In an age where marriage and family are under vicious and unrelenting assault, the Roman Catholic Church’s zealous crusade in defense of these institutions appears impressive and praiseworthy.
On February 1, for example, Pope Benedict xvi tore into liberal politicians in Britain for trying to pass legislation that supposedly would protect homosexuals from discrimination. During a speech before 35 Catholic bishops from England and Wales, Benedict lambasted the immoral legislation and urged the bishops to work together to oppose it with “missionary zeal.”
One week later, the pope lectured the Pontifical Council for the Family on the importance of marriage to the wellbeing of children. “The family founded on marriage between a man and a woman is the greatest help that can be given to children,” he said. “Supporting the family and promoting its true good, its rights, its unity and stability is the best way to protect the rights and the real needs of children.” Four days later, Benedict reiterated this theme during a meeting with bishops visiting from Romania and Moldova. “The blossoming of priestly and religious vocations depends in good part on the moral and religious health of the Christian family,” Benedict stated (emphasis mine throughout).
To the conservative observer living amid an onslaught of moral relativism and liberalism, the Vatican’s willingness to tackle issues such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion is refreshing and reassuring. But there is a problem with this perception. It’s misleading.
As the pedophile scandal that has recently engulfed the Catholic Church reveals, this institution simply is not the bastion of traditional family values that millions believe it to be.
Pope Benedict xvi conducted two days of meetings with 24 bishops from Ireland in February. The topic of discussion was the sex scandal plaguing the Catholic Church in Ireland, details of which emerged last November with the release of the now infamous Murphy Report. Published by the Irish government, the three-volume report revealed an abominable tale of decades of physical and sexual abuse against children by Catholic clergy—and the plot to conceal the heinous offenses by a multitude of high-ranking Catholic officials.
Of course, this was merely another chapter in a sordid saga. The previous exposure of this problem that has long dogged the church occurred in 2002. At that time, Pope John Paul ii was forced to meet with church leaders in the United States after dozens of stories surfaced showing that pedophile priests had been at work for decades in congregations across the country.
As it turned out, the decision to discuss the Irish scandal publicly opened the floodgates for a gush of victims across Europe, and the world, to “open up” about their abuse at the hands of perverted Catholic priests. By April, the scandal had turned into a full-blown crisis that began to engulf the entire church, including Pope Benedict and the Vatican.
In Germany, reports surfaced of hundreds of children being sexually abused by more than 100 priests and Catholic lay members. “After years of suppression,” Spiegel wrote, “the wall of silence appears to be crumbling” (February 8). Even the pope himself became embroiled in the crisis in Germany when it emerged that a priest known to be abusive had worked in a Munich diocese in the 1980s while Benedict was archbishop there. In April, when the Catholic Church initiated a phone hotline in Germany—via which victims could report crimes and seek counseling—it reportedly melted down after being overwhelmed with calls.
As victims emerged from the woodwork in Germany, hundreds of others began coming forward elsewhere in Europe—in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. Soon the church’s reputation became a question of fierce international debate as media outlets, religious pundits and ordinary citizens weighed in on the rapidly unraveling scandal. “The child sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic priesthood—and the worldwide cover-up that seems, at least indirectly, to have involved Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he was elevated to the papacy—has embarrassed the Catholic Church and angered parishioners,” noted Newsweek (March 30).
As the crisis exploded and reports continued to surface of abuses being habitually covered up by Catholic authorities, criticism against the church and the Vatican intensified. Some even began to demand Benedict’s resignation. In America, the National Catholic Reporter demanded the “Holy father … directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role” in the cover-up of reports of the sexual abuse of children when he was archbishop of the Munich diocese (1977-82) and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005).
Pope Benedict xvi has reached a crossroads, veteran Vatican journalist Marco Politi told the New York Times. “What’s extraordinary is that the scandal has reached the heart of the center of the church. Up to now it was far away—in the States, in Canada, in Brazil, in Australia. Then it came to Europe, to Ireland. Then it came to [Germany]. Then it came to his diocese, and now it’s coming to the heart of the government of the church—and he has to give an answer,” he said (March 25).
The Vatican’s Answer
Though Catholic leaders delivered the requisite public apologies and statements to the abuse victims, their general reaction has been calculated and stolid.
When Benedict learned of the findings of the Murphy Report in Ireland, he reacted with surprise and disgust. In a press statement last December, he said he shared the “outrage, betrayal and shame felt by so many of the faithful in Ireland.” In March, he issued a letter in which he stated to victims in Ireland, “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.”
As the pool of victims got deeper, Benedict and the Vatican continued to issue statements and deliver public prayers empathizing with the pain and suffering of the victims. But many observers remained unconvinced of the Vatican’s repentance. Regarding the talks between Benedict and his Irish cardinals in February, Mike Ion observed in the Guardian that they “were at best missed opportunity and at worst a mere public relations exercise” (February 17).
The truth in this assessment is evident if you read the Vatican’s official statement released after the meeting. Though the document possessed enough of a tone of grief to speak to the widespread demand that the Vatican voice a stronger opinion on this issue, it was nothing more than platitudes. The Vatican was careful not to admit an iota of complicity. The self-serving statement was actually written to distance the Vatican from the despicable conduct of its representatives in Dublin.
Take this little bromide: “Together they [Benedict and the Irish bishops] examined the failure of Irish church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing with cases involving the sexual abuse of young people .…” Of course “Irish church authorities” failed to deal with these heinous crimes—but what about the Vatican’s failure to investigate the disgusting stories that dripped for years out of Ireland?
As the scandal widened to include victims in Germany and beyond, Benedict and the Vatican reacted in much the same way. While it issued sweet-sounding words of empathy and comfort to the victims of abuse, and even some strong condemnation of the abusing priests, the Vatican never explicitly recognized and apologized for its own culpability.
Put simply, the Vatican has yet to show itself truly repentant!
Slow to Act
As the crisis continues, objective viewers are realizing that few if any sincere and tangible acts of repentance are coming from the Vatican. Pope Benedict possesses many of the tools required to purge the sexual deviates from the church’s midst. The Vatican has the intelligence infrastructure to lead robust, efficient and transparent investigations into allegations of sex abuse when they arise. Instead of merely condemning perverted priests, or retiring them, or transferring them to another parish, Benedict could severely punish them. More importantly, as the ultimate authority in the Catholic Church, Benedict can enact policies that would protect his flock from such ravenous wolves.
Yet the Vatican has been slow in each and every one of these actions!
Supporters of the Vatican argue that Benedict’s reach into Catholic congregations in countries like Ireland, America and Germany is limited. We are told that most dioceses are largely independent of the Vatican and operate with little direction and assistance from headquarters. Don’t buy it. Since he became pope in 2005, Benedict has proven remarkably adept at tackling national politicians and policies that don’t gel with Catholic doctrine or Vatican ambition. Throughout its history, the Vatican has proven itself willing and capable of bringing down governments, shaping national policies, destroying careers, and confronting and undermining competing religions and ideologies.
Moreover, if the Vatican really wanted to protect and nurture children, it would be acting on this issue energetically and forcefully to ensure such crimes never happen again!
The Catholic Church might promote itself as the bastion of family values and morality. But that message has been radically undermined by the nearly constant surfacing of sordid sex crimes by Catholic leaders. Moreover, the Vatican’s halfhearted approach to these scandals is a sign that despite marketing itself as a defender of marriage and family, this institution is merely another broken religion incapable of curing the evil human heart.
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