Yet a grand effort to restore authority and make the church purer coincides with an epic impurity – abuse of children by thousands of priests and many bishops in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. To understand Pope Benedict's past, present, and perhaps future responses to the sexual abuse crisis, one must examine the arc of his religious life.
His vision for reforming the Catholic Church was often so all-absorbing that pedophilia got swept under the Vatican carpet, sources say. At the same time, a crackdown on Vatican II – the controversial three-year papal council in the mid-1960s – amplified a culture of fear, secrecy, and hierarchy. "Many rules and codes came down, but efforts to talk 'up' were thwarted," says a Jesuit official in Germany with knowledge of the issue.
"[Pope] John Paul II was the face of the church's world mission, while Ratzinger stayed in Rome, working the books, making rules as the pope's enforcer," says Karl Josef Kuschel at the University of Tubingen seminary in Germany. "Ratzinger has been appointing bishops for 30 years. It is now his church. The bishops today were chosen exactly because they agreed with him."
In dozens of interviews with church officials and theologians in Germany, the US, Spain, and France, many Catholics say the Vatican is not missing cues nor "tone deaf" in its handling of pedophilia. Rather, the abuse cases are playing out fitfully within the pope's vision of the church as ultimate arbiter of spiritual authority, Scripture, and holiness on earth. In this sense, the Vatican is not looking to adapt, modernize, or open itself to new interpretations. Recent Vatican statements against women's ordination, and reaffirming priestly celibacy, are small examples.