The List

The Skeletons in Benedict's Closet

A guide to the sex abuse scandals under Pope Benedict XVI's watch.

If a report on Thursday, Feb. 21, in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is to be believed, Pope Benedict XVI's recent decision to resign just got a whole lot more interesting. The paper claims that around the time that Pope Benedict decided to step down, the pontiff learned of a faction of gay prelates in the Vatican who may have been exposed to blackmail by a group of male prostitutes in Rome. The revelations allegedly appeared in a 300-page report by three cardinals that the pope commissioned to investigate the release of internal documents by his butler, the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal. (A Vatican spokesman has refused to confirm or deny La Repubblica's claims, and the internal Vatican report is reportedly stowed away in a papal safe for Pope Benedict's successor to peruse.)

Seen in the context of Pope Benedict's career in the Catholic Church, it is difficult to understand why revelations of yet another sex scandal would push him to resign. For over a decade, he has served as the church's point person for responding to allegations of abuse. From 1985 until his election to the papacy in 2005, Benedict served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful Vatican body charged with policing church doctrine. In 2001, Pope John Paul II transferred responsibility for dealing with the sex scandals enveloping the institution to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's office. In that role, Ratzinger received tens of thousands of complaints alleging sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Those documents often went into lurid detail, and Ratzinger is said to have been deeply affected by the experience.

As a theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict gained the not-so-flattering nickname "God's Rottweiler" for his rigid interpretations of doctrine and his stringent enforcement of church rules. In practice, he has frequently displayed a preference -- both as a pope and as a cardinal -- for confronting predatory priests behind closed doors and protecting the church's reputation at the expense of public accountability.

Here's how Benedict tackled some of the most prominent scandals to have struck the church during his career.

Peter Hullermann, Germany, 1980
While serving as the archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger may have played a role in shielding a pedophile priest, Peter Hullermann, from prosecution, transferring him to different parishes when parents complained that he had abused their children. In 1980, Ratzinger approved a plan to send Hullermann, who was facing allegations (that he did not deny) of abusing children in the German city of Essen, to Munich for therapy. Over the objections of a psychiatrist who was treating the priest, the German archdiocese permitted Hullermann to resume his pastoral work shortly after beginning therapy and did not inform the priest's new parish of his history. In 1986, Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in Bavaria.

Lawrence Murphy, United States, 1996
As head of a Wisconsin school for deaf boys from 1950 to 1974, Father Lawrence Murphy is alleged to have molested upwards of 200 children. Yet when the case was presented to Ratzinger in the mid-1990s, he declined to defrock the priest. In 1996, Ratzinger ignored letters from Rembert Weakland, the archbishop of Milwaukee, seeking guidance from the cardinal on how to proceed against Murphy and another priest. Eventually, the church initiated a canonical trial against Murphy, but when the priest personally appealed to Ratzinger for clemency, saying that he was in poor health, the cardinal intervened to stop the proceedings against him.

2001 Letter to Bishops
After being tasked in 2001 by Pope John Paul II to assume responsibility for sex abuse allegations, and after gaining access to a trove of documents that laid out allegations against abusive priests, Ratzinger took action. He did so in a 2001 letter sent to every one of the church's bishops. In it, Ratzinger laid out the church's guidelines for investigating claims of sexual abuse, which asserted that the church -- and not civil authorities -- still held primary authority over investigations and that the church had a right to keep evidence in such cases confidential until 10 years after a minor turned 18. That assertion led to charges by victims' rights advocates that Ratzinger had committed worldwide gross obstruction of justice, a charge that critics saw as compounded by Ratzinger's assertion in the letter that such cases required absolute secrecy. Breaking the code of silence carried a range of penalties, among them excommunication. Ratzinger's order effectively removed the possibility that sex abusers would be brought to justice in lay courts and guaranteed that the church would retain its investigatory prerogative.

Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, Ireland, 2010
In an attempt to help bring closure to victims affected by sexual abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, two auxiliary bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, accused of helping to cover up rampant abuse offered Pope Benedict their resignation in 2010. In a move that stunned critics of the church and victims' rights groups, the pope rejected their resignation and informed the bishops that they would be allowed to stay on in the church, despite the fact that other priests accused of covering up the scandal were allowed to resign. "By rejecting the resignations of two complicit Irish bishops, the Pope is rubbing more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of thousands of child sex abuse victims and millions of betrayed Catholics," said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement. "He's sending an alarming message to church employees across the globe: even widespread documentation of the concealing of child sex crimes and the coddling of criminals won't cost you your job in the church."

