Ever since the clerical abuse scandal began to break open in the early 2000s, with wave after wave of disturbing revelations and a groundbreaking investigative series in the Boston Globe, certain issues have remained shrouded in mystery. How much did the Vatican hierarchy know about the widespread rape and sexual abuse of children by men who were designated as the earthly representatives of Jesus Christ, and what did they do about it? Was the scandal really limited to the United States and other “Anglo-Saxon” countries, as many Catholics outside North America maintained? Were there few documented cases prior to the 1960s because they did not exist, or because they had been successfully squelched? Of course it was tempting to assume or infer answers to those questions, especially when faced with the world’s largest, oldest and most secretive religious organization, but journalists are supposed to hew to a higher standard than guesswork.
It won’t surprise anyone who’s been following this story over the past decade or so to learn that the partial answers emerging from “Mea Maxima Culpa” pretty much amount to the worst-case scenario on all those questions. While it became Vatican policy early in the scandal to blame the American bishops for their inadequate response to the crisis (and many of them indeed behaved disgracefully), the best evidence now indicates that the hierarchy in Rome heard about virtually every case, and that from 2001 onward most if not all of them went straight to the desk of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.
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