Sex scandals, some going back more than thirty years, continue to haunt the Catholic Church, so much so that the Vatican has felt bound to defend Pope Benedict xvi himself.
The Pope’s popularity has taken a hit, as a result of his handling of recent child abuse scandals across Europe and North America. Some are even calling for his resignation, for his part, before becoming Pope in 2005, in a decision merely to send to therapy an alleged pedophile priest, who later returned to pastoral work.
The Church has said that the then Cardinal Ratzinger did not know that the priest returned to work.
The Pope is also accused of ignoring pleas for the removal of an American priest, who allegegly molested up to 200 deaf boys.
In Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate, has admitted that he was present in 1975 when two teenage boys were persuaded to sign oaths of silence about their abuse by Father Brendan Smyth. The Church defrocked Smyth, but nobody, including Cardinal Brady, told the police about his crimes and he remained free to abuse boys for two decades.
Some have complained that the Church is being singled out, when most abuse happens inside families and other organisations. “Why this huge isolation of the Church and this huge focus on cover-up in the Church when it has been going on for centuries?”, they ask.
They are right, that other secretive outfits (orphanages in authoritarian countries, say) are home to shameful abuse, but that obviously misses the point. No Church can expect to be judged merely against the most depraved part of the secular world. If you preach absolute moral values, you will be held to absolute moral standards. Hence, for Catholics, the Church’s inability to deal with the issue is baffling.
The Church now has exemplary child protection rules, so strict, in fact, that they sometimes stifle healthy affectionate behaviour. It is the scandals from the past that continues to haunt the Church.
Applying modern standards to conduct long ago has its challenges. The Leaders of the Catholic Church in the past, often saw paedophilia not as a crime with victims but as a sin that placed the perpetrator’s soul at risk, along the lines of alcoholism, or stealing the Church’s money. A priest who “fell” deserved a rebuke, pastoral rehabilitation and a fresh start. The hurt done to the victims was discounted or ignored.
Also, some in Church circles are plaqued with another delusion, the conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality. A sexual relationship between a priest and a teenage boy was considered as wrong, just as a liason between two priests would be. But it did not count as a revolting abuse of trust.
Some add celibacy to the rap sheet. Those cut off from family life may not appreciate the horror parents feel about abuse. In a sex-obsessed age, abstinence sounds unnatural and thus a cause of sexual deviancy.
As in so many scandals, the cover-up compounds the original sin. The guilty secrets of the past must be flushed out. And Bishops must admit their part in them. It is odd that an institution founded on honesty and penitence should struggle so.
Today’s Catholic leaders might also recall that clerical abuses of power, defended by legalistic quibbling, greatly angered an iterate Preacher in Palestine two millennia ago.
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