Benedict XVI is enjoying, from some, a warm and generous farewell as he vacates the papal throne for a quieter life behind the walls of the Vatican, but the context of his resignation -- the first by a pope in roughly 600 years -- is shadowy and cold. This is, after all, the man who long acted as Rome's "Rottweiler" to punish loyal dissenters and who remains the subject of a "crimes against humanity" claim before the International Criminal Court. For him, seclusion in a Vatican convent provides a way to evade responsibility for his central role in protecting thousands of priests who raped children around the world.
The systemic and international nature of the long running sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was illustrated quite starkly when victims from around the world climbed the steps to the courthouse in the Hague carrying boxes holding 20,000 pages of evidence linking the cover-up of these crimes to the highest officials in the Vatican. Their claim, filed in September 2011, argues that the Vatican state enabled thousands of crimes against children and a cover-up that allowed priest rapists to evade civil authorities.
Formerly Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Benedict was at the center of the Church response to clergy sex abuse throughout the scandal, first as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) and, since 2005, as pope. In recent years has has apologized and met with representative victims. However he has never offered them the justice that comes with full disclosure of the facts, or acknowledgement of his own responsibility. Instead he has continued to favor the privileges of clergy and refused to participate in a genuine consideration of the ways Rome's medieval approach to governance and morality set the conditions for abuse.
The hierarchy's penchant for privilege was noted by a Vatican source in a Reuters report on Benedict's decision to resign and live-out his life in the shelter of the papal state's tiny autonomous district. "His continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenseless," the source told the news agency. "He wouldn't have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else." The same source noted that the protection provided by the sovereign status of the Vatican was necessary to provide Benedict a "dignified existence."
Of course, the dignity of the men and women who were brutalized as children by Catholic priests received too little consideration from Benedict/Ratzinger when he held the power to offer them true justice. Priest abusers were spirited away from the reach of police and prosecutors. Hierarchs who practiced cover-ups were rewarded with cushy jobs. Victims were stonewalled.
Between now and Feb. 28, when Benedict formally leaves office, generous observers will reach for reasons to praise or defend him. Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote that he was "scapegoated" for the abuse scandal. Crowds of tourists at the Vatican are already chanting "viva il papa," and the Church public relations machine is working overtime to persuade the world that a humble Benedict made his stunning decision because he was old and tired and the faithful deserved better.
The stated reasons for the Pope's abdication must be part of the story, but they are the least relevant elements. More significant is the evidence linking crimes to the Vatican. In the abuse scandal, all roads do lead to Rome. By stepping down now, and allowing for someone untouched by the cover-up scheme to take his place, Benedict can save the papacy from a direct confrontation with criminal authorities. His choice is the perfect one for a man who reached the highest point in the clerical culture of privilege.