The rumors about the priests were always there. The first one I heard said that one of the priests of my parish was a little too close to the rectory housekeeper, although proof was never offered. The rumors accelerated at the all boys prep high school run by the Jesuits that I attended. How many of the rumors were due to boys questioning their own sexual identities versus the priests pursuing theirs remains unclear a quarter century later. I can state for a fact that I was taught by gay priests, but that doesn’t make them pedophiles and given the gravity of the charge I am leery of saying that my high school was some pedophile’s dream. If it was I never saw it, but the rumors never disappeared.
It seems that the Catholic church has been under a cloud of suspicion since Sinead O’Connor stood up on Saturday Night Live on Oct 3, 1992 singing “War” and ripping a photograph of Pope John Paul II on live television. Americans went nuts destroying her records and pretty much ending her career on this side of the Pond. Her motive behind the performance was to protest the Catholic church’s stonewalling of pedophile scandals that were just beginning to surface in O’Connor’s native Ireland. O’Connor took the stage and thought the SNL audience and American public were familiar with the scandals, but she was wrong. It would take nearly a decade before the scandals erupted stateside, costing the church $2 billion in payments, tarnishing its reputation and threatening its existence.
Since then the scandals have continued and now threaten the legitimacy of the current pope Benedict XVI. Documents are surfacing that allege the pontiff as Cardinal in 2001 wrote a directive ordering cases of child molestation be kept secret. Worse, the pope is being accused of shuttling a known pedophile from one parish to another while Archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982. The Vatican has asserted that the secrecy directive was nothing more than some bureaucratese that didn’t exclude reporting of pedophiles to the police; a former deputy to the pontiff has fallen on his miter and accepted responsibility for the shuttling of the child molester.
These excuses ring should ring hollow to anyone who is familiar with politics, especially hierarchical non-democratic bureaucratic institutions. First, the directive fits with the Wall of Silence the Roman Catholic church has employed over the decades when faced with accusations of priestly misconduct. Secondly, underlings regularly contact their bosses when they find trouble. It’s basic CYA. This behavior eventually lead to Nixon in Watergate 37 years ago, and it threatens Pope Benedict today. Similar questions could even be raised. What did Benedict known and when did he know it? Luckily for the Pontiff, as the head of a non-democratic sovereign state there is no way for him to be impeached nor even a public inquiry be launched to force the Vatican to divulge its records.
The problem goes way beyond one pope, though. For 1,400 years the church has demanded priestly celibacy. Although couched in Scripture, the likely reason behind this demand was the consolidation of wealth. If priests had children, they would inherit wealth, not the Church. The vow of celibacy was not about sex, it was about the preservation of money and power. For most of its history the vow begot countless bastards, as priests, bishops and even popes ignored it; but from Rome’s viewpoint these illegitimate children didn’t matter. They had no property rights and were therefore not a threat to the Church’s wealth. Things would have continued well had there not arisen an uppity and dour-faced German priest named Martin Luther.
The Protestant Reformation exposed the hypocrisy of the Church’s actions, and ever since the church has struggled to reconcile its teachings with its behavior. Instead of ending the celibacy requirement during the Reformation, the church clung to it and created a culture of secrecy and lies to hide its failures. Such a culture became the perfect ally for men who desired sex with children. This culture would remain if the Pope decreed that those within the holy orders could marry, so repealing the canonical laws demanding a celibate clergy would not end the sexual abuse scandals. I’m not sure how this culture can be destroyed without taking the church with it.
And that’s the problem Roman Catholics face today. Their church has become so rotten over the ages that it is difficult to know where to begin to fix it. As an ex-Catholic and Benedict XVI supporter myself, I am disappointed to learn the truth about the church and its leadership. I long ago turned my back on my religion even though I continue to appreciate the Catholic heritage that has brought great beauty into this world and brought solace and hope to the faithful. But what can the faithful due today to reform their church?
A church document bearing then Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature resisting the defrocking of a known child molesting priest.