Thursday, March 18, 2010

Catholic Church and sex abuse (leader article)

The Catholic church and paedophilia

Crimes and sins
Mar 18th 2010
From The Economist print edition

The pope should say plainly and loudly that sexual abuse of children is not just sinful. It is criminal

IT COULD hardly get worse. Sex scandals are breaking over the Catholic church with such fury (see article) that the Vatican has felt bound to defend Pope Benedict XVI himself. Children at some Catholic schools in Germany have been systematically abused; paedophiles were transferred to other jobs, rather than dismissed or prosecuted. Abuse has surfaced in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate, has admitted that he was present in 1975 when two teenage boys were persuaded to sign oaths of silence about their abuse by Father Brendan Smyth. The church defrocked Smyth, but nobody, including Cardinal Brady, told the police about his crimes and he remained free to abuse boys for two decades.

Yet denial still reigns. Bishop Christopher Jones, head of the Irish episcopate’s committee on family affairs, has complained that the church is being singled out, when most abuse happens inside families and other organisations. “Why this huge isolation of the church and this huge focus on cover-up in the church when it has been going on for centuries?” he asked.

He is right that other secretive outfits (orphanages in authoritarian countries, say) are home to shameful abuse, but that misses the point. No church can expect to be judged merely against the most depraved parts of the secular world. If you preach absolute moral values, you will be held to absolute moral standards. Hence, for Catholics and outsiders alike, the church hierarchy’s inability to deal with the issue is baffling. The church now has exemplary child-protection rules—so strict, in fact, that they sometimes stifle healthily affectionate behaviour. It is the scandals from the past that are so toxic.

Applying modern standards to conduct long ago is tricky. The hierarchy in the past often saw paedophilia not as a crime with victims but as a sin that endangered the perpetrator’s soul: along the lines of alcoholism, or pilfering church funds. A priest who “erred” deserved a rebuke, pastoral attention (perhaps) and a fresh start. The dreadful damage done to the victims of the abuse was not appreciated, or was ignored.

A second delusion—still lingering in some church circles—was the conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality. A sexual relationship between a priest and a teenage boy was regarded as wrong, just as a liaison between two priests would be. But it did not count as a revolting abuse of trust.

Some add celibacy to the charge list. Those cut off from family life may not appreciate the horror parents feel about abuse. In a sex-obsessed age abstinence sounds unnatural and thus a cause of sexual deviancy. Yet a moment’s reflection shows how unfair that is. The childless care about children too. Parents are some of the worst child-abusers. And nobody has shown a statistical link between celibacy and paedophilia.

As in so many scandals, the cover-up compounds the original sin. The guilty secrets of the past must be flushed out. And bishops must admit their part in them. It is odd that an institution founded on honesty and penitence should struggle so. Today’s Catholic leaders might also recall that clerical abuses of power, defended by legalistic quibbling, greatly angered an itinerant preacher in Palestine two millennia ago.

No comments: