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Press: Blame where blame is due

24 March 2010

by Andrew Brown

A ROMAN CATHOLIC friend of mine rang up last week in the middle of the Pope storm, and said: “Now I know what the Reformation felt like.” It was a salutary reminder that, in all the false or hysterical outrage, there was a hard core of real shock and shame. I think we have just watched the RC Church being stripped of a lot of its moral authority, and the process has been an instructive one.

But this was not a story of which the main­stream British papers can be proud. For most of them, this has been a story about the per­sonal responsibility of the Pope and the sinister part played by Vatican directives. There isn’t much evidence for either.

What little we know suggests that the Pope was not at all keen on handing anyone over to secular justice, and perhaps really believes that a life of solitude and prayer, without absolu­tion, is a greater penalty than a prison sen­tence. He is also known to have approved the treatment of an abusing priest from a neigh­bouring diocese when he was Archbishop of Munich & Freising. So he thought that paedo­­philes could be cured, and that the Church had a discipline of its own which could replace the secular state’s with no great harm done.

But it is also obvious that, when he grasped that there had been a problem, in about 2001, he worked with energy and a certain disregard for reputation to tackle it.

By far the best and subtlest study of him was John Hooper’s in The Guardian, under the head­line: “Is he a prophet or a reactionary?”, a question lifted from the best quote in the piece, from “a professional Vatican watcher who re­quested anonymity”:

“It would be interesting to know how he is viewed in a hundred years’ time. It will be either as a reactionary or a prophet. Benedict may be behind or ahead of his time, because one thing is certain — he certainly isn’t of his time.”

SIMILARLY unsubstantiated is the idea that there was a central Vatican directive (preferably written in Latin), which would enjoin secrecy on all participants in investigations into child abuse. This is such a wonderful story that al­most no one stops to ask whether it is true. In fact, it turns out that the document in ques­tion, written in 1922, was meant to be dis­tributed at the Second Vatican Council, but not enough copies were printed; so the project was aban­doned.

What has come to light, though, is a regula­tion that a woman who confesses that she has had an abortion can be absolved only with the permission of a bishop. The bishop is not to be troubled if a priest confesses that he has buggered a choirboy.

Nor were the bishops troubled: in the course of an illuminating interview reprinted on The Tablet’s website, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of these crimes says that his office did not have a single one reported to it be­tween 1975 and 1983. Since these were the years when most of the crimes now being re­ported are alleged to have been committed, this should terrify anyone with a less bureaucratic soul.

It means that there was no Vatican cover-up, and there were prob­ably no national cover-ups either. Instead, there will have been hundreds of uncoordinated diocesan cover-ups. In many ways, these make the story even worse for the RC Church; for they show how the cover-up and the protection of priests grew naturally out of the atmos­phere, like some Amazonian creeper whose roots hang in the moist and foetid air.

Joseph Ratzinger is an elderly, conservative German. This makes his letter to the Irish Church all the more creditable, and surprising. But it also means that he believes the chief cause of the crisis was that rules were not followed. If the rules had been followed, dis­cipline would have been applied. Had dis­cipline been applied, there would have been no cover-up. As for the crimes themselves, they were the result of sin­fulness, but the Church has learned since then. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address the most important question, which is: “What was it about the Church, otherwise so disciplined, which made it impossible for the rules to be followed here?”

There is no sign that this question strikes him as a matter of urgency. So the papers on Monday focused less on his apology for the crimes of the Irish Church, and more on the fact that he had not sacked any of the bishops implicated — and that in his normal homily on Sunday, he made no mention at all of the matter that has generated so many head­lines.

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