2010 Apology to Ireland
By 2010, the hard-line strategy advocated by Pope Benedict became unsustainable. Explosive and wide-ranging reports of abuse -- including allegations against Ratzinger himself during his time in Munich -- put the church firmly in the cross-hairs of public opinion. Detailed investigations by the Irish government unearthed widespread abuse, and Ireland became something of a ground zero for the scandal. In response, Pope Benedict issued a public apology to his parishioners in Ireland. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured," the pope wrote. "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." Priests read the letter aloud in church.

But if the apology to Ireland signaled a willingness within the church to more openly confront its past, subsequent guidelines to bishops quashed that notion. In 2011, Pope Benedict issued new guidelines that reaffirmed bishops' authority in adjudicating cases. Although that letter underscored the importance of stopping the abuse of minors, victims remained dismayed at the lack of an enforcement mechanism.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The List

Self-Appreciation Day

How dictators and monarchs celebrate themselves.

Every year, the United States designates the third Monday in February as a national holiday to honor both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But aside from doing a litte sale shopping, most Americans don't celebrate the holiday in any significant way. In fact, many don't even know whom the holiday commemorates, and sitting U.S. presidents certainly don't honor themselves. (Obama did spoil himself a bit this year by playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods.) But that's not the case everywhere in the world. Here's a look at six countries where current leaders celebrate their birthdays publicly -- and very often in extravagant style.

KAZAKHSTAN

In 2008, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree to make his birthday a national holiday. Though July 6 is officially called "Astana Day" to mark the day Astana became the nation's capital in 1997, many in the country see the holiday as an excuse to celebrate the birthday of the Kazakh president, who has led the central Asian state since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Some observe the holiday with enthusiasm, but others are less than comfortable with the cult of personality that appears to underlie the lavish celebrations -- especially in a country where a university as well as many parks and squares bear the name of the longtime president.

"This is a huge waste of money and pompous precisely because Astana Day and Nazarbayev's birthday are the same day," one Astana resident declared in 2010. "They are constantly driving into my children at school that Nazarbayev is our everything." 

In 2010, the three-day birthday festival kicked off with the opening of a giant indoor park (giant as in containing a multistation monorail and an amusement park featuring "human pinball" and a log flume ride, among other attractions). The Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli sang (in 2008, it was only Whitney Houston), and seven presidents plus the king of Jordan were in attendance. In total, the celebratory circuses, ballets, and fireworks cost Kazakhstan more than $10 million. (That same year, the country observed an elaborate First President's Day to mark the anniversary of Nazarbayev's first election in 1991. "Kazakhstan Celebrates First, And Only, President," NPR cheekily observed.) 

Last year, the Astana Day celebration included an international film festival, a Cirque du Soleil performance, several concerts, and an ice show. But if you think that this sounds just a little bit Nero-esque, think again, at least according to government leaders. "There is nothing surprising here," one official argued in 2010. "All nations pay tribute to their presidents." 

Nazarbayev, who has repeatedly won (widely criticized) elections with more than 90 percent of the vote and changed the law to personally exempt himself from term limits, could be celebrating his birthday in style for many years to come -- especially if his quest for the elixir of youth works out.

In the photo above, artists perform in honor of Kazakhstan's First President's Day in Astana on Dec. 1, 2012.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images 

JORDAN

One of the distinguished guests at Nazarbayev's Astana Day celebrations clearly has different ideas about how his country should commemorate his birthday. Jordanians have been celebrating King Abdullah II's birthday since he succeeded his father King Hussein in 1999, but the day used to be a national holiday (along with Hussein's birthday). In 2007, however, King Abdullah announced that in order to boost productivity, banks and businesses would remain open on the two royal birthdays.

"As sincere work and dedication are key to economic prosperity, every single day of our work time brings in new opportunities for more achievements and investment and opens new areas for creativity and development," the king said. "We found that my birthday and the birthday of my father, the late King Hussein, should be another two days of official work ... and hope that Jordanians can celebrate the two occasions with more productivity."

Today, Jan. 30 is a cause for celebration in the country, but it is also a workday. And King Abdullah himself prefers to celebrate with family rather than with famous singers and foreign dignitaries. 

