehow waiting for them at the hands of a merciful Deity there on the Other Side.