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When I learned of the news that Pope Benedict XVI was going to become the first pope in six centuries to resign from office, I immediately thought, I wonder what Alex Gibney makes of this? His documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God details the integral role that Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, played in investigating the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, and, given the ample space that the New York Times devoted to that subject in its report on the resignation, I was left with impression that, behind the scenes, the continuing controversy may have played a part in the Pope's decision to step down.
"I can't help but think that the sex abuse crisis must have been on his mind," Gibney emailed back when I asked for his take on the news. "There was no going forward on that issue while he was in office." The filmmaker added: "I give him credit for resigning. That brought a bit of modernity to the Papacy."
In announcing that he would resign on Feb. 28, the Pope, who's 85, indicated that “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his responsibilities as the head of the Catholic Church. Dealing — or not dealing, as Benedict's critics have claimed — with the sex-abuse scandals must have been a taxing part of that job. And though the Times did not draw any direct correlation between the controversy and Benedict's decision to step down, the paper of record did note that, in 2010, outraged critics of the church's handling of these clerical abuses had called on Benedict to resign.
Here's how the Times carefully put it:
In 2010, as outrage built over clerical abuses, some secular and liberal Catholic voices called for his resignation, their demands fueled by reports that laid part of the blame at his doorstep, citing his response both as a bishop long ago in Germany and as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles such cases.
In one disclosure, news emerged that in 1985, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed a letter putting off efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest. He cited the priest’s relative youth but also the good of the church.
Vatican officials and experts who follow the papacy dismissed the idea of his stepping down at the time. “There is no objective motive to think in terms of resignation, absolutely no motive,” said Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “It’s a completely unfounded idea.”
For his supporters, it was a painful paradox that the long-gathering abuse scandal finally hit the Vatican with a vengeance under Benedict. As the leader of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had been ahead of many of his peers in recognizing how deeply the church had been damaged by revelations that priests around the world had sexually abused youths for decades. As early as 2005, he obliquely referred to priestly abuse as a “filth in the church.”
He went on to apologize for the abuse and met with victims, a first for the papacy. But he could not escape the reality that the church had shielded priests accused of molesting, minimized behavior it would have otherwise deemed immoral and hid the misdeeds from the civil authorities, forestalling criminal prosecution.
Benedict's resignation could have some interesting ramifications when it comes to the cloud of scandal that still hangs over the church. If he's no longer protected by the Vatican, he could find himself quite popular with lawyers who are suing the Catholic Church on behalf of alleged victims of sex abuse.
On a more positive note, Benedict's departure could pave the way for his successor to finally address and make reparations for the many sins of the Catholic Church's clerics. To paraphrase Gibney, that would bring even more modernity to the Papacy.
By the way, if you haven't seen the unsettling, emotionally powerful Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the documentary can seen Friday at 6:30 p.m. (EST) on HBO and on HBO On Demand and HBO Go.
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