Above, Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania give a present to a child being treated for cancer on Jan. 29, 2002 in Amman. The monarch marked his 40th birthday by visiting children undergoing cancer treatment. 

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

NORTH KOREA 

Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un showed the world that giving can be more satisfying than receiving. According to state media, the North Korean supreme leader commemorated his Jan. 8 birthday -- which has yet to be designated a national holiday -- by distributing 1 kilogram of candy to every North Korean child under 10. Even villagers in outlying islands received the treats -- they "exploded with joy" when they saw the gifts, according to the official report.

If Kim Jong Un is looking to nurture his personality cult, he's on the right track. Both his father and grandfather reportedly demonstrated their "paternal love" for the youngest generation of North Koreans by giving away "birthday candy" and other household staples such as eggs (and cigarettes). Today, both former leaders have their own national holidays -- the "Day of the Shining Star" commemorates Kim Jong Il's birthday while the "Day of the Sun" honors Kim Il Sung's -- and Kim Jong Un just honored his father's birth anniversary on Feb. 16 by issuing commemorative stamps, visiting Kim Jong Il's grave, sending wild honey to a maternity hospital ... and testing a nuclear weapon. "Our soldiers and people celebrated the birth of our great leader after we showed our strength and braveness with the successful nuclear test," the country's state-run news agency declared.

Above, images are displayed on a screen as North Korean performers sing at a theater during celebrations to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 16, 2012.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

CUBA 

Ever since taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro has marked his birthdays with mass celebrations in Cuba. In 2011, for instance, a week of festivities culminated in a "Serenade to Fidelity" gala that included performances by artists from Europe and Latin America, including the Grammy Award-winning Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club fame. That same year, Castro celebrated the occasion with his erstwhile ally Hugo Chávez, who happened to be in Cuba for cancer treatment.

"Here with Fidel, celebrating his 85th birthday," Chávez tweeted. "Viva Fidel!"

Castro did not make a public appearance on his birthday last year, but the country was content to celebrate without him. State media congratulated him, concerts were dedicated to him, and the Union of Communist Youth baked him a cake. Not even an art show depicting important moments in his life could bring him out into the public eye. But it was Castro's party and he could hide if he wanted to.

Above, Cuban children gather around a cake dedicated to Fidel Castro's 86th birthday on Aug. 13, 2012 in Havana.

Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

TURKMENISTAN 

In 2005, on his 65th birthday, Turkmenistan's former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov commemorated the occasion by issuing a set of coins featuring his family tree. A year later, Niyazov minted a set of gold and silver coins to honor his own poetry -- four collections and two volumes of a work he called the "Book of the Soul," which, according to the Guardian, offered "moral guidance, including respecting your elders, and giving lots of jewellery to women." (Children studied the book in school and convicts swore their allegiance to it upon release from jail -- that is, until Niyazov's successor released his own spiritual guidebook to replace it.)

Niyazov's birthday celebrations were lavish -- the mandatory festivities dominated the news and involved parades, "concerts, horse races, and children in national costume praising their leader's merits in both Turkmen and English." In 2005, Niyazov received a chestnut-colored stallion as a gift.

Upon assuming power after Niyazov's death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov requested that his birthday not be celebrated as a lavish national gala and abolished the holiday honoring his predecessor's birthday, but he still knows how to throw a birthday party. In 2011, for instance, he performed a love song that he had written himself. (After the performance, state television announced that the guitar, now a "national asset and great treasure," would be preserved in a museum.) In 2012, festivities in the capital included elaborate musical numbers in Berdymukhammedov's honor.

Above, people walk past a poster of Berdymukhammedov during an Independence Day parade in Ashgabat on Oct. 27, 2008. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images

THAILAND 

Every year, Thais celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday, also Thailand's Father's Day, by gathering in massive crowds in Bangkok, waving flags, and wearing the royal color of yellow (yellow symbolizes Monday, the day of the king's birth). The monarch typically pardons political prisoners and occasionally offers remarks. This past year, he called for national unity. 

The king's birthday isn't the only occasion in which Thais have shown support for their sovereign, believed by some to be semi-divine, through fashion choices. In 2007, the world's longest reigning living monarch emerged from a three-week stay at a hospital in Bangkok wearing a pink shirt and blazer. Within a day, sales of pink shirt had jumped 60 percent as Thais rushed to stores in the hopes of improving the aging king's health.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images