It is intriguing that when the topic here is the sexual abuse of children that some would like to silence or restrict that!!! Why is that?
Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in AustraliaThe Problems  |  The Solutions  |  Make a Submission  |  Petition  |  Statistics  |  International  |  Historical
 Site map   Johnb Print Friendly Email to a Friend

  Home :: 2006 October :: Once again, I'm ashamed to be a Catholic

After Panorama's damning attack on the Pope and the paedophile crisis within the Church, Peter Stanford, a leading Catholic writer, explains why the Vatican is still failing to tackle the crisis properly

There was a time, not so long ago, when to describe yourself as a Catholic was almost inevitably to invite a diatribe about the Pope stopping people using the Pill and condoms. Today, though, the Church's ban on contraception has been eclipsed by another more damaging accusation – official indifference to the sins of paedophile priests.


How could a Church founded on love and compassion have shown so little of either for children abused by clerics?

The crimes of clerics who prey on young boys and girls continue to cast a shadow over everything else the Church does. The details of the abusive behaviour are now familiar but repetition cannot take away their horror. So Sunday's Panorama, "Sex Crimes and The Vatican", made me once again ashamed to be Catholic.

Ashamed that our priests could so abuse the trust traditionally placed in them and their vocation. Ashamed that our bishops could take so much trouble to cover up their appalling activities and help the guilty avoid punishment. And ashamed that the same bishops, in a Church founded on love and compassion, could have shown so little of either for the children concerned.

Straight after the broadcast, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, wrote to MarkThompson, (Catholic) Director-General of the BBC, to complain that the programme was "deeply prejudiced".

For me, this reaction to seeing grown men weeping 20 years on at the memory of how they were repeatedly raped in presbytery bedrooms neatly sums up the Catholic hierarchy's continuing failure to understand the damage done by the paedophile priest scandal. Where the bishops regard giving airtime to unveil such crimes as an attack on the institution of the Church, the rest of us react with dismay and disbelief at so much misery caused in the name of God.

 Panorama tried to point the finger of blame for all this at Pope Benedict XVI. Dramatic and unsettling as the programme was, however, it attacked him on the wrong grounds. Its great revelation – that for years the Vatican had been issuing a secret document, Crimen Sollicitationes, telling bishops to hush up such cases by invoking the seal of the confessional – is hotly denied by the Church authorities.

The associated allegation – that the current Pope had, in the early Eighties, when he was a senior official under Pope John Paul II, endorsed this approach – also seemed a bit thin. But it did turn the spotlight on Benedict's record on this most crucial of issues. And it is not one to be proud of.

Since the programme went out Catholic leaders in this country have been queuing up to point out that they have now put in place strict guidelines that seek to make sure no child will ever suffer in such a fashion again. It may have been shutting the gate after the horse had bolted, but nevertheless the new regulations seem to be working well.

Indeed there is currently a lively debate going on in the pages of the Tablet, the Catholic weekly, about whether innocent clerics are being unfairly hauled out of their parishes on the basis of little more than malicious rumours about their over-fondness for altar servers.

But this isn't about what goes on in Britain. Benedict XVI leads a Church of 1.2 billion souls that covers the globe. The real question needs to be where, in this highly centralised, bureaucratic multinational, is the directive from the Pope ordering that there must be similar sets of procedures in every country where the Church operates?

No such ruling has been issued by him in his 18 months in office. As a result, while in the developed world priestly abuse of children is now being effectively tackled following numerous high-profile cases, in the developing world perverted clerics are still being moved from parish to parish by their bishops once complaints about their conduct are made by distraught parents.

One grandmother in central Brazil claimed on Panorama that her grandson was abused for more than five years by a priest. He seemed a kindly figure who had offered the boy guitar lessons. But the Catholic Church apparently knew he had already been forced out of four parishes in Sao Paulo because he was a suspected paedophile and that the police wanted to arrest him. The Catholic Church continues to operate as if it is a law unto itself.

Benedict's failure to give proper weight to this issue goes back a long way. When the first allegations about an official cover-up of widespread abuse of youngsters by priests in the Boston archdiocese in the United States began to appear in 2002, the then Cardinal Ratzinger was put in charge of handling the matter by an ailing John Paul II. The future Pope's first public reaction was to blame the whole thing on a planned campaign by the press.

Then he went on to claim that "the percentages of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps even lower". Priests, he said, were less likely to be abusers than the rest of the male population. Many authoritative studies show the opposite. One commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York by the American Catholic bishops put the number of abusers at between 2.5 per cent and 4.3 per cent among priests, compared with about one per cent in the general population.

However, by Easter 2005, standing in for a by now gravely ill John Paul II at his annual Good Friday talk, Cardinal Ratzinger had apparently changed his mind. He spoke of ''how much filth there is in the Church – even amongst the priesthood". He had reached such a conclusion, it was said, by spending every previous Friday for months reading through the files of paedophile priest cases from the United States as a kind of penance.

Yet all that reading does not seem to have changed his fundamental prejudice that the Church comes first and damaged children second. In May 2005, Benedict was praised for putting an end to the legal protection that the Vatican City State had long given Father Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a traditionalist religious order.

Despite reports going back many years about Fr Maciel's alleged sexual abuse of youngsters in his seminaries, John Paul II had treated him as an honoured guest in the Vatican, embracing him publicly while, in effect, refusing to honour international arrest warrants for him to face charges of rape and buggery.

By contrast Pope Benedict has disciplined Maciel. He has ordered the priest, now in his late 80s, never again to say mass or speak in public. But many of Maciel's alleged victims want to know why the man they accuse isn't going to appear in the dock of a court. Why should the Catholic Church deal with him by God's law not man's?

Their anger is compounded when they see others who have been accused of abuse – or conspiracy to cover-up abuse – living unchallenged within the walls of the Vatican. Cardinal Bernard Law, in whose American archdiocese so many paedophile priests were left free to prey on children for so long, was forced to resign his post in Boston, but continues to hold a sinecure position in the Vatican civil service and is said to retain some influence at the court of Benedict XVI.

The other supposedly "positive" action taken by Benedict came in November of last year when he banned those with ''deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from training for the priesthood. Quoted by his aides as evidence of Benedict's determination to tackle paedophile priests, it instead demonstrates his muddled thinking. The Pope is conflating homosexuality and paedophilia as if two adults wanting to have sex with each other is the same as an adult wanting to abuse a child.

The Vatican remains fond of sending out instructions to its bishops on the minutiae of Catholic life, even down to how priests should dress and what age their housekeeper should be. Yet its current policy of leaving it up to local initiatives how to tackle the most corrosive allegations to have faced the Church in modern times is a damning testimony to its continuing inability to realise quite how serious the crisis is.

And principal among those in a state of denial is Pope Benedict XVI himself. That is the real charge that needs to be laid at his door.

  • Peter Stanford is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald' and author of 'Why I Am Still A Catholic' (Continuum)

    Having a problem accessing a file or finding what you are looking for? Email us for a listing of alternate locations.

    Notify us of an article of interest

    Register to take part in secure International polls

    Publishing a story about TFYQA? - See our for the News Media page.

    Want to share your news! Use Submit TFYQA News.

    Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia