Joseph Ratzinger attempted to do just that for the Roman Catholic Church during a grandiose display of Vatican penance — the Day of Pardon on March 12, 2000, a ritual presided over by Pope John Paul II and meant to purify two millenniums of church history.
In the presence of a wooden crucifix that had survived every siege of Rome since the 15th century, high-ranking Cardinals and bishops stood up to confess to sins against indigenous peoples, women, Jews, cultural minorities and other Christians and religions. Ratzinger was the appropriate choice to represent the fearsome Holy Office of the Inquisition: the German Cardinal was, at the time, head of its historical successor, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
When his turn came, Ratzinger, the church's premier theologian, intoned a short prayer that said "that even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth."
If you detect ambivalence in those words, you are on the road to understanding the difficulty Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — faces in leading the Catholic Church to properly atone for another stain on its history: the decades of cases of child abuse by priests and cover-ups by their bishops.
And while a well-placed Cardinal has publicly speculated that Benedict will deliver a mea culpa in early June, the words of that apology — if that is what it proves to be — will be severely limited by theology, history and the very person and office of the Pope.
It is unlikely to satisfy the many members of Benedict's flock who want a very modern kind of accountability, not just mealymouthed declarations buttressed by arcane religious philosophy. "Someone once told me that if the church survived the Inquisition, it can survive this," says Olan Horne, 50, an American victim of priestly abuse.
"But these are different times. And right now, the modern world is wrapping its head around the Catholic Church in a major way."
The crisis facing the church is deeply complicated by the fact that in 1980, as Archbishop of Munich, the future Benedict XVI appears to have mismanaged the assignment of an accused pedophile priest under his charge.
That revelation — and questions about Ratzinger's subsequent oversight of cases as a top Vatican official — has been the trigger in turning a rolling series of national scandals into an epic and existential test for the universal church, its leader and its faithful alike.
It has blunted Benedict's ambitious enterprise of re-evangelizing Europe, the old Christendom.
Over the past two months, the Pope has led the Holy See's shift from silence and denial to calls to face the enemies from within the church. What is still missing, however, is any mention of the Holy Father's alleged role in the scandal.
Can the Pope, the living embodiment of the ancient Gospel and absolute spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, publicly atone for his sins and yet preserve the theological impregnability of the papacy?
Without alluding to the crisis, Benedict told his May 26 audience in St. Peter's Square that "not even the Pope can do what he wants.
On the contrary, the Pope is the guardian of obedience to Christ, to his Word."
Benedict now seems to understand the stakes. But Alberto Melloni, a church historian at the University of Modena, says other power brokers in the Vatican think the church can just ride out the storm.
"They don't realize the deep bitterness among the faithful, the isolation of the clergy. We can't predict where this is going to wind up."
Speaking to TIME, a senior Vatican official foresees immense consequences for the entire church.
"History comes down to certain key episodes," he says. "We're facing one of those moments now."
At the Heart of the Darkness
In the end, the test is not about doctrine or dogma, not even about the wording of mea culpas and the resignation or prosecution of prelates. It is, rather, about the voices of children finally crying out, long after their childhood.
Listen to Bernie McDaid's story and you will know why St. Peter's trembles.
"He grabbed me, tickling and wrestling like I did with my dad, and I thought at first it was fun," McDaid, who grew up in Salem, Mass., says of a parish priest.
"But then something changed ... He started grabbing my genitals. I felt him rubbing against me from behind ... I was so scared. I knew this was so wrong. I looked out the window. I started praying."
That would happen again and again over three years. McDaid's devout mother was delighted whenever the priest arrived to pick up her son, just 11 when the abuse started, to join other boys on trips to the beach.
But, recalls McDaid, now 54, "the last boy out of the car was the one who would get molested."
He finally spoke to his dad, who then took him to a priest from the next town to report what had happened.
"We waited for months. Then there was a rotation of priests. He left, but they made it look like a natural progression. They celebrated him with cake and ice cream."
The boy was left in silence and with his secret shame. The priest, Father Joseph Birmingham, went on to abuse boys in three other parishes in the Boston area before he died in 1989.
"There's a belief system," says McDaid today, "that the priest and the bishop and the Pope himself would always be right. The people gave them the power because it was supposed to be a force for good. It was the power of God."
Now, he goes on, "people are gasping for breath ... They don't know where to put their faith." He stops and asks, knowing there is yet no answer, "What do I do when I pray?"
The Gospel of St. Mark prescribes a fate for those who harm children: "And whoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
But the outrage embodied in those words has been absent in much of the church's response to crimes committed by its priests.
