Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Extend the Rule of Law to the Catholic Church

Some ten months ago, Head Down Eyes Open posted a blog about the dark shame of systematic abuse in modern day Ireland as perpetrated by the Catholic Church. This was based on an exhaustive investigation that culminated in the some 5000 page Ryan Commission Report. Despite much deflective actions by the accused, the issue of child rape will not disappear as conveniently as some might want. On the heels of more disturbing revelations that reach to the heights (or depths) of the Vatican, head down eyes-opener Sean Deeley posts a reasonable plea to investigate perpetrators of such serious abuse.

In April 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became a candidate for the highest office in the Catholic Church, much was made of his past links to the Nazis, including his brief membership of the Hitler Youth and service in a Wehrmacht anti-aircraft unit protecting a factory whose workforce included slaves from Dachau concentration camp. His wartime service and his deeply conservative reign as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – where he was criticized for “theological anti-Semitism” and a series of reactionary positions on women, AIDS and homosexuality – raised questions about the appropriateness of the Vatican’s role in modern society.

Indeed, the sight of the Roman Catholic Church locking the door of the Sistine Chapel on its 115 eligible Cardinals to elect a new Pope and spiritual leader for the world’s one billion Catholics evoked a sense of wonder about concepts such as transparency, equality, democracy and justice in the 21st Century.

8000 years of celibacy
One hundred and fifteen men – the vast majority between the ages of 70 and 80 years – with a collective experience of over 8,000 years of celibacy (or so we were led to believe), sitting down to pick one old man to provide global moral guidance in a world where women are disproportionately affected by the worst problems facing humanity. In Africa, where a growing number of people look to the Catholic Church for direction, it is women who bear most of the burden of extreme poverty, are more susceptible to infection with HIV/AIDS and now constitute a majority of the infected population; women who must care for the sick and the dying, walk further and carry more – whether it is water, or wood-fuel, or crops – as a result of climate change and environmental degradation; and women who suffer most because of lack of access to education, health services and protection.

Peddling lies about contraception
Membership of the Catholic Church is growing in Africa, where 15 percent of the total population – roughly 135 million people – have been born into or convinced to convert to Catholicism. In 2008, UNAIDS reported that Africa also remains the region most heavily affected by AIDS, accounting for 67 percent of all people living with HIV (22 million people) and for three quarters of all AIDS deaths in 2007. Almost 2 million Africans became infected with the disease in 2007. Globally, 35% of HIV infections and 38% of AIDS deaths in 2007 happened in Southern Africa where roughly one fifth of the population is Catholic. Lesotho – whose population is 70 percent Catholic – has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world at 23.2 percent. In Mozambique where one person in four is Catholic, the epidemic continues to grow—exceeding 20 percent in some central and southern zones of the country.

According to UNAIDS up to ten times more girls than boys aged between 15 and 19 are infected. Many older girls and young women are coerced into having sex with older men as a result of cultural and social pressures. Women are particularly vulnerable due to widespread cultural and social factors which limit their ability to negotiate safe sex, either by refusing sex or by insisting on the use of a condom. Their plight has been worsened by the Catholic Church’s position on the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection: condom use is condemned by the Vatican as part of the “intrinsic evil of contraception”. In 2003, the World Health Organization denounced statements by the Vatican telling people not to use condoms to prevent AIDS because they have tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass. WHO said: "These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million."

In 2005, it was already clear that the “election” of another septuagenarian aficionado of the Billings Method offered little prospect of advance for the world’s most deprived women. In 1987 Ratzinger had responded to a proposal for education on the use of condoms in an AIDS-prevention campaign calling it “the facilitation of evil". In 2008, 60 Catholic groups wrote an open letter urging him to reverse the Vatican's opposition to contraception which they said "exposes millions of people to the risk of contracting the AIDS virus". His response, during his first papal visit to Africa in 2009, was to claim that the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection actually aggravates the problem, sparking outrage among health agencies trying to stem the spread of the disease.

