OUR cellar flooded with sewage two months ago. The pong has
gone, but the clean-up seems unending, as stuff is moved from room
to room in a protracted sorting process. It will look worse before
it gets better, a friend said sagely. The same is true of the Roman
Catholic Church, I thought the other day, as the accelerated
departure of Cardinal Keith O'Brien followed on the heels of a
papal resignation unprecedented in seven centuries.
It is only the latest in a series of damaging news stories
surrounding the Vatican, which have left Roman Catholics like me
punch-drunk with the repeated blows. On Ash Wednesday, Pope
Benedict XVI publicly lamented the rivalry and disunity of the
factions disfiguring the Church - a not so-veiled reference to the
report he had commissioned, and just received, from three top
cardinals into the Vatileaks scandal. Here, the Pope's own butler
started passing secret documents to a journalist to expose the
intrigue and in-fighting inside the Roman Curia.
Italian newspapers claim that the 300-page dossier reveals that
one of the Vatican factions is a gay clerical mafia, which includes
several cardinals, who indulge in sauna sex parties, in private
lives that run entirely contrary to church teaching. It is alleged
to have shocked Benedict into resigning, placing the dossier in a
papal safe for his successor to tackle.
The Pope's respected press secretary, Fr Federico Lombardi, has
dismissed all this as a swirl of "gossip, misinformation, and
sometimes slander". But there can be no doubt of the gravity of the
moment. The historian Professor Tom Devine has described the
O'Brien affair as "probably the gravest single public crisis to hit
the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation": the effects
are "incalculable". And this is only the latest in a succession of
scandals - around sexuality, the Vatican bank, and authoritarian
intolerance - which secularist critics like to see as a succession
of nails fired into the Church's coffin with the ferocity of a
high-powered staple gun.
It may well be that we are now seeing, to mix metaphors, the
chickens coming home to roost, after decades of controlling
clerical secrecy. But, if my friend is right in saying that things
will have to look worse before they get better, it may be a
Pope Benedict has, despite unfair suggestions to the contrary,
been much firmer in dealing with what he called the "filth" of
sex-abuse than was his papal predecessor. He did not want to wash
soiled clerical linen in public, and has carried on his crackdown
largely behind closed doors. Many of the worst offences are long in
the past. New tighter measures of child-protection have been put in
place. But there is abroad a new mood of intolerance - as the
Liberal Democrats have learned this week - of those who abuse their
status and power to pressure others into sex.
What the O'Brien affair has shown is that this new openness is
finally seeping through the Church, to the point where three
priests and a former priest have felt able to complain about their
Cardinal-Archbishop to the Papal Nuncio. A generation ago, they
would not have dared.
There is hope, too, in the fact that even arch-conservative
figures such as Cardinal George Pell, in Australia, are now saying
publicly that "significant reforms are needed within the Vatican
bureaucracy." Since eight last night, the papal seat has been
vacant. The task before the next conclave is to elect a new pope
who will approach all these problems with a new openness in his
zeal to cleanse the Augean stables.