The Catholic Church has a 2000-year history of surviving scandals and it will survive the latest appalling revelations of its cover-up of cases of paedophilia amongst priests.
This scandal has been around for several years but has gained new notoriety as it has moved from country to country. It’s become clear that not only did church authorities know about the abuse but that they swept it under the carpet. Paedophile priests were shifted from parish to parish where they often continued their child abuse. In cases revealed this past week at least 30 such priests were transferred from the US to places such as Asia or South America where the offending in many cases continued.
It’s the same attitude as drug companies which ship substandard medicine to unsuspecting third world countries. The church avoided further abuse of white boys in middle class American parishes by shifting the problem to brown children in the third world.
The church hierarchy would like us to see the problem as a small group of rogue priests and as part of a wider societal problem rather than a church problem.
There are elements of truth in both explanations but the church’s several decades of cover-up is unforgiveable. The instinct to protect the institution was much stronger than the desire to seek justice for the victims or prevent further abuses. It saw the offending as sins needing God’s forgiveness rather than crimes deserving trial and punishment.
The pope himself has now been drawn into the debate with accusations that in 1980 he approved a placement for a paedophile priest who went on to abuse elsewhere and that he reportedly dragged his feet over defrocking a paedophile priest while he held a senior position at the Vatican.
But if we think any of this will result in fundamental change within the church then we should think again. The church hierarchy has acknowledged there is a serious problem but have produced nothing in the way of a comprehensive plan to address the issues. Instead it is showing signs of getting fed up with the constant criticism and is planning a push back with a huge gathering of clergy in Rome in June. In the meantime the cardinal described as the pope’s right-hand man, Tarcisio Bertone, last week made a crude attempt to deflect criticism onto homosexuals by claiming a link between paedophilia and homosexuality. It was a particularly nasty comment which says more about the homophobic attitudes which dominate church thinking than anything else.
The church will survive these latest revelations because as an institution it has adapted through the centuries by aligning itself with the rich and powerful.
When I was growing up in the 1960s the church looked like it might align itself with the poor and the oppressed. The context was the rise of newly-independent third world countries and a fresh energy injected into world affairs at the United Nations where poverty and exploitation were words gaining ground. In 1960 Pope John 23rd was elected in Rome and called just the second Vatican Council together to rejuvenate and realign the church with the gospel message of social justice. His successor Pope Paul 6th continued this thrust and across the third world in particular more priests and church authorities began to speak out for the poor and dispossessed. This was most notably in Central and South America where liberation theology was gaining ground and resulting in church figures finding themselves in active opposition to brutal military regimes being propped up by the US. The Vatican didn’t lead this movement but tolerated it until the right-wing of the church reasserted control.
With the death of John Paul 1 the conservatives regained power and the church once more reverted to what critics cheekily call the “pie in the sky when you die” theology. The unsaid message was the poor should accept their lot and simply aim for personal salvation. Here in New Zealand the Catholic Commission for Justice and Development led by visionary Christchurch priest Father John Curnow was gradually sidelined and then abolished by church authorities. Siding with the poor and the oppressed was OK for Jesus Christ but not for the purveyors of power at the Vatican.
The current pope was one of those who actively worked against the church siding with the poor. He was happy to give lip service of opposition to human rights abuses by US-backed military regimes while supporting the church’s active involvement in overthrowing the so-called communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
There are still many good people within the church today but it is run by deeply conservative forces in tune with capitalism and the corporate sector.
Last week a church official made a statement forgiving the beetles for John Lennon’s infamous comment that the Beatles were “more popular that Jesus” while other church spokespeople were giving the message that through its practices in the predator priest scandal, the church is more important than the teachings of its founder.