February 11, 2013

Pope's mission to revive faith clouded by scandal

Nicole Winfield / The Associated Press

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Pope Benedict XVI, right, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, hug each other on Monday after the pontiff announced during the meeting of Vatican cardinals that he would resign on Feb. 28.

AP / L'Osservatore Romano

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It was a significant shift given the Vatican's repeated position that abstinence and marital fidelity were the only sure ways to stop the virus. Benedict repeated that line and stressed that sex outside marriage was immoral, but his comments nevertheless marked the first time a pope had even acknowledged that condoms had a role to play in stopping HIV.

When he was elected the 265th leader of the Church on April 19, 2005, Benedict, aged 78, was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German one in nearly 1,000 years.

As John Paul's right-hand man, he had been a favorite going into the vote and was selected in the fastest conclave in a century: Just about 24 hours after the voting began, white smoke curled from the Sistine Chapel chimney at 5:50 p.m. to announce "Habemus Papam!"

Though clearly intending to carry on John Paul's legacy, Benedict didn't try to emulate his predecessor's popular acclaim. His foreign trips were short and focused. His Masses were solemn, his homilies dense and professorial.

And he wasn't afraid to challenge John Paul's legacy when he believed his predecessor had erred.

In one remarkable instance, he essentially took over the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by John Paul after it was revealed that its founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

Under John Paul, who had been a fierce supporter of Maciel, the Vatican's investigation into the Mexican priest had languished. But a year after Benedict became pope, Maciel was sentenced to a lifetime of penance and prayer, and in 2010 the order was essentially put under receivership by the Vatican because of a host of spiritual, financial and other problems.

He wrote three encyclicals, "God is Love" in 2006, "Saved by Hope" in 2007 and "Charity in Truth" in 2009. The latter was perhaps his best known as it called for a new world financial order guided by ethics that was published in the throes of the global financial meltdown.

Benedict's call, however, would strike some as hypocritical when a year later the Holy See's top two banking officials were placed under investigation in a money laundering probe that resulted in the seizure of millions of euros from a Vatican Bank account. The money was later released after Benedict, the Vatican's top legislator, amended the city state's legal code to comply with international norms to fight money laundering and terror financing.

The Vatican's finances though also came under scrutiny when Benedict's own butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested in May 2012 and charged with stealing the pope's personal correspondence and leaking the documents to a journalist. Gabriele told Vatican investigators he did so because he thought the pope wasn't being informed of the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican and thought that exposing it publicly would put the church back on the right track. Gabriele was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison, though Benedict later pardoned him.

As soon as he was elected, Benedict moved decisively on a few selected fronts: He made clear early on that he wanted to re-establish diplomatic relations with China that were severed in 1951. He wrote a landmark letter to the 12 million Chinese faithful in 2007, urging them to unite under Rome's wing. But tensions with the state-backed church remained with several illicit ordinations of Chinese bishops without papal consent.

Within his first year, Benedict also signed off on a long-awaited document barring most gays from the priesthood in a move that riled many in the American church. But in a document welcomed by liberal Catholics, he also essentially abolished "limbo," saying there was hope to think that babies who died without being baptized would go to heaven.

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