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Holy Silence

Opinion | May 5, 2010


Over the past weeks, a furor has arisen over new revelations in the Catholic priest abuse scandal. According to reports, one Cardinal Ratzinger purposefully looked the other way on reports of sexual abuse, going so far as refusing to take any action against a Wisconsin priest who abused over 200 deaf boys and, in another case, valuing the “good of the universal church” against the defrocking of another American priest, dating back to 1985.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict, was the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer at the time, and internal communication shows that he received reports on multiple cases of priests abusing kids and repeatedly failed to take the swift action—or any action at all, most often—necessary to protect children who have been abused by officials of the Catholic Church.

First, this was just an American problem. It was only in the US that these types of priest abuse cases were occurring, and Europeans preferred it that way. But since the first stories of child abuse came out a few years ago, reports have come from Ireland and several other European countries, most recently Germany, where Ratzinger was Archbishop from 1977-82. This raises a new, even more worrying question about the Pope: did he look the other way when priests under his direct supervision were sexually abusing children?

Time after time, the Pope declined to take disciplinary action either within the church or in the legal system. He took actions only to protect the church and its reputation, totally ignoring the needs of Catholic children worldwide who have been abused. Through its long history, the Vatican has always tended to focus on secrecy and protecting its own privacy at the expense of everything else, including morality and safety. This has gone on long enough.
This whole scandal amounts to church-sanctioned sexual abuse, and it cannot be tolerated. If any secular institution engaged in such a massive cover-up to protect pedophiles, the people responsible would be swiftly brought to justice. Yet, the Catholic Church occupies a rarefied zone above the law where it is apparently impervious to justice. More importantly, the church and priests around the world have effectively ignored any and all ideas of common human morality. Of all institutions, one expects a religious body to hold itself to a higher standard of morals, but when pedophilia runs rampant and is then covered up, we have to question this belief.

Noted British atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have called for the arrest of Pope Benedict when he visits the London in September. Human rights lawyers have begun examining the arguments advanced by Hitchens and Dawkins, agreeing that the Pope could be charged with “crimes against humanity” as a result of the church’s cover-up of child abuse. They cite a principle of international jurisdiction that was employed in 1998 to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during his visit to Britain in 1998.

The likelihood of the Pope being arrested is extremely low, but, historically, Britain has been unafraid of defying the Vatican. I hope something happens, because thus far the church has allowed child abuse to continue without consequences for the responsible parties. No one should be above the law, and the Catholic Church especially should be held to a higher moral standard. The conduct of Pope Benedict and others in the church’s hierarchy is nothing short of unconscionable.

The Pope’s claim of a close personal relationship with God—or is it Jesus?—is, in addition to being silly, not part of the equation. Child abuse is separate from religion. No matter what you believe, as a society we agree that sexual abuse of children is not acceptable. It seems obvious, but pedophiles should always be held responsible and, in my opinion, locked up for a very long time.

The Vatican has a long history of doing terrible things and getting away with it, from the Inquisition to the Crusades. Political clout and a legion of followers long insulated the Vatican from repercussions for their actions, many of which violated standards of international law that have existed for centuries. That time has passed. Hold the Pope and his cronies accountable for turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of young children and show the Vatican that no one is above the law.