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All the rage (literally, for some of the victims and some of their parents) is the discussion/controversy in a number of countries over Catholic priests’ sexually abusing children and teenagers over a period that may go back as far as 50 years. (It may well go back even further than that, but there may be no survivors, folks who would be quite old now, willing and/or able to come forward). The controversy has two parts: the abuse itself and then the cover-up for the offenders. Some Catholic dioceses in the United States have paid out very large sums in settlements. In one instance, a U.S. Cardinal involved in the cover-up has apparently “moved” (fled?) to a position at the Papal Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and apparently will never return to the United States. In recent weeks the controversy has become particularly full-blown because of accusations, some apparently well-documented, that the current Pope Benedict XVI himself participated in one or more cover-ups when he was Cardinal Ratzinger in Germany and then head of the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.
The Church is reacting vigorously to the charges. One might expect from an institution that is very concerned with real and perceived sin, not only of its own followers, but also of all the rest of us, that that reaction would be one of self-reflection and resolution to right the wrongs of both the events and the cover-ups and make sure that they do not happen again. However, for the most part that has not been the case. Rather, the Church, and most specifically the Vatican, is vigorously defending the Pope, most prominently by vigorously attacking its critics. The official response has been that criticism of the Church for both the sexual abuse and the cover-ups amounts to nothing more or less an attack on the Catholic Church, and only such an attack.
One defender went so far as to compare the criticism over matters of fact and the Church’s response to them with anti-Semitism, which is organized hatred (and worse) of a particular identity group based for the most part on non-fact. (That defense was quickly withdrawn.) A few leading clerics outside of the Vatican have responded by saying that the time for self-examination and reform had come. However, the bulk of the official response has sounded very much like the response of US reactionaries to any criticisms of positions they take or language they use: the dictum of the godfather of modern GOP slime politics, Lee Atwater, “always attack; never defend,” and the tactic that goes back at least as far as ancient Greece: kill the messenger.
However, while the bulk of the criticism of the Church hierarchy and of its response to it has concerned the history of child/teenager abuse by priests, I would like to look at two larger issues here. The many incidents of priestly sexual abuse did occur. That does not seem to be in dispute. The abusers were indeed priests. That is not in dispute. While a few may be converts, most of these men grew up in the Catholic Church, educated in parochial schools. All of them went through seminary education. There is an enormous emphasis in both Catholic schooling and seminary education on the concepts of morality as the Church sees it, and sin, as the Church sees it too. These men have been steeped in this approach to life and living for much of their lives. Yet some number of them chose to commit crimes (and they are not just sins; in all the jurisdictions in which the events have come to light they are statutorily crimes) and sinful acts as the Church defines them at the same time.
Now what does that say about the level of morality within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church itself? What does it say about the power of well-known Catholic doctrine over the minds of these men who have absolute power over the sincere believers? What does it say about the Church practice of moving such priests around for years, rather than have them face possible criminal prosecution? Would not such acts be considered sins themselves, in this case committed not only by common priests but by higher-ups (certainly up to Cardinals, possibly up to the current Pope himself)? Yet the hierarchy of the Church is defending them in one way or another.
Most importantly, however, is not what this level of sin and crime says about the Church within its own walls. The church’s cadre of priests and higher religious officials have spent their lifetimes steeped in Catholic law, morality and culture. What does the inability of the male hierarchy of the Church to assure that they are without sin say about the appropriateness of its preaching to those of us who are non-Catholics about matters they regard as sinful but we do not? What does it say about their telling us, over and over again, how we should act in such matters as abortion and gay marriage? What does it say about their insistence that our beliefs about the beginning of life and abortion should be criminalized?
The hierarchy of the Church not only preaches to us but in this country they interfere in the electoral process on these issues. They cannot control their own shepherds, yet they want to force upon all of the rest of us their religious concept of when life begins, subject to the penalty of the criminal law. They want to tell all of the rest of us what sin is when it comes to that subject. I happen to believe that life begins at the time of viability. If abortion were to be illegalized in this country, that belief of mine would become a criminal act. And yet they cannot control the sexual lives of priests who have preached their doctrine criminalizing abortion from the pulpit on many a Sunday. How dare they!
I will deal briefly here with an even larger issue. That is the total failure of the Pope, in addressing the Catholic bishops of Uganda (C. Glatz, “Resist Seduction of Individualism,” Catholic News Service, March 5, 2010), to confront in any way the proposed legislation in that country that would murder homosexuals simply for being homosexual. This puts this Pope in the same league as “Hitler’s Pope” (John Cornwell, Vanity Fair, Oct., 1999). As Cardinal Pacelli, in 1933 he concluded the Concordat with the (Third) Reich. In effect, it said that the Church would not interfere in any way with Hitler’s already announced domestic policies, especially concerning the Jews, in return for his pledge to “leave the Church alone on its internal matters” and also to strengthen Catholic education. Part of the deal, made during the first month of the Hitler regime, was also that the Church would support the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave him dictatorial powers. Later, as Pope Pius XII, Pacelli lifted not one finger, either publicly or privately, to deal with the Holocaust. Pope Benedict’s ignoring of the lethal threats to the homosexual population in Uganda puts him in exactly the same league as Cardinal Pacelli/Pope Pius XII who, by the way, is an active candidate for sainthood, that candidacy being strongly supported by the present Pope.
Indeed. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.