Pope Benedict XVI: Five Years In, Not The 'Breather' The Vatican Hoped For
VATICAN CITY (AP)- Soon after becoming pope, Benedict XVI flew to Germany to keep a promise to attend a church youth festival. Upon arrival, strong winds blew off his skull cap. The same day, on a boat bringing the pope down the Rhine, gusts toppled a cross from the bow, breaking one of its arms.
In retrospect, not an auspicious beginning.
Benedict, elected as an "interim pope" by cardinals seeking a breather after nearly three decades of the charismatic John Paul II, is now marking five years as a successor to St. Peter. But the anniversary of his election on April 19, 2005 is clouded by a worldwide sex abuse scandal that touches Benedict himself, follows earlier controversies involving ties with Islam, and is causing the gravest crisis to hit the church in recent times.
The first German pope of the modern era took the helm of the Catholic church after 24 years in the backroom of power with a clear design: to make its 1.1 billion member flock more in line with church teaching even at the cost of shedding members and without catering to the mass media.
But since a 2006 speech in which Benedict angered Muslims by appearing to suggest the prophet Muhammad spread a message of violence, the papacy has been marked by missteps, mismanagement and media disasters.
Benedict, who turned 83 on Friday, is seeing his very legacy threatened as his own actions as bishop and cardinal have come under question. The pope has come under suspicion of trying quash investigations into pedophile priests during the time he ran the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's guardian of church discipline and orthodoxy.
In perhaps the biggest irony, the sex abuse scandal is one Benedict inherits from his charismatic and immensely more popular predecessor, John Paul II.
The Polish pontiff is now widely seen as dragging his feet on eliminating sex abuse from the church, presiding over a system where even notorious pedophile priests were allowed to retain their parishes, or were transferred to serve in other countries.
Benedict almost immediately took a hard stand on sex abuse when he become pope five years ago. He is credited with removing a prominent Mexican cleric – a favorite of John Paul's – from power following decades of allegations that he abused seminarians.
Many of Benedict's woes stem from his chronic inability to manage his message, a weakness perhaps rooted in his career as an academic with extremely limited experience handling a flock. Even staunch defenders acknowledge communications problems.
"Let's be clear. Everyone has communications problems. One could do better," Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, told reporters in Rome about communication problems at the Vatican.
But Vian also stressed that the pope still enjoys the full support of his collaborators and has been undeterred by the sex abuse maelstrom.
"They say the pope is alone, that the Vatican is a nest of snakes," Vian said. "It's obvious that in such a big world there are different sensibilities. But with all tranquillity and serenity, the Curia is with the pope. There are no unfaithful servants."
While Benedict has made clear he doesn't see the papacy as a popularity contest, he did put John Paul on the fast track toward sainthood after a popular "Santo Subito" (Sainthood Now) movement took root at his funeral.
Benedict's tougher stance against abusers started in the latter years of his tenure at the Congregation. Looking back, John Paul appears to have been more reluctant to follow up on abuse accusations against priests based on his experiences in his native Poland under communism, where the regime used such allegations when it sought to discredit clerics.
John Paul has been accused of letting his appreciation for the discipline, fundraising prowess and conservative bent of the Legionaries of Christ get in the way of an investigation into decades-old allegations that its Mexican-born founder had sexually abused young seminarians.
Benedict had been thwarted in his efforts to pursue a church trial against the Rev. Marcial Maciel during John Paul's papacy. Upon assuming the papacy, Benedict moved against Maciel, ordering him to live a life of reserved prayer while also launching an investigation into the order itself.
The first serious whiff of trouble in the Benedict papacy came during a visit to his native Bavaria in September 2006, when the former theology professor addressed academics at Regensburg University, where he used to teach.
There he quoted the words of a Byzantine emperor, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
While Benedict's aides explained he was only looking to establish common principles on which to build a dialogue, Muslims expressed outrage. The remarks forced Benedict to backtrack, and nearly jeopardized a trip to heavily Muslim Turkey.
Benedict has made several gestures to conservative, traditional-minded Catholics, finding himself again under fire on each occasion.
In one bow to the right in his church, he allowed wider use of the Old Latin Mass but was criticized by Jews because it revived a Good Friday prayer calling for their conversion.
Then, seeking to end a schism, he lifted John Paul's excommunication of four ultraconservative bishops – one of them a Holocaust denier. After protests from Jews, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even members of his church, he acknowledged mistakes and conceded that the bishop's views on the Holocaust were readily available on the Internet had anybody at the Vatican bothered to check.
For Benedict, a shy man who is gracious with visitors but appears awkward when facing large crowds, John Paul was a difficult act to follow. He has written more than 40 books but worked only 15 months tending to a parish flock in the 59 years since he took vows.
He has kept up his writing as pope, with his first installment of his book on Jesus of Nazareth becoming a best seller. His stern criticism in an encyclical of the world's banking system and call for finances to be guided by ethics drew serious attention among economists.
Although he predicted he would travel little in comparison to his predecessor, a pilgrimage to Malta this weekend will be the 14th of his papacy, although he has made only one visit to Latin America – home of nearly half the world's Catholics – and has never visited his growing church in east Asia.
A 2008 visit to the United States, where he apologized for the sex abuse scandal there and met with victims, was considered a success, as was a visit to Australia the same year for another youth festival and a meeting with abuse victims.
But it is precisely his handling of pedophile priests when he was a bishop in Germany and cardinal in the Vatican that has cast a spotlight on how church authorities in Rome and around the world dealt with the rape and molestation of children by priests.
As archbishop of Munich in the 1980s, Joseph Ratzinger approved therapy for a pedophile priest who was allowed to do pastoral work. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys. His tenure at the Congregation has also come under question thanks to documents showing it took him six years to let a known pedophile priest out of the priesthood.
On the eve of his Malta trip this weekend, Benedict finally broke his silence and urged repentance.
"But now under attack from the world, which has been telling us about our sins ... we realize that it's necessary to repent, in other words, recognize what is wrong in our lives," a tired and hoarse-sounding Benedict said during an off-the-cuff homily Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.