Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Pope and the Catholic child abuse cover-ups

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In the last year, Catholic child abuse scandals rarely seem to have disappeared from the headlines. In Ireland, the Ryan Report and a later enquiry by a Commission of Investigation threw much light on the horrific abuse perpetrated by priests there, along with the disgraceful lengths taken by senior Catholics to cover-up the crimes of their subordinates. Writing about these reports in our magazine in January, Laurie Taylor described the abuse he both witnessed and was subjected to at a Catholic boarding school here in England in the 1940s.

At the centre of all this lies the question of Pope Benedict XVI's responsibility. In February he described the abuse in Ireland as a "heinous crime" and condemned the way in which Irish bishops handled the allegations. Just yesterday, to mark St Patrick's Day, he wrote an open letter which he hoped would "help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal". But at the same time, Rome is often seen as dodging responsibility for the scandals, most recently (and bizarrely) in the form of its chief exorcist suggesting that the child abuse is the result of Satan being at work in the Vatican.

In the last week allegations of Catholic child abuse have come from across Europe, with those emerging from the Pope's native Germany posing a particular challenge to his reputation. It is alleged that the Pope, when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, may have known that a paedophile priest was resassigned to another parish, where he was able to abuse again. The Pope's official spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, has dismissed this as a failed attempt to link Benedict with the abuse scandals, while the Archdiocese of Munich has moved to point out that he knew nothing about the priest's reassignment, and that the diocese's then-vicar general Gerhard Gruber "takes full responsibility for the wrong decisions". Meanwhile, the Pope's older brother, Georg Ratzinger, has admitted to, and apologised for, slapping pupils when he was choirmaster of a boarding school in Regensburg, Bavaria, and failing to act against violent acts perpetrated by others, but denied knowledge of sexual abuse that is alleged to have taken place there.

So should Pope Benedict XVI bear some of the responsibility for the child abuse scandals? In a damning article, even by his own standards, Christopher Hitchens argues that he must. The piece, published on Slate, is titled "The Great Catholic Cover-Up" and, in a sign of the case Hitchens presents, is subtitled "The Pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it". Hitchens argues that Benedict bears both individual and instiutional responisbility. With regards to the Munich allegations, Hitchens quotes a former employee of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Rev Thomas Doyle, who suggests that Ratzinger, as a "micromanager", is likely to have known about the abusive priest's reassigment. Of course, this is not firm evidence that the Pope had knowledge of it, but much more concrete is Hitchens' case for the instituional responsibility he bears. As is well-known, in 2001 the previous Pope made the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (which is often referred to as the modern incarnation of the Inquisition), then led by Cardinal Ratzinger, responsible for investigating the child abuse allegations. As Hitchens points out, the Congregation handled this task in the following manner:
"In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication." (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism!"
And having set out his evidence, Hitchens concludes with his verdict on the man more than a billion people are meant to view as God's representative on earth:
"The Roman Catholic Church is headed by a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime."
As I said, damning words, even for Hitchens.