Doing Better Than Your Predecessor is Good, But Not their Best

by | Jan 12, 2023 | Catholic Church, Other Church & Religious Organizations

Pope Emeritus Benedict Horowitz Law

The coverage of the recent death of Pope Emeritus Benedict highlights a persistent problem regarding clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. Unlike most of the Catholic abuse crisis, this problem is one where rank-and-file Catholics can really make a difference. Without getting political, we at Horowitz Law are reminded of a memorable phrase coined by former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” He was referring to kids’ education, not kids’ abuse. Gerson claimed that many teachers quietly assume or believe that some groups of kids (primarily minorities) really won’t succeed in the classroom as well as other kids. That assumption, Gerson suggests, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.Regardless of your views on education, his broader point is valid; “If we expect less, we often get less.”

That brings us to how Pope Benedict’s legacy is defined and what it means for Catholic parishioners. Here’s how one veteran religion writer assesses Benedict’s track record on abuse. In recent days, dozens of other commentators have expressed the same thought in different ways. “Maybe Benedict didn’t do as much as he could have, but he did more than any other pope had up until that point.” Without getting down in the weeds, let’s assume this is true. Let’s assume that on abuse, Benedict ‘did more’ than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. But that’s not saying much. And that expectation – that the following official only needs to do ‘more’ at protecting kids than their predecessor. If the deceased or retiring CEO or bishop or school principal mishandled 95% of all abuse reports and if his or her successor mishandled only 90% of all abuse reports, then should the successor be praised?

That can’t be the standard of judgment when it comes to the well-being of children – that the current boss ‘did more’ than the old boss did regarding kids’ safety, so everything’s fine? How about everyone do the most they can, period! In fact, the notion” is the definition of ‘damning with faint praise.’ There are only two appropriate standards to judge how any top official dealt with or deals with child sexual abuse and cover-ups.

1. Did they do BETTER than his predecessor? Not ‘more,’ but better?

2. Did the new official do EVERYTHING they could to safeguard innocent children?

Here’s where the Catholics in the pew can make a difference. They can demand a new standard. When the bishop says, “Fr. Bob has been accused, suspended, and no longer lives in the rectory,” Catholics can say “That’s not good enough. Tell us where he is. That way we can protect our kids.” When the bishop says, “Here’s a list of proven, admitted, or credibly accused child molesting clerics,” Catholics can say, “That’s not good enough. Tell us where they are now and where they worked. Tell us how many months or years elapsed between when the first abuse report was made and when the diocese took action.” When the bishop says, “Here are the names of all the predator priests,” Catholics can say, “That’s not good enough. Tell us who ignored or hid their crimes and what you’re doing to punish them and deter future cover-ups.” When the bishop says, “We’ve settled an abuse lawsuit against Fr. Mike,” Catholics can say, “That’s not good enough. Tell us what documents were uncovered during litigation and share those records on the diocesan website.” 

We at Horowitz Law would never presume to suggest to church-goers how they should practice their faith. We do, however, know a lot about child sexual abuse. And we feel strongly that less abuse would happen if church-goers would raise their expectations and standards about how their church officials should handle abuse cases. In other words, bishops are unlikely to ‘do better’ unless their flocks insist that they do. And before we leave this topic, let’s note just how little Pope John Paul II ‘did’ about abuse. Look no further than this 2020 New York Times headline: “Vatican Report Cast John Paul II in Harsh New Light.”

In over 25 years as the most powerful religious figure on the planet, John Paul II did almost nothing to safeguard kids worldwide. He repeatedly and effectively brought his unparalleled global influence to bear on other crucial issues but ignored or promoted stunningly complicit church officials. So Pope Benedict may indeed have ‘done more’ on abuse than his predecessor. But did he do BETTER than his predecessor? Not likely. And did he do EVERYTHING THEY REASONABLY COULD HAVE DONE to safeguard innocent children? Absolutely not!

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, please contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or send an email to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.