05/12/2010 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sin Inside the Church

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI called sexual abuse "truly terrifying." In his frank comments to reporters aboard the plane en route to his visit to Portugal, he seemed to rebut Vatican curial officials who have sought to portray the crisis as somehow generated from the outside. "The greatest persecution of the church comes not from enemies on the outside, but is born from sin inside the church," Benedict said. "The church thus has a profound need to relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness, but also the necessity of justice," the pope said. "Forgiveness does not take the place of justice."

John L. Allen, Jr., NCR's indefatigable Rome correspondent, in that same Times story, agrees that the pope is responding to curial officials who sought to deflect attention away from the true nature of the crisis. That would include such people as Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's former Secretary of State and current dean (head) of the College of Cardinals, who called the reports of abuse "petty gossip." (That this happened during the celebration of the Easter Mass this year made his comments all the more shocking.)

Also included would be Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the powerful Columbian prelate who served as prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy. In 2001, the cardinal wrote that he "rejoiced" when he discovered that a French bishop had sheltered an abusive priest from authorities. "I congratulate you on not having reported a priest to the civil authorities," Castrillón Hoyos wrote to Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux. "You have done well, and I rejoice at having an associate in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all the others bishops of the world, will have chosen prison rather than speaking out against his priest-son." This is probably the worst use of the beautiful word "rejoice" imaginable. "I rejoiced when they said to me, 'Let us go to the House of the Lord,'" says Psalm 122. Who "rejoices" over hiding a sex crime?

Castrillón Hoyos is also the subject of a devastating article in the London Tablet, an influential international Catholic journal, which details his rise to power and his intransigence in the face of the abuse crisis.

The pope is right, of course. Sexual abuse is "truly terrifying." But the other terrifying thing is this: while experts agree that sexual abuse may not be more prevalent in the church than in any other organization that has children in its care, the abuse was more readily, even eagerly hidden by those in power.

The past few weeks have brought to light stories that, frankly, have sickened me even more than those that surfaced in the U.S. in 2002, and have called into question my former belief that the church is no more likely to shelter abusers than any other institutions. There was, for example, the absolutely disgusting story of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative religious order, who not only abused children multiple times but also fathered children out of wedlock and funneled money to Vatican officials to buy protection for himself and his religious order.

Despite repeated charges by credible sources, and even fierce efforts by the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to address the charges, Maciel had been long protected against abuse claims by Pope John Paul II, one of his most ardent admirers. Now even the Vatican, in their directive for the overhaul of the Legion, has declared his life, in a shocking statement made about the founder of a religious order, "devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment."

Story after story, not simply of abusive priests but of mendacious bishops, intransigent superiors of religious orders, and venal curial officials, seems to pour out daily. From Ireland. Germany. France. And on and on. One of my colleagues said that it reminded her of the volcano in Iceland. One never knows when another explosion will come, and when it does, it threatens to blanket all of Europe with darkness. Of course, the velocity of these reports is the result of the media's knowing a good story when they see one, perhaps even some lingering anti-Catholicism. On the other hand, they're not making this stuff up.

And here is what concerns me now. Despite the fact that Scout masters, school teachers, youth ministers, and the like -- not to mention ministers, rabbis, and imams -- have all been connected with sexual abuse, the institutions of which they are members simply have not demonstrated (so far) the obtuseness, stonewalling, defensiveness, intransigence, and sinfulness that the Catholic Church has on this matter.

The institution of the church -- and here I mean the hierarchy -- particularly in its historic desire to shield itself from any and all critique by "outsiders," and its deep-seated desire to avoid "scandal," as well as the tendency of some curial officials to blame the church, made the problem of sexual abuse, which is probably just as rampant in other groups, infinitely worse.

How did we get to this point? How did we find ourselves with some leaders who are not only blind but almost willfully so? (The old term "invincible ignorance" comes to mind.) Part of it is the lust for power. This week the editorial in America magazine, the Catholic weekly where I work, talks about the "black cloud of flattery" that envelopes the curia, the last Renaissance court.

Part of it is pride. One of the less-noted aspects of this awful saga is how shocked some Vatican officials are when anyone has the temerity to contradict them, or even to question them. (Even Benedict himself, who many credit with taking a hard line with abusers and with Maciel while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and who later had emotional meetings with victims in Boston and in Malta, was not immune to this. See this video of his slapping a reporter who asked him about Maciel.) It's not hard to extrapolate this into a disregard for victims and their families.

That is, if a bishop won't speak to the police or to the media, why would he speak to a victim or a parent?

But finally it comes down to sinfulness, as Benedict rightly admitted yesterday. And not just the sin of abuse but the sin of ignoring it. In Catholic theology, there are "sins of omission" as well as "sins of commission." That is, sexual abuse is not "petty," nor are reports of it "gossip." And the very last thing that one should do at the hiding of an abusive priest is "rejoice." Turning away from sexual abuse and rejoicing over the hiding of a priest are sinful, or at least close enough. Were someone to enter a confessional and confess that he thought that a murder was "petty," it would be a serious indication of his inability to understand right and wrong. Were someone to say that he "rejoiced" over the murder of someone, I would think him immoral.

Sexual abuse is "truly terrifying." So is the presence of "sin inside the church."

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.