Pope Benedict XVI held a private meeting yesterday with a small circle of victims of clergy abuse, which, following a surprisingly large number of references to the issue in sermons and speeches, steered the mainstream media coverage in a totally different direction here in Washington, D.C. The meeting was more than symbolic, but it was largely content-free, in terms of the press being able to talk about the pope's take on this issue. The actual content came the night before, when he spoke to the U.S. Catholic Bishops (full text here). Thus, in a strange way, the best story about the meeting with the abuse victims came a news cycle before anyone knew that it was going to happen.
I am sure that quite a few Catholic conservatives inside the Beltway were mildly surprised when they picked up their copies of the Washington Post and found an A1 story that seemed to get the point. Here is the key passage, a long one:
(Benedict) said the abuse of minors by U.S. clergy was "evil" and "immoral" but had to be eradicated in a broader attack on the degradation of modern-day sexuality. He also spoke of his overall admiration for the United States "from the dawn of the republic," he said at the White House. "America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator." ...
The pope also seconded the words of Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said in introducing the pontiff that the scandal was "sometimes very badly handled."
"It falls to you ... to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores," Benedict told the church leaders. "Moreover, by acknowledging and confronting the problem when it occurs in an ecclesial setting, you can give a lead to others, since this scourge is found not only within your dioceses but in every sector of society. It calls for a determined, collective response."
But he said earlier that an even broader response is needed.
"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships," he said. "They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. ... What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?"
In other words, fighting the clergy abuse scandal must, says the pope, be part of a wider defense of the Catholic church's own doctrines about human sexuality. This is not to let the clergy off the hook or to downplay their sins. Just the opposite. It is to say that the bishops have failed to hold their own priests (and themselves) to the doctrinal standards they expect of others. The church is failing to live out its own teachings as well as teach them. Both. And.
Then you have to see what the pope is saying inside the framework of one of the other main messages he is delivering -- the defense of absolute, eternal standards of truth that can be defended with human reason as well as biblical revelation.
This is very strange stuff to see on A1 in one of America's major newspapers and, frankly, presented quite well.
Is is true that the Post had to remind readers that all of this is coming out of a strict, orthodox pope who is, well, you know, strict and orthodox. Check this out:
Yesterday, many U.S. Catholics were hearing the pope speak in English for the first time. Despite the pontiff's strong Bavarian accent, some people were surprised by the softness of his voice and his gentle, even shy, demeanor, so at odds with his image as a fierce defender of Catholic orthodoxy.
There is a missing word in that last sentence -- "media." It should say, "so at odds with his media image as a fierce," etc.
So the symbolism of the meeting with the victims is crucial. By all means read those stories -- here is the Post report -- and let us know what you think.
But read the pope's address to the bishops. They face the same question as always: What will they do to defend the faith (and the children)? That's the story.
On to New York City and the United Nations.