Pope Benedict XVI has ventured out of retirement to publish an essay blaming the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and church laws that protected priests.
His analysis was immediately criticized as "catastrophically irresponsible" — a conflict with efforts by his successor, Pope Francis, to lead the church out of its crisis.
"Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God," Benedict wrote, in the 6,000-word essay published Thursday in the German monthly Klerusblatt, the Catholic News Agency and other conservative media.
Benedict traced the start of the crisis to the '60s, citing the appearance of sex in films in his native Bavaria and the formation of "homosexual cliques" in seminaries "which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate." He also attributed it to failures in moral theology in that era.
"Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood," the conservative theologian wrote. "My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk."
Benedict also faulted church laws that gave undue protection to accused priests. During the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote, "the right to a defense (for priests) was so broad as to make a conviction nearly impossible."
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict spearheaded reforms of those laws in 2001 to make it easier to remove priests who abused children. Benedict took a hard line against clerical sex abuse as the Vatican's conservative doctrine chief, and later as pope, defrocking hundreds of priests accused of raping and molesting children.
Francis has blamed the scandal on a clerical culture in the church that raises priests above the laity.
At his retirement in 2013, Benedict had said he would devote his remaining life to penance and prayer, leaving Francis to guide the church. He said in the introduction to the essay that Francis and the Vatican secretary of state had given him permission to publish. The Vatican confirmed it was written by Benedict.
Church historian Christopher Bellitto questioned if Benedict, who turns 92 next week, was being manipulated by others. He said the essay omitted the critical conclusions that arose from the pope's February sex abuse summit in Rome, including that "abusers were priests along the ideological spectrum, that the abuse predated the 1960s, that it is a global and not simply Western problem, that homosexuality is not the issue in pedophilia."
"It is catastrophically irresponsible, because it creates a counter-narrative to how Francis is trying to move ahead based on the 2019 summit," Bellitto told The Associated Press in an email. "The essay essentially ignores what we learned there."
In fact, records indicate the church hierarchy knew about clergy sexual abuse long before the 1960s — as early as the fourth century. It also was once more open: In 1741, for example, Pope Benedict XIV wanted it widely known that priests would be punished, so he posted notifications on church doors.
The essay was applauded by some on the right. Writing in The Catholic Herald, Chat Pecknold praised the intervention as a necessary word from "the voice of a father" that accurately identified an absence of God as the reason for the crisis.
"I suspect that after all the studies are done, after the review boards are formed, cases heard, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict's answer will be the one which endures," he wrote. "What will be remembered as the seed of renewal, as the root of restoration, is precisely Benedict's counsel that we turn our faces back to Christ who is the perfect image of the Father's love."
But other U.S. church analysts said the essay was both flawed in content and problematic on universal church level, exacerbating existing divisions in the church that have emerged between supporters of Francis and Catholics nostalgic for Benedict's doctrine-minded papacy.
Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli said the essay was thin in its analysis, effectively attributing the scandal to the sexual revolution. He said it omitted key cases, such as the Legion of Christ founder's pedophilia, which began well before then and involved abuse in one of the most rigorously orthodox, conservative religious orders.
"If a pope emeritus decides to stay silent, it's one thing and can be defended. But speaking and telling a tiny part and a very personal version of the story, it's hard to defend," he said on Twitter.
"Everything we know in the global history of the Catholic abuse crisis makes Benedict XVI's take published yesterday very thin or worse: a caricature of what happened during in the Catholic Church during the post-Vatican II period — with all its ingenuities and some tragic mistakes," he tweeted.
David Gibson at Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture agreed with that assessment.
"For a retired pope to try to undo the critical work of a sitting pope and on such a crucial issue seems ... bad," he said.
Benedict's suggestion that the crisis can be traced to the 1960s is belied by records that indicate sexual abuse has been a problem for ages. The church hierarchy knew about clergy sexual abuse as early as the fourth century. It also was once more open: In 1741, for example, Pope Benedict XIV wanted it widely known that priests would be punished, so he posted notifications on church doors.