For years, offending clerics were, at most, banished to silence and distant monasteries or to therapy or sometimes defrocked for what in civilian cases would have earned the guilty long prison terms.
Today the Vatican appears to be advising bishops in places from India to Italy to quickly remand new cases to civilian authorities.
But how can it remedy past injustices? A mea culpa — literally, an acceptance of personal guilt — would be a start, and Benedict has a draft to work from: the letter he wrote to Catholics in Ireland on March 19 in the wake of sex scandals that have debilitated the church there.
"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," Benedict wrote. "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen ... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel."
The words are moving, and for some Catholics, it may be enough to hear the Pope express remorse this way.
But Benedict has also talked of penance.
In the language of the church, the sacrament of penance involves confession and then a priestly absolution of the sinner.
But what kind of penance would a Pope with fingerprints on the controversy have to perform?
There lies an intricate theological problem.
As the crisis grew in March and went on into April, many in the Vatican worried about the effect it would have on the papal magisterium — the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God.
Vatican officials are concerned that a mea culpa would diminish the magisterium, which has been integral to the papacy's ability to project power in the world throughout its history, from the humiliation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in the 11th century to the humbling of Soviet power in Poland in the 20th.
It plays a key role in the doctrine of papal infallibility, which declares that the Pope is never in error when he issues teachings ex cathedra — that is, elucidating dogma from the throne of St. Peter.
It is tied up in the traditional prerogatives of that Apostle, to whom was given the power "to bind and loose" in heaven and on earth — in rough terms, the church's ability to open the gates of heaven to you or damn you to hell because it will always be holier than thou.
A truly successful mea culpa and penance for the abuse scandal must preserve the magisterium while dealing with these facts: Ratzinger, both in his role as the local bishop in Munich from 1977 to 1981 and as the overseer of universal doctrine in Rome, was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century.
An effective mea culpa must assuage the faithful but still be couched in such a way that the shortcomings of the prepapal administrative record of Ratzinger are admitted and atoned for separately from the deeds of Benedict XVI, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
In that regard, the letter to the Irish faithful, while a model, has limited utility.
The Pope was merely apologizing for errors committed by the hierarchy of Ireland, not for anything he or, indeed, the Holy See may have done, much less the mystical entity called the Church, the bride of Christ.
Presented with the scenario of a personal apology by the human embodiment of the church, a well-placed Vatican official sighed as he weighed the theological and historical implications.
"It's dangerous," he said. "It's dangerous."
When the Church Is a State
"In the end, the only sad thing is that sometimes these cases took time," a Vatican insider says, describing the fact that most of the incidents of sexual abuse are decades old.
But that prompts a question: Why didn't the church simply report to the civil authorities the crimes its priests were suspected of committing?
Church officials defensively point out that almost all the alleged crimes at the heart of the current crisis were part of a social milieu in which child sexual abuse was rarely prosecuted, if discussed at all.
But nowhere was there a more systemic tendency to cover up the shame and scandal than in Catholic parishes and orphanages entrusted with the care of the young — which showed no compunction about avoiding the civil authorities altogether.
Even now, with the Vatican pressing bishops to turn in errant priests, some cling to the old ethos.
In early April, the eccentric Archbishop Dadeus Grings of Porto Alegre, Brazil, told the newspaper O Globo that priestly abuse was a matter of internal church discipline, not something to report to the police.
"For the church to go and accuse its own sons would be a little strange," Grings, 73, reportedly said.
That mind-set has been deeply ingrained by history. The church is hard-wired with extraterritorial prerogatives that go back more than a millennium.
The Catholic Church believes it is Christ's representative on earth, with all the sinlessness and omnipotent authority of its Saviour.
The statesmen of the church have always known that to preserve that authority, the realm of the Popes could not simply be an otherworldly City of God. It also had to be an earthly power, if not equipped with military divisions (which it once possessed) then at least wielding the clout of secular government.
The church must be a state.
That became more imperative as the secular authority of the papal states in Italy was stripped away by French and Spanish monarchs, Napoleon and Garibaldi, Mussolini and Hitler.
The historian Melloni points out that the papacy was able to take advantage of its weakened condition to buttress support among the faithful by resorting to vittimismo, playing the victim and blaming others for preying on the church.
"This actually had the effect of raising the devotion to the Pope," he says. That was the legacy of the 32-year reign of Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Pope Pius IX, who stage-managed the First Vatican Council into approving infallibility in 1869 with a suspect majority of bishops.
In obedience to its divinely absolute monarch, the Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia, became even more centralized and domineering. So even as the Pope lost his divisions, the empire of Christ based in Rome constructed a government to rival the civil institutions in countries where its clergy served the faithful. Churches and cathedrals became the embassies of God and his vicar, the Pope, in the secular world.
