Tear down the wall of silence in the Roman Catholic Church.

A wartime lexicon.
March 22 2010 12:15 PM

Tear Down That Wall

The Catholic priests who abused children—and the men who covered it up—must be prosecuted.

Also in Slate, Michael Sean Winters analyzes the pope's evolving response to the abuse scandal.

Pope Benedict. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI 

Here's a little thought experiment on practical ethics. Suppose that you are having a drink with a new acquaintance and the subject of law-breaking comes up. "Ever been in any trouble with the authorities?"

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

You may perhaps mention your arrest at a demonstration, your smuggling of excess duty-free goods, that brush with the narcotics people, that unwise attempt at insider trading. Your counterpart may show a closer acquaintance with the criminal justice system. He once did a bit of time for forgery, or for robbery with a touch of violence, or for a domestic dispute that got a bit out of hand. You are still perhaps ready to have lunch next Friday. But what if he says: "Well, I once knew a couple who trusted me as their baby sitter. Two little boys they had—one of 12 and one of 10. A good bit of fun I had with those kids when nobody was looking. Told them it was our secret. I was sorry when it all ended." I hope I don't seem too judgmental if I say that at this point the lunch is canceled or indefinitely postponed.

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And would you feel any less or any more revulsion if the man went on to say, "Of course, I wasn't strictly speaking in any trouble with the law. I'm a Catholic priest, so we don't bother the police or the courts with that stuff. We take care of it ourselves, if you catch my meaning"?

Yet this is exactly what we are forced to read about every day. The happiness and the health of countless children was systematically destroyed by men who could count on their clerical bosses to shield them from legal retribution and, it seems, even from moral condemnation. A bit of "therapy" or a swift change of locale was the worst that most of them had to fear.

Almost every week, I go and debate with spokesmen of religious faith. Invariably and without exception, they inform me that without a belief in supernatural authority I would have no basis for my morality. Yet here is an ancient Christian church that deals in awful certainties when it comes to outright condemnation of sins like divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality between consenting adults. For these offenses there is no forgiveness, and moral absolutism is invoked. Yet let the subject be the rape and torture of defenseless children, and at once every kind of wiggle room and excuse-making is invoked. What can one say of a church that finds so much latitude for a crime so ghastly that no morally normal person can even think of it without shuddering?

It's interesting, too, that the same church did its best to hide the rape and torture from the secular authorities, even forcing child victims (as in the disgusting case of Cardinal Sean Brady, the spiritual chieftain of the Catholics of Ireland) to sign secrecy oaths that prevented them from testifying against their rapists and torturers. Why were they so afraid of secular justice? Did they think it would be less indifferent and pliable than private priestly investigations? In that case, what is left of the shabby half-baked argument that people can't understand elementary morality without a divine warrant?

One mustn't claim all that much for secular justice either, since Cardinal Brady and many like him have neither been dismissed by the church nor prosecuted by the civil power. But this dereliction on the part of the courts and police has mainly occurred in countries or provinces—Ireland, Massachusetts, Bavaria—where the church has undue influence on the bureaucracy. When are we going to see what the parents and relatives of the devastated children want to see and need to see: a senior accomplice of the cover-up actually facing a jury?

Pope Benedict's pathetic and euphemistic letter to his "flock" in Ireland doesn't even propose that such people should lose their positions in the church. And this cowardly guardedness on his part is for a good and sufficient reason: If there was to be a serious criminal investigation, it would have to depose the pope himself. Not only did he, as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, protect a dangerously criminal priest in his own diocese of Munich and Freising in 1980, having him sent only for "therapy" instead of having him arrested. (The question of the priest's later reassignment to assault more children, which the church continues to obfuscate, is irrelevant to the fact of Ratzinger's direct and personal involvement in the original crime.) Not content with this, Ratzinger later originated, as a cardinal and head of a major institution in Rome, a letter that effectively instructed all bishops to refuse cooperation with any inquiry into what was fast becoming a global scandal.

Eighteen of Germany's 27 Roman Catholic dioceses are now facing government investigations after a breach in what Germany's justice minister has rightly described as "a wall of silence." That wall was originally constructed by the man who now heads the church. The wall must be torn down. The fish—the ancient Christian symbol adopted by those who regard human beings as a shoal to be netted—absolutely rots from the head. I don't think the full implications of this have even begun to sink in. The supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church is now a prima facie suspect in a criminal enterprise of the most appalling sort—and in the attempt to obstruct justice that has been part and parcel of that enterprise. He is also the political head of a state—the Vatican—that has given asylum to wanted men like the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. What, then, is the position when the pope decides to travel—as, for example, he intends to do on a visit to Britain later this year? Does he have immunity? Does he claim it? Should he have it? These questions demand serious answers. Meanwhile, we should register the fact that the church can find ample room in its confessionals and its palaces for those who commit the most evil offense of all. Whether prosecuted or not, they stand condemned. But prosecution must follow, or else we admit that there are men and institutions that are above and beyond our laws.

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