The fallout from the global sex abuse scandal in the Catholic has created damage to the Vatican unheard-of in my lifetime. Even when the original cases of pedophile priests in America arose several years back, the moral authority of the Pope and the hierarchy at the Vatican was not challenged, only some of the archbishops and cardinals presiding over the cover-up. But then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s involvement in similar cases in Europe, from Germany to Italy, add a new dimension to this scandal. First of all, the abuse can be seen as systemic, as well as the response from the church leadership – to hide the problem, transfer the abusers and deny accountability. Ratzinger had primary responsibility for the cases for over two decades while serving at the Vatican, and his role in the scandals can therefore not be questioned.

Now Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger struck back in his Palm Sunday sermon, vowing not to be intimidated by “petty gossip.” But just the fact that the Pope has to go on the offensive in a fight for his own survival shows you how broken his pontificate has become. The cumulative effect of the scandals, across countries and continets, have sapped the pontiff’s ability to lead and blown a hole in any effort by the Church to raise morality in any context.

But Victor Simpson notes that this really isn’t localized to Benedict XVI, but has been how the Church has handled this case of evil within its ranks for a long time.

The Vatican is facing one of its gravest crises of modern times as sex abuse scandals move ever closer to Pope Benedict XVI — threatening not only his own legacy but also that of his revered predecessor […]

But as attention focuses on Benedict, a perhaps thornier question looms over how much John Paul II, beloved worldwide for his inspirational charisma and courageous stand against communism, knew about sex abuse cases and whether he was too tolerant of pedophile priests.

John Paul presided over the church when the sex abuse scandal exploded in the United States in 2002 and the Vatican was swamped with complaints and lawsuits under his leadership. Yet during most of his 26-year papacy, individual dioceses and not the Vatican took sole responsibility for investigating misbehavior.

Professor Nick Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops lay review board that monitored abuse, said Benedict was “very courageous” to reverse Vatican support for the Legionaires of Christ, a sex scandal-tainted organization staunchly defended by John Paul.

What you really see here is a corporate, hierarchal response to crisis – characterized by cover-ups and payoffs and scandal management PR. Sinead O’Connor’s remarkable editorial, detailing her experience in one of Ireland’s infamous “Magdalene laundries,” is a testament to that.

The Catholic church is really experiencing a similar decline that other respected institutions have felt in recent years. And like those other declines, it’s entirely of their own making.

UPDATE: Postscript.

David Dayen

David Dayen