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May 25 2011

Catholic Church: Not getting it since 500 A.D.

This is one of those stories that seems like it is good news, so long as you only read the headline:

Vatican: Bishops should report abuse to police

The Vatican told bishops around the world Monday that it was important to co-operate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children and said they should develop guidelines for preventing sex abuse by next May.

I like to at least pretend to be even-handed. While I am in no way ashamed of explicitly stating my biases and positions, I try to give my opponents an even shake – misrepresenting the positions of others only serves to undermine one’s own credibility. It is for this reason that I have tried my best, in all of my discussions of the Roman Catholic Church’s wheelings and dealings in this ongoing abuse issue, to give credit where it’s due. However, the underlying problem with their response to the ongoing revelations has been their staunch refusal to take responsibility for their own actions – first blaming gay people, then “Sin”, then the free-love 60s, on and on ad nauseum. They’ve been happy to cast the blame pretty much everywhere rather than themselves:

There cannot be any more proof in my mind that the Catholic Church does not understand why the world is upset. It doesn’t get that its claims to supernatural authority are meaningless, and increasingly rejected by the world at large. They can’t comprehend the fact that it’s not the simple matter of abuse that is making the world so angry – it’s the repeated attempts to cover it up and defy secular authority. They don’t get it, and it looks like they never will.

But again, the above snippet does suggest that the Vatican is starting to recognize the fact that compelling priests to recognize their lay duty of care to their fellow human beings might be a good thing, and being subject to secular authority would ensure that abuse would at least be addressed more quickly, if not reduced immediately. That is, until you plumb the depths of what that word “should” means:

Critically, the letter reinforces bishops’ authority in dealing with abuse cases. It says independent lay review boards that have been created in some countries to oversee the church’s child protection policies “cannot substitute” for bishops’ judgment and power. Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland have reported that some bishops “failed miserably” in following their own guidelines and had thwarted the boards’ work by withholding information and by enacting legal hurdles that made ensuring compliance impossible.

In the letter, the Vatican told the bishops “it is important to cooperate” with civil law enforcement authorities and follow civil reporting requirements, though it doesn’t make such reporting mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.

Once again – this is a non-move by the RCC. It still asserts the primacy of the Church in matters of management. Civil authority is to be consulted only when it is convenient to do so, and this decision is left up to the individual discretion of the bishop – a decision-making process that has been shown to be corrupt through history. I can certainly appreciate that a blanket requirement to report to the civil authority might be problematic to those priests living in places where that authority is not to be trusted, but making no changes is not the answer. If there are special circumstances, there can be allowances made for that, but the countries in which these cases are arising are not the kinds of places that one would expect to worry about that (Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, United States, Canada…).

This is a failure to understand the fundamental problem – it’s not simply the abuse. It’s the attitude of secrecy and moral arrogance that comes with asserting that only the hierarchy is in a position to make these kinds of decisions rather than lay authority. Anything short of dramatic policy changes that signal the Vatican’s understanding of the actual issue will simply be spraying perfume on a turd.

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