In this system, any suspicion involving misbehavior by priests or nuns would instinctively be reported up the church's chain of command rather than to — heaven forbid — the district attorney's office.
The overriding goal that trickled down to parishes was maintaining a cynical secrecy: avoiding scandal and preserving the good name of the church at any expense — a propensity made worse by the fact that the Curia was run by men versed in courtly skulduggery.
In the cases of pedophilia, that meant the knee-jerk priorities were church and clergy, not the welfare of children.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope knew how to operate in the byzantine climate of the Italian-speaking Curia almost as soon as he arrived in Rome in 1981, according to a Vatican source who professes loyalty to the Pope.
With Pope John Paul II uninterested in administration and often away from headquarters, Ratzinger became one of a handful of Cardinals vying for influence over the way the church was managed.
He developed a reputation for decisive and principled action in his immediate purview of doctrine, though he was less transparent when it came to troublesome and embarrassing reports of sexual misbehavior by priests and bishops.
But, says a longtime Vatican observer, Ratzinger "knew the place well and saw a lot of long knives."
He appears to have chosen his battles carefully.
In 1995 he managed to force the removal of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër as the Archbishop of Vienna, but, according to the New York Times, he did not fight to set up a fact-finding commission to investigate Groër's alleged molestation of young boys after it was blocked by John Paul II's personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz (now Archbishop of Krakow) and the powerful Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano (now dean of the College of Cardinals).
Ratzinger, however, did get to see his student and friend Christoph Schönborn succeed Groër as Archbishop of Vienna.
Though efficient, Ratzinger could also be shortsighted. In one case, he seemed more determined to preserve the church's dwindling clerical resources than to seek justice.
In a case detailed in April by the Associated Press, a child-molester priest had requested to be defrocked, and the local bishop in Oakland, Calif., repeatedly sent letters to Ratzinger's office in Rome to try to have the procedure finalized.
Not only did the case move slowly, but a 1985 letter signed by the Cardinal cautioned the bishop "to consider the good of the Universal Church" and cited "the young age" of the priest in delaying the defrocking.
Benedict XVI has his defenders, however, those who believe it is an injustice that he should be dragged into the center of the scandal.
Even before ascending to the papacy, Ratzinger had helped police the crisis while most of his colleagues in Rome were still trying to sweep the allegations under the rug.
Indeed, Ratzinger's policies, particularly after his office was assigned to oversee the most grievous cases in 2001, may have contributed to the decline in new incidents of clerical sex abuse.
Just before his election as Pope, the Cardinal preached on Good Friday in 2005 of the need to eliminate the "filth" within the church's ranks.
Once on the throne, Benedict swiftly banished to a monastery and a life of penance the satyr-like Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the aging but influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico, who had long been shielded by other top Curia officials, including John Paul II, from repeated accusations of sexual abuse.
Most memorably, during a 2008 trip to the U.S., Benedict met five victims of clergy sex abuse in an unprecedented and unannounced encounter, without any press, at the Holy See's embassy in Washington.
It was the most powerful pastoral gesture of Benedict's papacy — one he would repeat during a subsequent trip to Australia and in Malta this past April.
But in March 2010, German journalists revealed a record that complicates the Pope's reputation. In Munich in 1980, then Archbishop Ratzinger had personally authorized the transfer of an abusive priest, Peter Hullermann, from another part of Germany to his own archdiocese, ostensibly for therapy.
But just days after his arrival, the priest was allowed to serve among the flock. Hullermann would be convicted of subsequent sexual assaults in 1986.
The Vatican insists that, like other Archbishops, Ratzinger wasn't responsible for the parish assignments of priests, even those with a history of abusing children.
A rising star, Ratzinger — a brilliant religious philosopher — had been put on an administrative track and was on the verge of his 1981 reassignment to Rome to work in the Curia. But defending the Pope by pointing out that he was following the standard operating procedures of the day or that he was not focused on his oversight duties no longer cuts it for most Catholics.
"The impression it leaves is that these things simply weren't very important to the bishops and Cardinals," says Melloni. "To say he didn't know is not a defense; it's the problem."
Ratzinger's reputation for being a man of detail makes it hard to fathom that he knew nothing about Hullermann's return to active ministry.
The Pope has yet to address this period of his career explicitly.
But if he is to satisfy victims and their families, he will have to do so one day.
That Benedict is personally touched by the crisis "doesn't surprise me at all," says abuse victim Horne, who met with the Pope in Washington in 2008.
"He's complicit in this, as is two-thirds of the hierarchy."
