Sunday, April 04, 2010

Urbi et Orbi: Pope on the ropes

As the Easter Sunday Catholic faithful wait outside St Peter’s for Benedict XVI to deliver his tenth papal address, the Church itself has come under unprecedented attack and criticism. Numerous controversies have emerged about the protection of child-molesting priest in many countries including Germany, the US and Ireland with the Pope implicated in many of the scandals.

Although the Church has addressed some of the concerns, its preference is to adopt a siege mentality as the charges multiply. The Pope downplayed the charges as “petty gossip” while the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, has accused the media of a "clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators".

One of the Pope’s apologists, Vatican priest Raniero Cantalamessa noted Easter and Passover fell during the same week this year and said this led him to think of comparisons with the Jews. “They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence, and also because of this they are quick to recognise the recurring symptoms,” Cantalamessa said. “The use of stereotypes [and] the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” However a US advocate for sexual abuse victims said the comparison was “breathtakingly callous and misguided.” David Clohessy said “men who deliberately and consistently hide child sex crime are in no way victims and to conflate public scrutiny with horrific violence is about as wrong as wrong can be.”

The public scrutiny into child sex crimes is becoming deeply uncomfortable for the Church and indeed for Benedict himself. In Germany, Father Peter Hullermann has become the focus of an expanding sexual-abuse scandal that has embroiled the Pope. Hullermann was a priest in northern Germany with an addiction to sexual abuse of children. He was transferred to Munich for therapy where Pope Paul VI had appointed Joseph Ratzinger as Archbishop in 1977. Ratzinger was copied in on a 1980 memo which said Hullermann would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. A German court eventually convicted Hullermann of further child abuse in 1986 but the church still took no action to stop him from working with children. The Archdiocese has acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made with Hullermann, but said it was the fault of people reporting to Ratzinger rather than to the cardinal himself.

In the US, the news is no better for the Pope. As the then leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), he was also implicated in the scandal of the St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lawrence C. Murphy worked at the school from 1950 to 1974 initially as chaplain and later as director. Murphy admitted he sexually abused deaf boys for 22 years. Victims tried for more than three decades to bring him to justice, but recent documents show Ratzinger’s office neither defrocked him nor referred him for prosecution but instead encouraged “pastoral action” to resolve the problem. In the end Murphy solved the problem for the Vatican by conveniently dying before the trial could proceed.

In Ireland too, sex scandals have left the reputation of the Church in tatters (though it hasn’t stopped them from trying to enforce Good Friday alcohol bans). There have been three official Irish state-sanctioned investigations into the Church’s abuse of children. The most recent and most comprehensive, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released its damning report last year which found widespread physical and emotional abuse were a feature of outdated Catholic-run institutions and sex abuse was endemic, particularly at boy’s institutions and known to Church authorities.

Sexual offenders were usually transferred elsewhere where they were free to continue abusing other children. The Church relied on a culture of secrecy, a compliant Education department and a fear of retribution to keep matters quiet. While the Pope has recently blasted the Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgement”, his apology did not address the Vatican's own role nor did it endorse the report finding that the church leadership was to blame for the scale and longevity of abuse heaped on Irish children throughout the 20th century.

That would have been a step too far for the Vatican as it would mean having to confront its own rulebook. The Catholic Church’s unnatural insistence on celibacy for its priests has contributed greatly to the problems in the US, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that men without sexual access to women looked for gratification elsewhere, particularly among young and vulnerable people without the access or knowledge about how to complain about their treatment. And while the Church professes to be pro-life, care for its flock seems to stop at birth. The Church continues to see sexual offence as a risk only in terms of the potential for scandal and bad publicity. The danger to children has never been taken into account. This obsessive, cynical and secretive accretion of power at all costs is now coming back to bite the Church badly.

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