Multimedia, Politics

The Sins of the Fathers and Brothers

The Sins of the Fathers and Brothers

After a few weeks of public humiliation, the Roman Catholic Church is now effectively having to choose its corporate model: will it be Toyota or the makers of Tylenol?

Over the past few months the Catholic Church has been at the sharp end of appalling charges that it condoned or ignored decades of child abuse at the hands of the very priests it had placed in positions of authority over children or responsibility for their religious education – in Ireland, America, Germany, Austria and a growing number of other nations as well.

To respond to these charges, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal priest, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, used his Good Friday sermon of all places to assert that investigative journalists digging into charges of priestly paedophile abuses were the functional equivalent of the anti-Semitism that had fuelled the Holocaust. Really? How has the church been so wrong-footed so quickly, and how should the church move forward from this fiasco?

These questions go to the heart of the Catholic Church’s structure and governance – as well as its relationship to temporal authority and law. This is a church, after all, that has been arguing since its “investiture controversy” in the 12th century over whether kings or cardinals should have the right to select its bishops. Put another way, as a result of that struggle it had effectively asserted and gained the right to run its own affairs without the intervention of outside temporal authorities.

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI looks on as he leads the Easter mass in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Reuters.

Built right into the fibre of the Catholic Church, or, indeed into any religious congregation, is the need to inculcate the religion’s values and ideals in future generations. But, from its early days the Catholic Church has also insisted its priests be both celibate and male to ensure they are its true spiritual leaders. In contemporary times, however, these same requirements have made it increasingly hard to recruit and to hold its pastoral cadre. While most other religions permit or even encourage their leaders to marry to be at one with society, and an increasing number of religions accept female religious personnel, the Catholic Church has remained steadfast in its approach. Managing this cadre and its behaviour has become increasingly difficult in the current era.

Moreover, the Catholic Church also continues to assert its authority to manage its flock, its doctrine, and, crucially, its right to discipline its priests in accordance with its own canonical laws and codes, rather than accede to those potentially irritating temporal authorities. As documents related to these child abuse cases now appear to demonstrate, the church generally reassigned priests guilty of sexual abuse of the children, rather than discipline them firmly within the church’s structures or turn them over to criminal authorities outside the church when behaviour was clearly criminal. Still worse for the church, however, is that a growing number of these documents point to the Vatican office of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as the place where too many of these cases went to languish – although no documents so far show Ratzinger himself acted to quash any investigations.

As The Economist argued recently, “As in so many scandals, the cover-up compounds the original sin. The guilty secrets of the past must be flushed out…Today’s Catholic leaders might also recall that clerical abuses of power, defended by legalistic quibbling, greatly angered an itinerant preacher in Palestine two millennia ago.” Or, as one of the Watergate conspirators put it so memorably, “The cover-up is always worse than the crime.”

In the US, where they take a poll on everything, Benedict has gone from a disapproval rating in the low single digits to a place where one in four Americans say they disapprove of how he is handling his job as a spiritual leader.

Watch: PBS on Pope’s silence

Imagine how it would have come unstuck for a mythical company, let’s call it Worldwide Wickets International, if it emerged, after weeks of stunning revelations, that its senior managers had been sexually harassing hundreds of young interns and management trainees worldwide, treating them as a virtual harem. How had this been allowed to go on year after year, with nobody stopping it? 

Even worse, when confronted by filing cabinets’ worth of evidence, the company’s spokesman and personal advisor to the CEO insisted Worldwide Wickets would solve things in its own way – just as it had been doing for a long time. The company had, after all, had its origins in some centuries-old, legendary international trading ventures. The company spokesman argued that criticism of the its behaviour comprised an international witch-hunt that was equivalent to how racial, ethnic and religious minorities had been persecuted and hunted to their collective deaths historically. As a result, any criticism of the company was the moral equivalent of death camps.

Probably no real company making real things for real customers would be able to get away with this kind of arrogance for very long, but an organisation that is almost two millennia old and claims proprietary rights over the intangible regions of the soul – and claims to hold answers to fundamental questions of right and wrong – seems to be attempting that very thing. This is an organisation, after all, that is in it for the long, long haul – through wars, barbarian invasions, collapses of empires, plagues, famines and more.

Photo: The one that got arrested: Defrocked priest Paul Shanley, a central figure in the Boston Archdiocese clergy sex abuse scandal, is led from court in handcuffs following his sentencing in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachussetts, Tuesday February 15, 2005. Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison on Tuesday for his child rape conviction last week in one of the most high-profile cases to stem from a U.S. Catholic clergy abuse scandal. The judge also sentenced Shanley, 74, to 10 years probation after he is released. The Vatican defrocked Shanley in 2004, more than two decades after his superiors received complaints about the priest’s views on sex between men and boys. REUTERS/Charles Krupa

As things stand now, the church is suffering, not just from the impact of the charges themselves, but also from its seeming inability to come to grips with a generational change in attitude. Victims of sexual abuse by the priests are finally asserting their need to have their grievances about the abuse itself and church authorities’ failure effectively to deal with it addressed. As a result, by shifting paedophile priests from one community to another and sending the complaints through a process so complex and prolix very few priests were ever punished, the church has sought to protect its reputation rather than deal with the actual behaviour of some of its priests or with the damage such acts would cause its reputation over time – let alone its position as an international moral arbiter.

As these words are typed, it has just been reported that the US department of transportation announced its plans to seek the maximum allowable penalty, more than $16 million, against Toyota for failing to notify the government, promptly, about all those defective accelerator pedals in its vehicles. This is the largest civil penalty ever issued against an automaker by the government. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood says evidence shows Toyota knew of the problem with sticking pedals in September, but did not issue a recall until late in January.

Now, try to imagine the hue and cry if it were proved that Toyota had been allowing its cars to be driven around with potentially lethal, but correctable flaws for more than 40 years! By contrast, compare that to the experience of that other product, Tylenol, several decades ago, when it was discovered that some containers had been tampered with by a person or persons unknown. Regardless of who actually caused the problem, its manufacturer immediately recalled every container, destroyed all the recalled products and then restocked shelves with some much improved, tamper-proof packaging – earning, in the process, a level of consumer loyalty that remains strong up to the present.

The Roman Catholic Church is continuing to sail into some very dangerous waters. What it does in the coming months to demonstrate that it now finally “gets it” about its moral hazards and how it chooses to address its crisis will show whether or not it can reclaim the international moral high ground.

Otherwise, the rot will almost certainly continue, its membership will continue to seep away in Europe and America and the church hierarchy will continue the same approach that has, so far, singularly failed.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read The Economist here and here, the New York Times here, here and here (on the church controversy as well as the new Toyota fine), the Washington Post, the AP, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC – and Wikipedia on the investiture controversy in the Middle Ages.

Main photo: Olibanum burns in front of a crucifix before a church service regarding recently revealed child abuse cases in the Roman Catholic church, in Vienna March 31, 2010. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bade


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