Horne is asking for a full accounting of past abuse, accompanied by new church rules for monitoring and responding to future cases, with victims given a central role in the process.
He insists, however, that he and most other victims have no interest in bringing down either the Pope or the church.
"We are looking for a moral response," he says.
What Can Benedict Do?
The Pope does not give interviews. His opinions must often be excavated from sermons, prayers and other carefully scripted declarations.
So this year, on Palm Sunday, Vaticanologists could only assume that Benedict had formed his perspective on the scandal all the world was talking about when, in the Italian he speaks with a Bavarian accent, he delivered a homily advising Christians to be courageous and not be intimidated by the "chiacchiericcio" — petty gossip — "of dominant opinions."
Yet throughout the week that followed, the holiest of the Christian calendar, you could see the crisis etched on his face.
Some in the Vatican called it sorrow, like unto Jesus' sorrow on the Cross.
Benedict appeared worn and gloomy even when framed by the glories of St. Peter's Basilica and the liturgies that typically infuse him with vigor.
After Easter, when there was no end to the stories of the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests and how the incidents were covered up, the old guard in the Vatican ramped up vittimismo, blaming the media, atheists, homosexuals and moneygrubbing lawyers for exploiting the crisis.
But that did little to buy sympathy or change the dominant opinion that Benedict's papacy was permanently damaged.
Since then, extraordinary measures have been taken — swift maneuvering for a 2,000-year-old organization led by a shy if determined 83-year-old theologian.
In mid-April, Benedict held the reportedly teary-eyed, closed-door meeting with sex-abuse victims in Malta; at about the same time came a sped-up housecleaning, with the Pope accepting the resignations of several bishops — one for sex abuse, others for mishandling such cases.
The Holy See also announced that the Legionaries of Christ was now under direct Vatican control.
High-ranking members of the hierarchy spoke to journalists about the anguish they felt over the scandals.
Then, on May 11, on his way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, the Pope answered previously submitted questions from the press on his plane. Though he spoke in the primly ecclesiastical style of Pontiffs, it was clear what he was talking about: "The greatest persecution of the church doesn't come from the enemies on the outside but is born from the sin within the church," he said, adding that "the church, therefore, has the profound need to learn penance again, to accept purification."
And while forgiving sins may be a Christian imperative, Benedict said, "forgiveness does not replace justice."
That cry for justice was a sign that something was changing in Rome. It was not the only one. Just before the Fatima trip, a frisson went through the Vatican when Archbishop Schönborn of Vienna used an off-the-record meeting with reporters to criticize Cardinal Sodano, 82, a rare showdown between two powerful "princes of the church."
In the published remarks, which Schönborn, 65, has not repudiated, the Austrian Archbishop took the former Vatican Secretary of State to task for his blame-the-outsiders defense of the church as well as for his role in the Groër case.
With Schönborn's remarks coming just before the Pope's on the plane to Portugal, some Vatican watchers saw backstage melodrama: Was Schönborn serving as a stand-in for the Pope and singling out who was to blame for the sin within the church?
If Sodano and other powerful players in Rome see the sequence of events as an orchestrated attempt to present Ratzinger as the lone Cardinal trying to combat sex abuse within an otherwise uncaring Vatican hierarchy, they are unlikely to accept it without challenge.
"Bollente," says a Vatican insider, using the Italian word for "red hot" to describe the Sodano-Schönborn contretemps.
As if to cap the period of dramatic moves by the papacy, a purportedly impromptu crowd of 150,000 people, organized by Catholic lay groups, showed up to cheer the Pope in St. Peter's Square the Sunday after his return from Portugal.
But is Benedict really about to embark on a shake-up of the entrenched hierarchy that covered up the sex-abuse cases for decades? Or is this just a more effective public relations strategy?
The concepts of penance and justice involve answering to God or man or both. Who will the Pope answer to?
In the past, Ratzinger appeared to be ambivalent about papal atonement. The spectacular Day of Pardon in 2000 was John Paul II's idea, and Ratzinger, then a Cardinal, had to go along as a good soldier.
The official presentation of the ritual — a document almost certainly approved by Ratzinger — tried to play it both ways: "The confession of sins made by the Pope is addressed to God, who alone can forgive sins, but it is also made before men, from whom the responsibilities of Christians cannot be hidden."
So far, so penitential.
But Benedict's latest words during the trip to Fatima seem to hedge how far he is willing to expose the institution he runs to liability: he assigned wrongdoing not to the church but to its servants.
It's a critical point.
The consequences of sin are subject to divine salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public humiliation and the loss of property.
That may not matter when the crimes are deep in the past and the victims dead. But the current pedophilia scandal involves people who are still living — and who are demanding redress.
