When Emperor Palpatine (a.k.a. Darth Sidious, Joseph Ratzinger, etc.) was elected as Pope Benedict XVI, it seemed that a fitting figurehead was put forward for the scandalous Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI had served as prefect in the branch-formerly-known-as-the-Inquisition before bringing a tide of ultra-conservativism to the papacy in 2005, especially in contrast to John Paul II, his moderately chill predecessor. Ecclesiastically, Benedict XVI’s rule has been seen as a restoration of traditional Catholic values. Politically, it was thought of as a drift into the far right. But popularly, this pope is associated with one of the biggest scandals beleaguering the Church in recent history.
Joseph Ratzinger’s elevation to a higher seat of power as Pope Benedict XVI followed the barely year-old John Jay report, a document detailing the history of alleged child rape conducted by Catholic priests. Criticized for his subsequent lack of prosecutorial response, it may come as no surprise that Pope Benedict XVI himself played a part in covering up these allegations. In an article wherein Christopher Hitchens scathingly puts forward that “the pope’s entire career has the stench of evil about it,” he recounts one such cover-up:
In 1979, an 11-year-old German boy identified as Wilfried F. was taken on a vacation trip to the mountains by a priest. After that, he was administered alcohol, locked in his bedroom, stripped naked, and forced to suck the penis of his confessor. (Why do we limit ourselves to calling this sort of thing “abuse”?) The offending cleric was transferred from Essen to Munich for “therapy” by a decision of then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, and assurances were given that he would no longer have children in his care. But it took no time for Ratzinger’s deputy, Vicar General Gerhard Gruber, to return him to “pastoral” work, where he soon enough resumed his career of sexual assault.
As Pope, Benedict XVI would become the leader of an institution that made possible the torture, molestation, and rape of countless children as well as the following attempts to veil these atrocities.
The strategy, since exposed, was to bounce these pedophilic priests from parish to parish, placing them in new places and replacing them with new faces. In light of this exposure, the consequent public awareness and upheaval, came Benedict XVI’s announcement that he was “deeply ashamed” and that the Church would “do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future.” If true, we could have supposed that this pledge came better late than never. Equipped with 7 years of exposition, we know the Holy See did not honor this pledge and that the church continues to protect and conceal sexual predators using the same strategy. Cardinal Francis George, assessing this Catholic cataclysm, said: “The sins of priests and bishops destroy the church…That is what we’re seeing.” As it turns out, George was one among many protected by Benedict XVI throughout the scandal and had himself protected his share of rapists.
Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy of disgrace was punctuated by his resignation from the papacy in response to the Vatileaks exposition of a homosexual network of prelates in the Vatican. His reign witnessed seven diocese file for bankruptcy and the expenditure of nearly $1 billion dollars by the Catholic Church on settlements and legal fees over the sexual abuse cases. It should be noted that this was not money strictly set aside for legal fees. In at least one instance, Cardinal Roger Mahoney siphoned $115 million from a cemetery maintenance fund to pay off victims. At this point in our discourse, revealing that Mahoney also took part in priest reshuffling and redealing should come as no surprise.
The Church’s propensity to respond to systemic problems with a new coat of paint is neither new nor absent in its selection of popes. With even a superficial investigation into Benedict XVI’s misdeeds, it is clear why he is not seen in a positive light and that his replacement is seen as a new face, a new pope, and, by the lights of many, a new hope. Considering the Church’s poor PR, it does not seem so far-fetched to imagine that this seat-shuffling was an attempt by the Church to repair its image: Benedict XVI is elected as a fall guy. He plays the authoritarian and takes the brunt of criticism, presenting himself as the face of the old, nasty church. Then, he can is strategically replaced by Francis the Reformer, who arises as a Pope of the People.
Regardless of whether these considerations of conspiracy are true, the effect remains the same: The Church’s unfriendly, conservative, conniving face is replaced by a friendlier, less-conservative one, thereby creating the illusion of progress.
And so it is that Pope Francis is with us now and in his smiley-face, ingratiating way presenting the same dogma that the church has always held: the same sexism, hatred, bigotry, corruption, ignorance, and immorality held since its inception. Nothing substantial has changed, nothing substantial will, or even can, change; the church has declared as much. Nothing has changed, except that the man who now sits at the helm endearingly, humbly, heroically takes the bus to work.