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Pope Benedict Stepping Down in Shocking Abdication

Not since the 15th century has a pope resigned his throne. Speculation abounds regarding the pope's unusual decision. Was it the sex-abuse scandal?
 
 
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This article has been updated.

Pope Benedict XVI today stunned the Roman Catholic Church -- and the world -- with his announcement that he would turn in his sceptre, effective February 28. To find a precedent for Benedict's action, one needs to go back through six centuries of history to Pope Gregory XII's resignation in 1415.

In a statement issued today in Latin, the pope wrote: "... in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The Church's Child-Abuse Scandal

Citing age and infirmity as his reason for leaving the papacy, Benedict's action comes just weeks after he opened his celebrated Twitter account -- and less than a month after the decades-old child abuse scandal drew nearer to the pope's door, with revelations published in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month that Cardinal Roger Mahony, then Archbishop of Los Angeles, sought to evade the law in cases involving the sexual abuse of children by the priests in his charge by sending them to treatment facilities in states that did not require health professionals to report the crimes to authorities.

At the time that Mahony was covering up the crimes of his priests, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that oversaw such matters.

In archdiocese documents released under a court order earlier this month, Mahony is revealed to have taken actions deliberately contrived to avoid legal prosecution of priests who had sexually abused -- and even raped -- children. The documents were so damaging that Mahony, now retired and once thought to be a contender for the papacy, was publicly rebuked by current Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, and stripped of any public duties, an unprecedented censure of a cardinal archbishop by his successor.

Amid the cache of church records, released as part of a settlement between the archdiocese and 500 sex-abuse victims, are several letters to Ratzinger from Mahoney, in which the California prelate reports to the Vatican his reasons for various actions (such as defrocking) taken against the offending priests. The records amount to some 30,000 pages, so their full contents have yet to be pored through by investigators and journalists.

What is clear, though, is that Mahony repeatedly failed to act on concerns about the sexual abuse of children by priests that brought to him by pastors and church officials throughout the diocese, and that when he did, his actions were designed to avoid criminal prosecutions of the predator priests. And it is also clear that in his Vatican office, Ratzinger was the recipient of letters from Mahony informing the Holy See of what actions he had taken. 

For instance, in a 2003 letter to Ratzinger, Mahony says of Father Lynn R. Caffoe that between the priest and one boy, there were 100 "instances of masturbatory and copulative acts," according to an account in the Los Angeles Daily News.

But Mahony never reported Caffoe's alleged crimes to police, and Ratzinger apparently never instructed him to.

Other cases include that of Father Peter Garcia, who, according to the L.A. Times, " sexually abused up to 20 boys, including one he allegedly tied up and raped, according to church records." The children he abused were often undocumented immigrants, whom he threatened to have deported should they not comply with his demands.

 
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