ROME — As his fifth anniversary approached, Pope Benedict XVI had been building on a legacy of a scholarly man who tenderly urged people to look to the moral teachings of Jesus Christ to answer the dilemmas of modern life, be they political or personal.
Although his predecessor John Paul II traveled the globe often to meet millions of adoring Catholics, Benedict has been content to remain close to home and out of the limelight.
But today, five years to the day of the death of his charismatic predecessor, Benedict faces a sex scandal that some Vatican observers say threatens to overwhelm his accomplishments.
FAITH & REASON: Easter season, scandal prompt penitence, questions for Pope
HOLY THURSDAY: Vatican slams media amid scandal
Emma Fattorini, an author specializing in church topics and a historian with Rome‘s Sapienza University, said it would be unfair if that happened.
“These scandals could become a defining set of events, that really is a risk, but I hope that does not happen,” Fattorini said. “These problems are bigger than the church and if they became central they would obscure so much good.”
In recent weeks, a series of sexual abuse and pedophilia accusations have emerged, two of which accuse the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office that decides whether priests should be tried and defrocked, of ignoring abuse allegations against some priests. Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was head of the office from 1981 to 2005.
There is no evidence that Benedict was involved in the decisions in the cases raised, and up until recently, he had been praised by U.S. bishops for moving against cases of abuse by priests. Cardinals across Europe used their Holy Thursday sermons to defend Benedict.
Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, speaking of Benedict’s long years as head of a Vatican office that investigates abuse, said the future pope “had a very clear line of not covering up but clearing up.”
Many think Benedict, who turns 83 this month and celebrates his anniversary April 19, must confront the matter.
“Much of what the Holy Father has accomplished so far, things like his encyclicals on love and hope, explorations into the relation between faith and reason … the reinstatement of the Latin Mass, these things are too esoteric for the general public to absorb and understand,” said Alistair Sear, a London-based church historian. “But scandals like these resonate.”
Fattorini said part of the problem is that Benedict lacks the charisma of John Paul, whose famous mea culpa — carried out against Cardinal Ratzinger’s advice — helped the Catholic Church seek forgiveness for wrongs committed during the Crusades, the Inquisition and against Jews in during the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history.