The paedophile priest scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002 when many leaders of the Catholic archdiocese were found to have moved priests who abused minors to new parishes instead of defrocking them or reporting them to authorities. The scandal then spread to almost every US Catholic diocese involving 4,400 priests and 11,000 children, abused between 1950 and 2002. It led to dozens of lawsuits, $2 billion in settlements and the defrocking, resignation and jailing of priests.
The clergy sex abuse crisis, once dismissed by church officials as a product of US anti-Catholicism and media hostile to the church, has begun sweeping the globe. Paedophile scandals have devastated the church in Ireland. Italy, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Australia and many others, the list of countries whose Catholic churches have seen their reputations hit by paedophile practices is long and getting longer. And the Pope himself has been implicated in the scandals, some of which occurred when he was Archbishop of Munich and some when he oversaw the treatment of paedophile reports at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005). In 2001, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a solemn document to all the bishops dealing with severe crimes (“epistula de delictis gravioribus”), in which cases of abuse were sealed under the “secretum pontificium”, the violation of which could entail grave ecclesiastical penalties.
Almost from the beginning of the coverage of clergy sexual abuse trials, it was clear the clergy sex abuse story had two consistent components: the abusing priest and the cover-up by the bishop. The story grew as more survivors of abuse came forward. What soon became evident was that this was not primarily a story of wayward priests, but of an uncannily consistent pattern by individual bishops. In nearly every instance, bishops, faced with accusations of child abuse, denied them, even as they shuffled priests to new parishes, even as they covered up their own actions. The story would repeat itself across the globe: Wherever documents were released or legal authorities conducted investigations, the depth of clerical depravity and the extent of hierarchical cover-up were far greater than previously acknowledged by church authorities.
Geoffrey Robertson – The Case of the Pope
What has made a bad situation worse, argues the leading international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC in his book The Case of the Pope, is canon law – the church’s own arcane, highly secretive legal system, which deals with alleged child abusers in a dismayingly mild manner rather than handing them over to the police. Its “penalties” for raping children include such draconian measures as warnings, rebukes, extra prayers, counselling and a few months on retreat. It is even possible, Roberston suggests, to interpret canon law as claiming that a valid defence for paedophile offences is paedophilia. Since child abusers are supposedly incapable of controlling their sexual urges, this can be used in their defence. One blindingly simple reason for the huge amount of child abuse in the Catholic church (on one estimate, up to 9% of clerics are implicated) is that the perpetrators know they will almost certainly get away with it.
For almost a quarter of a century, the Pope was in supreme command of this parallel system of justice – a system deliberately hidden from the public, police and parliaments and run, so Robertson maintains, in defiance of international law. Those who imagine that the Vatican has recently agreed to cooperate with the police, he points out, have simply fallen for one of its cynical public relations exercises. In the so-called “New Norms” published by Pope Benedict in 2010, there is still no instruction to report suspected offenders to the civil authorities, and attempting to ordain a woman is deemed to be as serious an offence as sodomising a child. There have, however, been some changes: victims of child abuse are now allowed to report the matter up to the age of 38 rather than 28.
Inexorably, a story that began with reports on trials in a few US cities a quarter century back has now moved up the Catholic institutional ladder – from priests to bishops to national bishops’ conferences and to the Vatican itself. This last step is the one we see emerging today. The new focus is unlikely to end anytime soon. The focus now is on Pope Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew? The questions arise not only about his conduct in Munich, but also as head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Hans Kung, the renowned Catholic theologian and a former colleague of Pope Benedict at Tubingen University, wrote an open letter to the world’s bishops in 2010. In it he observes that the church “now finds itself in the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation”.
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