Scandals distract the public from focusing on key issues. Sometimes, however, they also provide insights into the character of leading cultural and political figures – and their institutions. When the story finally broke – after perhaps centuries of cover-ups – about priests abusing youthful members of their flock I smirked, not of shock, but from recognition.
As kids we would tease Catholic school students. “Hey, did the priest check you for hemorrhoids and hernias today?” The Catholic kids didn’t laugh. Indeed, prevailing street wisdom assured us that such jibes contained basic elements of truth – although we had no proof. Some Catholic school kids hinted at perverse behavior, but Church intimidation stopped them from telling. Several generations later the story poured out when thousands of the formerly abused told their stories.
Priestly misbehavior ranged beyond the United States. Recently, scandals emerged about Irish and German priests diddling – or worse – the young and vulnerable. As in the United States, the church hierarchy ignored or covered up the criminal activity of its errant cadres. Cardinals and Bishops routinely reassigned the accused priests to other parishes no matter the evidence against them; some got sent to religious rehab classes from whence they went to new parishes to resume intimate contact with the youth of their flock.
Over the decades, Cardinals and the Pope himself, before and after his coronation, received detailed reports of this widespread affliction. The U.S. Church paid off some formerly abused parishioners. But as the media made details public, the Vatican refused to assume full responsibility. Instead, the church elite tried to finesse the facts until the media’s repeated reports made it impossible. Did high church moguls have a duty to report the priestly criminals to the police? Their answer, by deduction: it is more important to maintain the Godly reputation of this ancient institution than to reveal the depths of perversity within its ranks and take serious steps to combat this rampant behavior.
The scandal has reached the Pope. Given the rigid hierarchy of the institution, one has a hard time believing that German Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, did not know of the pederasts inside the German Church, and those elsewhere as well. The defenders of the Pontiff can no longer rely on the power of their word as high priests to combat decades of lying and many thousands of angry victims as well.
In what seemed like an act of desperation, the pope’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in an April 2 sermon in St Peter’s Basilica, compared attacks against the Church and pope over sex abuse to “collective violence” against Jews.
This remark came from a “Church that for centuries prayed for the conversion of the Jews, who were held collectively responsible for Jesus’ death.” (Reuters, April 4, 2010) I was seven when a group of Catholic kids surrounded and beat me. Their motive? “You killed our Lord, kid.” The local parish priest had so instructed them.
Then, the Vatican did not remove bad priests, nor stop Reverend Lawrence Murphy from abusing 200 U.S. deaf boys between 1950 and 1974. The Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to the New York Times, received warnings about Murphy’s pedophilia but neither informed police nor defrocked him.
On Easter Sunday at the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the pontiff: “Holy Father, on your side are the people of God.” Sodano dismissed the abuse and cover-up charges as “petty gossip.” (New church definition of sodomy?) (Frances D’Emilio, AP, April 5, 2010)
The ongoing revelations of sexual abuse and the failure of church governors to act responsibly have landed in the Pope’s lap where they belong. The Catholic Church teeters on the edge of losing its holy image and its moral credibility.
In England, some lawyers claim the principle of universal jurisdiction allows for prosecution of the Pope. Under this concept judges can issue arrest warrants for visitors accused of serious crimes, like genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. Do systematic cover-ups of abuses by pedophile priests count as such a crime?
A 1998 precedent exists. England arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on a Spanish warrant for crimes against humanity. British police kept Pinochet under house arrest until 2000, when the government released him because he was ruled physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.
No such claim will assuage the more than 10,000 people who have “signed a petition on Downing Street’s web site against the pope’s 4-day visit to England and Scotland in September.” (AP, Paisley Dodds, April 4, 2010)
The traditional Easter Sunday ritual offered the Pope his chance to address the grievances of tens of thousands of sodomized parishioners. Instead of speaking to charges that he had participated in moving priests to different parishes rather than staining the Church’s reputation by turning them into the police and defrocking them, his Holiness blamed the “vile” media attack.
Has the decline of this powerful Church begun?
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films are available from Round World Productions.