The Vatican and Paedophilia
Posted on 1-April-2010
Open, public controversies arising out of reports about Roman Catholic priests having indulged in paedophilia and other forms of child abuse have been around in the United States of America for some time. Even the resignation of an American Archbishop and an agreement by the church hierarchy there to pay monetary compensation to the victims did not definitively bury the controversy. Since then there have been reports of soft handling of complaints of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich when it was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and of a letter issued by the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was its Prefect, in which bishops had been advised to prevent such complaints becoming public. It was the breaking out of a huge outcry against child sexual abuse by priests in Ireland that prompted the Pope to offer an apology to his Irish flocks and to advise the church hierarchy to cooperate with the civil authorities if priests were charged with crime. Many wondered why the Pope had thus addressed only the Irish Church and not Catholics everywhere. Reports have surfaced about the Vatican not only not having acted on a bishop's recommendation for defrocking an American priest accused of sexual abuse of deaf children but having actually pardoned him his sins in response to his appeal. There have been reports of a paedophile priest who was sent to a psychiatric institution in the Archdiocese of Munich and then sent to a children's institution in the same area during the time Cardinal Ratzinger was its head. Questions--which are really irrelevant--about whether some of these actions of the Archdiocese of Munich or of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith happened with the personal knowledge of the Cardinal have been asked. The fact is that large numbers of people in any organisation--an Archdiocese, a Vatican department or for that matter the department of any other government tend to adopt the attitudes and the general outlook of the person heading it as their guiding principles. The Vatican has pulled itself together to show resoluteness in response to attacks from outside in the wake of these controversies over the treatment of pedophile priests. In it, as in other human organisations, the need to uphold its authority over its members transcends all other imperatives.
There is no doubt that these controversies will pass like many others in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church. But the criticisms caused by the Vatican's handling of complaints of sexual abuse by priests and its response to them point at some major faults in the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church, some of which it shares with other religious establishments. The first of these is specific to the Roman Catholic Church, which is the rule of celibacy of priests. The rule has been difficult to enforce at any time. In these modern times when anyone's senses, including those of priests, are constantly assailed by images of all kinds, above all images--in advertisements selling anything from a holiday in Maldives, a body lotion, a brand of Scotch whiskey or a new personal computer--of women as sex symbols, the vow of chastity is even more difficult to maintain. Paradoxically, in this age of greater sexual permissiveness than ever before, the media and the masses not only take undue, prurient interest in the sexual peccadilloes of politicians and other different people who set themselves up on pedestals, but also delight in getting into almost puritanical hysterias of condemnation. One wonders what would happen to a modern pope who had a mistress or two and had fathered some children--after all the type was not all that uncommon in the fourteenth, fifteenth or sixteenth century. It is more than probable that cases of priests falling from grace on matters of sex would have been very rare if they had been allowed to marry. But the Catholic Church just will not consider changing this rule despite so many practising Catholics having argued for it.
This is because the Vatican, like other religious establishments such as the Muslim ulema in many countries, resists change very energetically. It is interesting that a new convert to the Roman Catholic faith like Tony Blair talked not so long ago of the need for the Roman Catholic Church to change its attitudes towards gays. Under conservative popes like John-Paul II and Benedict XVI the resistance to change has increased. In fact the decision to revive the tridentine mass for common worship for anyone who chooses represents a kind of going back. It is inconceivable that in its present mood the Catholic Church will even in passing consider revising its teaching on birth control or abortion. Even in the case of an African Roman Catholic bishop more concerned with preventing the spread of AIDS and thus reducing the numbers dying from that disease than with strict adherence to the Church's teaching, Vatican would not at least partially condone his propagation of the use of condoms. Neither the fact that so many practising Roman Catholics ignore its teaching on birth control nor the fact that in very recent years people in two Catholic countries, Spain and Ireland have voted in referenda for the legalisation of abortion, would make the Vatican change its stand on these issues.
The advance of science and the spread of secular ideas has put every religion on the defensive. As a consequence there is a growing tendency in religious establishments everywhere towards a reaffirmation of faith and towards "preserving the purity" of doctrine. This is as true of the Hindu Right in India as of different Muslim clerical establishments in different countries as it is of the Roman Catholic Church. In the case of the Vatican which presides over the largest single clerical establishment in the world the desire to maintain authority and to reaffirm the creed becomes especially accentuated. But these tendencies are more signs of weakness than those of strength. G.K.Chesterton, who converted to Roman Catholicism in adult life and therefore out of conviction made a similar observation about the Vatican's promulgation of the Doctrine of Infallibility. While this doctrine granted infallibility only to ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope, it also seems to have inculcated in the Vatican hierarchy the mental habit of treating the Church itself as infallible. It is habits of this kind and the concern with maintaining authority above all that have led the Roman Catholic Church into its recent errors in the treatment of paedophile priests. If the Vatican does not address the underlying causes of these errors it is bound to fall into similar other ones in future. On present showing it does not seem it will do so.
The people who man religious establishments are made of the same flesh and blood as everyone else. Herein lies a lesson for other religious establishments too. There are two other lessons.The advance of science and the spread of secular ideas are unstoppable. So are consequent changes in the way people live and think. Religions are powerless in the face of such changes. The second is an even more general but more profound lesson. Human institutions which reject change perish.