(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
The way that defenseless children were treated in some Catholic orphanages or other homes for children is remarkable for its cruelty. The children were subjected to abominable treatment. In addition to the sexual abuse, physical and psychological abuse was also widespread. Stories are emerging that a bishop who is pope Ratzinger’s friend routinely slapped, punched, and beat with a carpet beater children who lived in a church-run home in order ‘to drive Satan out of them’. The gripping film The Magdalene Sisters, based on a true story about an actual home for ‘wayward’ girls run by the church in Ireland, details one such institution. You cannot see that film and not be horrified at what was done to those young women.
The famous study by Philip Zimbardo of simulated prison conditions showed how perfectly ordinary students at Stanford University, given total and unaccountable power over fellow students, quickly descended to committing acts of sadism and barbarism. It was so bad that they study had to be aborted after a few days. Priests and nuns given similar authority over young children seem to follow the same pattern, except it was worse because priests and nuns had that kind of unchecked power over their charges for decades.
Ratzinger seems to be remarkably tone-deaf on how to deal with this fast-expanding scandal. The Vatican has tried (again) to blame the media, suggesting that there is a conspiracy to discredit him. In a recent sermon Ratzinger even referred to the allegations as “petty gossip”. Accusations of child abuse and rape by priests and cover-ups by the church is petty gossip? Incredible. It seems as if the Vatican has decided that it will try and ride out this scandal, just as it has done all the other scandals of the past and that people will eventually tire of the story and move on to other things. The sermon by his personal preacher comparing the criticisms of Ratzinger to anti-Semitism has simply added to the impression that the Vatican is completely out of touch with reality.
Ratzinger has a history of obtuseness of this kind. You might recall that within the past year, when some clergy and laity in the Anglican Church expressed strong dissatisfaction with their own church’s tolerance of women and gay clergy in their ranks, the pope invited them to convert to Catholicism, leading to considerable derision. It seemed as if he was saying that the most intolerant people in other religions would find a welcoming home in the Catholic Church.
One cannot help thinking that the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was indulging in some payback when he said that with this scandal, the Catholic Church has lost all credibility
The church hierarchy at the highest levels has consistently reacted to abuse allegations by trying to protect the interests of the church at the expense of the victims, by keeping the misdeeds secret. Evidence of this policy was recently revealed in a 2001 letter written by Ratzinger instructing bishops to keep abuse cases confidential, which the bishops interpreted as meaning that they should not report the abuse to the police and thus encouraged the obstruction of justice.
In his letter, Ratzinger reinforced the instructions in a confidential 1962 document that newspapers have obtained from a secret Vatican archive that required all people involved in abuse cases, even the victims, to maintain strict secrecy on pain of excommunication. As the London Guardian newspaper reports:
The instructions outline a policy of ‘strictest’ secrecy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and threatens those who speak out with excommunication.
They also call for the victim to take an oath of secrecy at the time of making a complaint to Church officials. It states that the instructions are to ‘be diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia [Vatican] as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published nor added to with any commentaries.’
Bishops are instructed to pursue these cases ‘in the most secretive way… restrained by a perpetual silence… and everyone… is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office… under the penalty of excommunication’.
This document was issued under the seal of Pope John XXIII, whom I had always thought of as ‘the good pope’ who seemed, unlike other popes, to not be a mere political operator and was someone who opened up the church to all manner of positive reforms. It shows how deeply to the core the corruption and secrecy has penetrated, where the first instinct is to protect the church and not seek justice or even show compassion for the victims. Dealing with the needs and suffering of the actual victims seems to have been the last thing on their minds. By keeping everything under wraps and merely moving priests around instead of prosecuting them in civil courts and kicking them out if found guilty, the actions of the abusive priests are now seen as being tolerated by the church.
The church has responded by saying that priests have the right to the presumption of innocence, and that the public airing of charges before they have been investigated and found to be credible should be avoided. It is true that false allegations of sexual abuse can be devastating and we should bear in mind the massive injustices perpetrated on day-care providers a decade or so ago when there was an epidemic of abuse allegations based on so-called ‘repressed memories’ of children, many of which later turned out to be false memories planted in their minds by the alleged experts who were getting the children to ‘recall’ them.
So the rights of priests against possible false allegations should be protected. But there is no reason why priests should have any more rights than any other person accused of a similar crime. When allegations of abuse are raised against priests, the civil authorities should be immediately notified, just as they are in all other cases. When people are threatened by the church with excommunication if they speak out to others, then it is clear that the church is trying to protect itself and not merely ensuring due process for priests or protecting the victims. It is clear that the church is demanding greater rights for itself than for other people and is aggrieved when that demand is questioned. (See the Jesus and Mo cartoon.)
Next: Should the pope resign?
POST SCRIPT: Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher on the scandal