For decades it was standard procedure for church officials to keep abuse secret. Those years are explored in the new HBO documentary, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God." It is directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney and voiced by Hollywood stars including Bradley Cooper and Ethan Hawke.
The unifying claim of the documentary is that the Catholic Church, from the papacy to the smallest parish, from America to Ireland to Italy, has been focused on protecting the institution, not the youth. The Vatican did not respond to the filmmakers' requests for interviews.
Is it any coincidence that Pope Benedict XVI is set to resign - the first pope to leave his position since 1415? I doubt it.
On Wednesday, he told thousands of followers that he was leaving for "the good of the church." He repeated in Italian that he simply didn't have the strength to continue. Photos and videos of the resignation show thousands of his followers applauding and tearing up.
But victims of the epidemic of sex- and child-abuse scandals that erupted under Benedict's papacy reacted bitterly, either charging him with being directly complicit in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the thousands of pedophilia cases, or with failing to stand up to reactionary elements in the church resolved to keep the scandals under wraps.
Their anger is understandable.
In the 1990s, former members of the Legion of Christ sent a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, alleging that the founder and head of the Catholic order, Father Marcial Maciel, had molested them while they were teen seminarians. Maciel was allowed to continue as head of the order.
In 1996, Ratzinger didn't respond to letters from Milwaukee's archbishop about a priest accused of abusing students at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. An assistant to Ratzinger began a secret trial of the priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, but halted the process after Murphy wrote a personal appeal to Ratzinger complaining of ill health.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a letter urging the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to pursue allegations of child abuse in response to calls from bishops around the world. Ratzinger wrote a letter asserting the church's authority to investigate claims of abuse and emphasizing that church investigators had the right to keep evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the alleged victims reached adulthood.
In the USA alone, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection and independent studies commissioned by the bishops, there have been:
More than 6,100 accused priests since 1950.
More than 16,000 victims identified to date although there is no national database.
$2.5 billion in settlements and therapy bills for victims, attorneys' fees and costs to care for priests pulled out of ministry from 2004 to 2011.
Benedict did meet with victims, but never admitted any Vatican failure. Many viewed these as mere public relations. Some even considered his gestures cruel, because they gave people - both victims and the Catholic community - the illusion that he was a reformer.
"When forced to, he talks about the crimes but ignores the cover-ups, uses the past tense as if to suggest it's not still happening," David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told USA Today. "He has vast powers and he's done very little to make a difference."
Once he officially resigns, Benedict plans to live a life of prayer in a converted monastery on the far northern edge of the Vatican gardens.
The Vatican said that he would play no role in the election of his successor, which will be decided by the church's 117 cardinals before Easter. But his continued physical presence within the Vatican walls raises concerns about how removed he'll really be from the life of the church.
If the Vatican cares about the "good of the church," then they will acknowledge Benedict's offenses, and appoint a pope who cares about the good of the people as well.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com