The lawless church

2010-03-25 00:00

THE Biblical formula “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is generally taken to mean that people should recognise the authority of the state in secular matters, but that is not necessarily what Jesus meant by it. It is certainly not the current practice of the Roman Catholic Church, although the rule in modern democracies is very clear: the law applies equally to everyone, even priests.

It’s more than two decades since evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy began to surface in the United States, Canada and Ireland, and still the revelations continue. A “tsunami” of allegations of child abuse in Catholic schools and orphanages is spreading from Ireland across the rest of Europe, and at the same time the extent of the cover-up is becoming clearer. Even the Pope may have been involved.

The priests who abused and raped the children were individuals, and such people exist in other walks of life too. But the decision to cover up their crimes was a greater crime, for it was made by men whose main concern was protecting the reputation of the large organisation which they served, the Catholic Church. They were able to act as they did only because they believed, and still believe, that the church is above the law.

No other organisation makes this claim. Consider, for example, what would have happened if any other large organisation had discovered that some of its members were exploiting their positions and their power to have sexual relations with children. The organisation in question might be a welfare department, or a boarding school, or a long-term care centre for severely handicapped children. It could be in the U.S. or Chile or France. It makes no difference: the response would be the same.

The people in charge would immediately suspend the individual against whom the accusation has been made, so that he or she has no further contact with children until the matter has been fully investigated. If there was any actual sexual contact, they would immediately report it to the police, because that is a criminal offence. Not to report it would be a criminal offence on the part of the managers, and they could go to jail.

Well, a lot of child sexual abuse has been going on in the Catholic Church, and offences of this sort have been coming to the attention of the abusers’ superiors on a quite frequent basis for decades now. What did they do about it?

They hushed it up. They tried to swear the child victims and their parents to silence, exploiting their loyalty to the church. They moved the paedophile priests to other schools or institutions where they generally still had contact with children, perhaps after some perfunctory “therapy”, perhaps not. And they didn’t report them to the police.

A few of the worst offending priests did go to jail in the end, but that was usually because those cases got beyond the church’s control. And no bishop, cardinal or pope went to prison for his part in this massive cover-up of grave crimes.

This is the really shocking thing about this scandal: not the evil actions of some priests, not even the fact that the church was more concerned to protect those men than their victims, but the sheer contempt for secular law that permeates the entire Catholic hierarchy.

At a relatively low level, you can see it in the ignorant remarks of Monsignor Maurice Dooly, one of Ireland’s leading experts in canon law, who explained to Irish radio last week why priests did not have to report child abuse to the police. “Priests are not auxiliary policemen,” he said. “They do not have an obligation to go down to the police.” But they do: they are Irish citizens, and that is the law in Ireland.

Even Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t get it. In fact, he especially doesn’t get it. In 2001, when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a letter to Catholic bishops around the world instructing them to report all abuse cases to his office at the Vatican for confidential handling.

This was taken by most bishops as meaning that they should not report abuse cases to the police. Vatican sources now claim that that’s not what Ratzinger really meant by his letter, but they would say that now, wouldn’t they? His more recent statements and writings as pope certainly suggest that he still doesn’t understand that bishops and even cardinals must obey the laws of the country they live in.

As a head of state, Pope Benedict XVI is now truly above the law, so he need not fear the policeman’s knock at the door. But there are still many priests who committed horrendous crimes but have been protected by the church. There are also a good many bishops who should face trial for covering up those crimes, but it will never happen. A dog collar is as good as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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