The truth is that child abuse and cover-up are not primarily about religion or sex. They are about power


In a week when the Pope’s right-hand man pointed to homosexuality as the cause of paedophilia, FINTAN O'TOOLElooks at the church’s response to the child abuse cover-up and asks what it is all about

THERE IS A word that became current towards the fag end of the Northern Ireland conflict, when evil had been reduced to banalities. An atrocity against one community would often be met on the other side, not with either outright support or condemnation but with “what-aboutery”. Yes, some would shrug, this is terrible but what about Bloody Sunday? What about Enniskillen? What about Cromwell?

That this form of moral evasion had its very own name was a mark of how pitiful and desperate it was. Even those who engaged in it knew that it was a last refuge. When the indefensible could not be defended, the only remaining strategy was to present the perpetrators as victims, and those who criticised atrocities as hypocrites.

As evidenced by this week’s attempt by Pope Benedict’s right-hand man, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to blame homosexuals for the crisis in the church, what-aboutery is now the mainstay of the Vatican’s response to the continuing revelation of its global strategy of covering up the abuse of children by priests.

For a short period leading up to the issuing of Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter to the Irish faithful last month, the Vatican seemed to be inching towards some tentative reflection on its own moral responsibility for the protection of abusers. But as the flood of allegations has risen ever closer to the Pope’s own door, humility has been replaced by an aggressive backlash.

The church leadership has now adopted a three-fold strategy: blame the victims; invoke anti-Catholic persecution; and identify modernity as the root of the problem. Benedict himself began the process of blaming the victims in his Palm Sunday sermon when he spoke of not allowing oneself to be “intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”. This was not an accidental or thoughtless phrase. It was directly echoed on Easter Sunday by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Vatican secretary of state and currently dean of the College of Cardinals.

He urged Benedict not to be dismayed by “the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers”. In one magisterial phrase, the stories of those who were attacked as children and the demands for accountability are dismissed as malicious tittle-tattle.

The next step of painting the church leadership, not as powerful people with questions to answer, but as innocent victims of persecution, was taken by the preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa.

Showing that no strategy is too tasteless to be deployed, he cited a letter from a “Jewish friend”, comparing attacks on the church’s record on child abuse to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”. Cantalamessa himself linked demands for accountability in the church to the “herd psychology” and the search for a scapegoat through which “the weakest element, the different one” is victimised. The ironies in this exercise in self-pity are almost beyond satire.

Redefining the Pope, his cardinals and his bishops as the “weakest” members of society would be peculiar in any context. But in the context of child abuse, it is grotesque. And claiming the status of “the different one”, the outsider who suffers from stereotyping and discrimination, is a bit rich for a church that is happy to perpetuate, as Bertone did this week, the vile stereotype that identifies homosexuality and paedophilia.

If the church insists on drawing analogies with anti-Semitism, it might be well advised to avoid the subject of its attitudes to gay people altogether.

Underlying all of this, however, is a more considered strategy of constructing an intellectual framework within which an official narrative of the crisis can emerge. That narrative is self-consciously reactionary. The church was fine when it had authority in society. That authority was challenged by liberalism, free thinking and sexual openness, and paedophilia is the result.

In his pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, Benedict could not have been more explicit about this. He urged the faithful to understand the crisis as a consequence of “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society”.

“Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.”

As an explanation for paedophile priests and for the abysmal institutional response to their crimes, this bears hardly a moment’s scrutiny.

In the Irish context alone, we know from the Ryan report that systematic child abuse by Catholic brothers, priests and nuns goes back at the very least to the 1930s and almost certainly beyond. We know from the Murphy report that “there is a two thousand year history of Biblical, Papal and Holy See statements showing awareness of clerical child sex abuse . . . it is clear that cases were dealt with by Archbishop McQuaid in the 1950s and 1960s”.

And even if one were to accept the highly dubious contention that paedophile priests are a result of the move towards greater sexual openness from the 1960s onwards, how would that explain the most damaging aspect of the scandal – the cover-up by bishops and the Vatican?

These strategies may be as desperate as they are clumsily evasive. But they are arguably necessary to the survival of the church’s current power structures. For if the organised cover-up of child abuse is not about petty gossip, not about victimising a defenceless Pope and not about secular modernity, what is it about? This is a question to which Benedict cannot give an honest answer because that answer would threaten the very system he embodies.

Some liberal critics of the church often fail to answer the question, too. They may blame Catholicism itself, as if other belief systems did not end up justifying vile crimes. They may blame celibacy, as if the vast majority of attacks on children were not perpetrated by non-celibates – often, indeed, by the child’s own parents. The truth is that child abuse and cover-up are not primarily about religion or sex. They are about power. The bleak lessons of human history are that those who have too much power will abuse it. And that organisations will put their own interests above those of the victims.

THE BEHAVIOUR OF the institutional Catholic church in Ireland and around the world is certainly a stark example of both of these truths. But it is not the only example, even in contemporary Ireland. The Irish Amateur Swimming Association, for example, gave coaches the power to do what they liked to children and then engaged in a process of denial that was, albeit on a much smaller scale, essentially the same as that of the bishops.

The problem is not swimming, any more than it is Catholicism. It is power.

The church’s combination of temporal authority, spiritual control and a closed, internal hierarchy created the power that corrupted it. The backlash of the past few weeks has merely confirmed what was already overwhelmingly likely: that Benedict is entirely incapable of grasping this reality, let alone altering it. He has spent much of his career crushing dissent and rolling back the anti-hierarchical spirit of Vatican 2. His solution, as he suggested in his pastoral letter, is more of the same – more obedience, more authority, more resistance to secular modernity.

Those who looked to the Pope to respond to one of the most profound crises in the history of the church now know they will have to look elsewhere.