This article was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been hauling the Vatican over the coals regarding its record of systematically covering up the sexual abuse of children by its priests. Hearings in Geneva this week are the first time that senior Vatican officials have been confronted in public about the ongoing scandal. Despite UN requests, the Vatican still refuses to open its archives containing records of every instance of abuse reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long presided over by Cardinal (later Pope) Ratzinger. It also tried to argue that it was responsible only for abuse that took place in the tiny enclave of the Vatican City, not by Catholic priests worldwide.
The story is now all too familiar. Time after time priestly child abuse was hushed up by the Church, the victims sworn to secrecy, the files sealed in the Vatican vaults, and the priest not turned over to secular authorities but instead quietly moved to a new parish. There the abuse would continue with a new set of victims. If the Church did apply “punishments” they tended to be a requirement for “penitence and prayer”.
The pattern was worldwide, from Ireland to Australia to Germany to Mexico and the US and … we still don’t know about many Third World countries where the Catholic Church is still powerful enough to continue its cover-up. Power corrupts, and the fact that the Catholic Church regarded itself as morally answerable only to itself, coupled with the excessive deference paid to it by others, enabled the ongoing corruption that has now shredded the Vatican’s claim to any moral authority.
There is a tendency among the non-religious to regard theology as rather abstract and inconsequential, but when people really believe their theology it can have direct and harmful consequences. It seems to me that the world-wide Catholic child-abuse scandal is a direct consequence of Catholic theology. Of course all large organisations will contain some men who might sexually abuse others, but the most significant aspect of the Catholic scandal is the cover-up, the way the Catholic hierarchy dealt with those crimes.
To a Catholic sexual misconduct is a sin. That means it is a rebellion against God, often caused by the Devil trying to tempt people into that rebellion (yes, the Catholic hierarchy do actually believe in both God and the Devil). The Devil can tempt anyone into sin, and thus a repentant sinner is no more likely to sin again than anyone else.
Perhaps I am being too charitable, but I suspect that many in the Catholic hierarchy weren’t quite corrupt enough to knowingly expose a new set of defenceless kids to a recidivist paedophile priest. I can imagine an elderly, celibate Cardinal consulting his theology, which told him that such sins were the result of the Devil’s temptations, and thus genuinely believing that a repentant priest was no more a threat than anyone else.
In the words that Pope Ratzinger directed to abusing priests: “Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment”, while “offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged” would “atone personally” for the crimes (yes, that does mean that Ratzinger thinks that private prayers and penances are sufficient to make amends for hushed-up crimes). That theology, together with the overriding desire to protect the Church, was sufficient to convince the cardinals that simply shuffling priests around was an adequate remedy.
When Ratzinger issued his “apology” to Irish victims of priestly sex abuse, he tried — bizarrely — to blame secularism, saying that it was the “rapid transformation and secularization” of society that had led priests to “adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel”. He claimed that the recidivist nature of paedophilia hadn’t been understood by “secular society” which had tolerated moral relativism and that “conflicting expert advice” had been responsible for the Catholic Church simply moving criminal priests to new parishes.
This unrepentant buck-passing is of course total nonsense. Everyone except the Catholic hierarchy understood what should have been done because everyone except the Catholic hierarchy understands human sexuality. Our sexuality and orientation are part of our nature, something we are born with. Hushing things up and quietly moving the culprit to a new parish were not remedies suggested by “secular society” but ones deriving from an over-powerful Church and an utterly flawed theology.
Among “concrete initiatives to address the situation” Ratzinger offered “your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture”, along with a year’s-worth of “Friday penances” and plenty of “Eucharistic adoration” (yes, those really were his “concrete initiatives to address the situation”). We now have a new Pope, who is supposedly better than the last one. Here are my suggestions for some rather more effective initiatives.
First, the Catholic Church will always get sex wrong until it realises that sexuality is not a “choice”, not about rebellion against God, but an aspect of the biology that we are born with. Second, no-one is going to believe that the Vatican is sincerely repentant and reformed until it releases its archives of sexual-abuse cases. That means all of them, the ones diligently gathered by Ratzinger over decades (despite his later using an excuse about “how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem”), and not just the ones that the authorities already know about.
As recently as 1997 the Vatican wrote to Irish Catholic Bishops telling them to cancel their proposal to report abusive priests to the police because doing so “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature”. The Vatican has admitted that several hundred priests have been defrocked since 2011, yet that does not mean that the names of the guilty parties have been passed to secular authorities.
Third, this scandal could surely only have been presided over by a men-only hierarchy. Any institution nurturing children should have women involved at all levels, including the most senior. My last suggestion, that no-one should any longer be deferential towards the Catholic Church or regard it as any sort of moral authority, has, thanks to the scandal, already been largely achieved.