Priestly Abuse

The future Pope Benedict XVI put the good of the Catholic Church before pleas to defrock a priest with a history of child molestation, according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature. Andrew John discusses the revelation and asks, “Where does it all go from here?”

Allegations concerning abuse by Roman Catholic priests – usually against young people they have some pastoral influence over – have emerged with such frequency of late that we can be excused for wondering whether they will ever end.

The latest is a letter from the 1980s [see “Related links”, below] alleging that Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, counselled against the defrocking of a California priest, putting the unity of the universal church first.

Ratzinger has now said he will meet some of the victims of priestly child abuse. But will it be a comfort to them if their own sanity or that of their loved ones has been compromised by incidents involving people in positions of trust? Is it not a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?

Pope Benedict XV
Pope Benedict XV

This is not “a little local difficulty,” to borrow the immortal phrase of Harold Macmillan, the UK Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963; it is not a small bunch of isolated incidents by misguided individuals that can be dismissed as trivial and deserving no more than regret and a bit of hand wringing.

And the Catholic Church is not treating the phenomenon as trivial, as we can see, but a reading of the various reports and weak defence of cover-ups of paedophile behaviour soon reveals that it was seen as perhaps something not to worry too much about in previous decades, something the Catholic Church could keep within its ranks.

Sent for counselling

Some priests have been sent for counselling. However, in criminal cases, counselling is only one part of a sentence that would be handed down by a court, punishment being the other part of the procedure. And these incidents are criminal.

There has been no allegation to my knowledge that the Catholic Church is a paedophile ring. As far as I know, there is no evidence to make us believe that to be the case. It could be that the nature of the job – with celibacy at its core – is implicated in behaviour that is clearly unacceptable. It is no doubt a multifactorial phenomenon, but no less grave for that.

What, though, if it were suspected to be a paedophile ring – and, moreover, suspected by authorities with power to act? If any other kind of organization were in the Catholic Church’s current position, police in several countries would have cooperated, exchanged information, and raided all of its offices and other premises; files would have been pored over, computers seized and cloned, and people arrested for questioning; some transgressors would have been charged and held in custody pending what would be a high-profile trial; others would be waiting for the loud knock on the door.

What puts the Catholic Church above such action by the authorities in all the countries it has a presence in? Is it, quite simply, because it represents religion, and religion is soft and cuddly and always a Good Thing?

But there is no justification for putting it above the law.

Ratzinger is not the only prelate implicated in the cover-up of priestly paedophilia. In the UK, where I am based, the former head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was accused of moving a priest from one location to another, knowing that he had been guilty of child abuse. The priest was later convicted.

One case in many

Questions were asked about whether he would have been able to offend again had Murphy-O’Connor turned him in in the first place.

This is just one case in many.

We learned earlier this month about a letter sent in 1963 to Pope Paul VI by a senior American priest [see “Related links”, below]. In it he outlined the “problem of the problem priest,” suggesting that the Vatican was fully aware – or should have been aware – of the extent of sexual abuse within the US Catholic Church back then.

The Independent told us on April 2: “The missive, unearthed and made public yesterday by lawyers representing victims of alleged sexual abuse in Los Angeles, argued even then that the best solution for dealing with priests found to have violated young men and boys was to defrock them, rather than shuffle them to other dioceses, as was the practice of the Catholic Church for so long.”

Why is the Vatican not being taken to task by other countries? Vatican City, or the so-called “Holy See,” is, after all, a member of the United Nations, albeit in a permanent-observer status. Where are the sanctions? Can there be sanctions against a permanent observer? I am not au fait enough with the opaque bureaucracy of the UN to know that, but I cannot believe there is not some means of hauling this sovereign city-state, which Vatican City is, over the coals in some way. It could be, of course, that influence has been brought to bear in high places. We may never know, but it certainly cannot be ruled out.

Obsessed with child abuse

We are fortunate in that the media – who are understandably obsessed with child abuse since allegations began to emerge about Catholic priests – have not lost an opportunity to splash a story about it. Sex sells. Priestly sex sells more.

Many media outlets are nothing short of salacious, we know, sensationalizing every sentence of their stories (and I think chiefly of what we in the UK call the red-tops; they were called just the tabloids until the “heavies” moved to their “compact” sizes). However, without the media’s obsession – both the hyped and the more soberly factual – many of these cases might not have come to light.

Where is all this going to take us? Can Ratzinger daub papal salve over the hurt his foot soldiers have caused over the years, many cases of which have allegedly been covered up by him? Or should the entire Catholic hierarchy be thoroughly investigated and made to feel the force of due process?

These, let us remember, are crimes. It is not just “a little local difficulty.”

This article first appeared in Digital Journal. Founded on the Internet in 1998, Digital Journal (DJ) describes itself as “an alternative news network for people who want to read news, contribute to reporting, debate and discuss news and events from around the world” and is “made up of professional journalists, citizen journalists, bloggers, [and] passionate writers”. It has journalists in 175 countries worldwide. Andrew John is a professional freelance journalist who writes regularly for DJ.

Further information In 2004, Kirby Dick directed the film Twist of Faith, a documentary following a man who confronts the Catholic Church about the abuse he suffered as a teenager. The film, which was produced for the US cable network HBO and screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, received an Academy Award nomination for “Best Documentary Feature”. In 1989, SNAP – Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – was established in the United States. SNAP, which is the oldest and most active support group of its kind, also engages in political advocacy surrounding sexual-abuse issues
Related links
Letter from the 1980s (Digital Journal)
Letter sent to Pope Paul VI, in 1963 (Independent)
“Catholic sex abuse cases” (Wikipedia article)
Pope Benedict XVI (Wikipedia entry)
Twist of Faith (Wikipedia entry)
Kirby Dick (official website)