"For a church that is famous for moving slowly, they've been moving pretty fast lately," says McDaid, the abuse victim from Massachusetts. But, he says, that's because "these people are in fear. They should be in fear. This isn't going to go away just with words."
What words might Benedict say next?
Several well-placed Vatican officials have floated the idea that the Pope may deliver a mea culpa at a convention that starts on June 9 in Rome, marking the end of the church's Year of the Priest.
"Expectations are again building up for the Pope to say something that will somehow resolve everything," says a Vatican source.
But the Pope seems to have no such plan in mind.
"It has backed him into a corner," says the source, speaking of the speculation that a mea culpa is coming.
"It is clear that people at the Vatican are not singing from the same hymnbook."
And there's a problem with the occasion too.
"Tens of thousands of good, holy priests who are trying to do their best are coming to Rome," says the source.
"If the message is about sex abuse, it's like saying, In the end, this is your fault.' If he wants to bring together the bishops of the world for a mea culpa, that might make more sense."
As for challenging the Curia, a Benedict loyalist in the Vatican doubts that the aging Pope can take on the established powers of the church at this stage of his papacy.
Moreover, to seek accountability for the culture of cover-up means undermining the legacy of his great friend and hero John Paul II, under whose watch much of the crisis occurred and whose papacy quite consciously chose to ignore the clamor of abuse victims until it exploded into a public scandal in 2002.
The Polish Pontiff is on the fast track to sainthood. Says a Vatican insider: "When John Paul II is canonized, it will be despite his abysmal record as administrator of the church."
Even if Benedict forces the Curia to be more forthcoming, he will not have caught up with many believers.
Though their church is still run top-down, Catholics now carry the expectations of a kind of faithful citizenry rather than an obedient flock. Plans are afoot for thousands of abuse victims and their loved ones to travel to Rome in October for a "Reformation Day" to pressure the Vatican to act.
McDaid, who met Benedict in Washington in 2008, is one of the prime organizers of the march on St. Peter's, and he envisions a massive democracy movement to transform Rome. "It's the people's church," he says.
"We have to take it back."
McDaid talks about priests and nuns who are raising travel money for "victims who can't rub two nickels together to get to Rome. This is way bigger than [Martin Luther's] Reformation."
Reforming the Church
The word reformation is a sensitive one for Catholics, raising the specter of one of the church's great historical challenges.
But it has faced down danger before.
Ratzinger once cited the legendary Cardinal-diplomat Ercole Consalvi, who, when told that Napoleon was out to destroy the Catholic Church, exclaimed, "He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves."
This crisis may yet be the catalyst for change.
Can the church really change?
Father Thomas Whelan, a professor of theology at Dublin's Milltown Institute, points out that "this very centralized church [tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case since the end of the 19th century."
Now the pedophile-priest scandal has struck a massive blow against ecclesiastical autocracy. If the church doesn't clean house, the consequences will be dire.
The scandals in deeply Catholic Ireland have led to a massive emptying of churches. Controversies in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe have had a similar effect.
"This memory [of sexual abuse] will now be forever encased in history," says Whelan.
"In Ireland, at least, theology can't ever be the same without mentioning it — not just the abuse but how it was handled by the church."
For some liberals, the crisis over sex abuse is a chance to argue old questions of dogma and discipline once again: for example, to address the necessity of celibacy in the priesthood and the church's vision of sex, to expand the role of women and to define the status of Catholic homosexuals.
Others say the authority of the bishops — and the Pope — must now be shared with the faithful. Conservatives, for their part, see this crisis as an opportunity to double down on their criticism of the sexual profligacy of modern culture and re-emphasize the core of what they believe are the traditional and biblical essentials of Catholicism, even if that means ejecting and rejecting fellow Catholics who can no longer subject themselves to full obedience to the teachings of the church and its fathers.
Increasingly, those conservative Catholics are found outside the church's traditional home in Europe, among Africans, Asians and Latin Americans who are proud to be embraced by a 2,000-year-old institution.
That shift in the core of the faithful — even without any ideological change — will bring about a metamorphosis in the Roman nature of the Catholic Church.
One vision for the future echoes from the past. A conservative website is circulating a prophecy uttered by a 42-year-old Catholic theologian in 1969, amid the turmoil of that year of radicalism and barricades.
The priest envisioned a post-imperial papacy, shorn of wealth and pretenses of earthly power.
"From today's crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal," he said on German radio.
"She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers ... As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs ... It will make her poor and a church of the little people ... All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful."
The theologian was Joseph Ratzinger.
And his vision from 40 years ago may now unfold in ways he could never have imagined.