As today is Easter, and we are being encouraged to celebrate the absurd notion of the resurrection of a mythical Supreme Being (chocolate eggs and bunnies are a recent addition so as to offer a more enticing bribe to the young), supplications at the Vatican are being prominently covered. The usual deference of the media towards religious propaganda, however, is being tempered by allegations that Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) obstructed justice by attempting to cover up the sexual abuse of boys by catholic priests. In a letter to bishops in 2001, Benedict ordered that sexual abuse allegations be “subject to pontifical secret”, a breach of which could result in excommunication. The letter also demanded that initial investigations of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger’s office, which could choose to divert them to church tribunals where the “functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests” (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/apr/24/children.childprotection)
The most recent scandal involves documents that emerged in March 2010 showing that a secret canonical trial that could have resulted in Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy’s dismissal was halted after Murphy wrote a letter personally appealing to Ratzinger. Murphy is alleged to have molested as many as 200 boys, but he was never disciplined by the church; instead he was transferred to another diocese where he spent 24 years interacting with children. Although several American bishops raised the alarm about Murphy, correspondence shows that the highest priority of officials was in ensuring that the church was protected from scandal (www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/world/europe/25vatican.html). Benedict is also facing other criticisms that he did not alert civilian authorities about priests involved in sexual abuse when he was an archbishop in Germany.
These circumstances have led to a great deal of soul seaching within the catholic church. One of the most common responses, however, is to defend the church, claiming that the entire institution should not be judged on the basis of the actions of a few mouldy wafers. On CBC Newsworld today, for example, Neil MacCarthy, a representative of the Archdiocese of Toronto, compared paedophile priests to police officers, teachers and lawyers who abuse the public trust.
Arguments like those of MacCarthy show the extent of denial that exists in the catholic church. They ignore the systematic climate of secrecy and contempt for state authority that exists within the institution. It is apparent that the power wielded by the Vatican continues to enable church officials to envision themselves as being above the law. There is also the question of the extent to which Catholicism itself contributes to paedophilia within the institution. Unlike police officers, teachers and lawyers, the catholic church dictates that priests must be celibate. This stipulation ensures that the priesthood is likely to attract a higher proportion of sexual deviancy than would be present in the wider population.
One positive result of the growing scandal is that the power of the catholic church is weakening. The enormous power of the Vatican in global affairs is increasingly coming under scrutiny. But there still needs to be a recognition that the current “crisis” is not accidental; it is rooted in the irrationality and deference that superstition, Catholic or otherwise, demands.