Protecting child abusers
A widening child sex-abuse scandal in Europe now looks likely to raise further questions about Ratzinger’s suitability to act as a moral beacon for the 1 billion Catholics around the world. In recent weeks, he has been implicated in the Church’s failure to protect children who were being subjected to unspeakable horrors at the hands of Catholic priests who were supposed to protect and care for them. As Archbishop of the Diocese of Munich and Freising in 1980, Ratzinger reviewed the case of Father Peter Hullermann, accused of sexually abusing boys, including forcing an 11-year-old to perform oral sex. Ratzinger approved a proposal to transfer Hullerman to Munich, allowing him to return to full pastoral duties shortly afterward – and to find new child victims. The pope is also accused of intervening to prevent the dismissal of Reverend Lawrence Murphy who is reported to have sexually abused 200 particularly vulnerable young boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin where he was responsible for their care.

References in a New York Times report to correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin to Ratzinger warning that failure to take action against Murphy could undermine the moral authority of the Church are chillingly reminiscent of correspondence to Pope Pius XII during the Second World War imploring him to speak out against the killing of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. In September 1942, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, warned Pius that Jews were being massacred in frightening proportions and forms. When Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican, subsequently warned the Pope that his silence was endangering his moral standing, he was told that it was impossible to verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews. Yet Pius was already well aware of what was happening: in 1942 Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna told Pius about Jewish deportations, and a year later the pope’s Slovakian Chargé d'Affaires reported to Rome that Slovakian Jews were being systematically deported and sent to death camps.

As head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith between 1981 and 2005 Ratzinger was also well aware of what was happening to tens of thousands of young children who were being sexually abused by Catholic clergy. He was responsible for Vatican investigations into sex abuse between 2001 and 2005. Observers are asking how many of these abuse cases were reported to civil and criminal authorities? And where is the line between the Vatican’s insistence on secrecy and passive collusion in these cases – between cover-up and complicity?

Corrupt Culture of Cover Up
This is the question which Cardinal Seán Brady - head of the Catholic Church in Ireland - is also facing, amid increasing calls for a police investigation to determine whether he committed a criminal offense in 1975 when he failed to report sexual abuse by the notorious pedophile Reverend Brendan Smyth. Instead of informing police about the crimes, Brady and other clergy responsible for the enquiry covered up Smyth’s crimes, forcing a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old who had testified against Smyth at a Church enquiry to sign secrecy oaths. Smyth later admitted to molesting and raping about 100 children in Ireland and the United States and was convicted and jailed. Many of these offenses were committed after the abuse enquiry that Brady was involved in.

Brady admits now that he should have done more, but says he had been following orders from his superiors at the time. He may be satisfied that this line of defense relieves him of any responsibility to Smyth’s victims, but it didn’t work at the Nuremberg Trial of the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust, and it remains to be seen whether or not it would wash with a jury of his peers.

Similar questions are also being asked about the role of the Vatican in suppressing information about pedophile priests and clergy in different countries. Were these decisions to cover up sex abuse taken in consultation with – or under the direction of – the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or the pope himself? Concern is rising over reports that only a small proportion of cases are ever given full church trials and that even fewer result in priests being defrocked. The same questions about transparency, democracy, equality and justice that marked Ratzinger’s election to the papal office continue to raise doubts about the appropriateness of the Vatican’s place in modern society.

Systematic Suppression of Truth
But while it is difficult to reconcile the Church’s claims about compassion and love with its institutionalized protection of its pedophile personnel and its suppression of the truth, it is incomprehensible that the people who facilitated this evil can be allowed to remain in positions of authority and responsibility within the Church. Surely the criminal justice authorities in modern, democratic countries cannot be satisfied that the Church has been made subject to the law while the individuals who suppressed evidence, swore victims and witnesses to silence, and facilitated the repetition of their crimes remain in office? Unless these officials are investigated and held legally accountable for their actions, the Rule of Law cannot be said to hold sway over the Catholic Church and there will be clergy who feel that they can continue to rape and abuse children with impunity, and officials who will continue to cover up their crimes.



  1. Dear Sean, This is a fascinating, but disturbing read. How the hell have they got away with it for so long ? Keep up the investigative writing guys. Bob

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  4. Bob, we ahve to ask ourselves the same question. How the f did they get away with it? A culture of compliance and abuse and being stamped on and acceptance of victimisation can only account for a part of it. It was the clergy that was screwing us, now it's the bankers. Those with privileged places in irish society can do what they want, it seems. Deny child abuse, bury their heads in the sand and their noses in the trough. Time for some sort of revolution.

  5. Nice coincidence. To post the comment I had to type UNSANCT!!