Church on the ropes

Pope Benedict XVI claims he is being targeted by a malicious smear campaign. Anne Mc Shane disagrees. The Catholic church is guilty of a criminal cover-up when it comes to child abuse

Continuing revelations of systematic abuse within the Roman Catholic church are rocking it to its very foundations.

This Easter will not be a very happy one at the Vatican. Under unprecedented pressure as an institution, the church stands exposed for a massive cover-up of the sexual abuse of children in its care, perpetrated in several countries. And it is a scandal that has spread its tentacles right across the globe. Despite the best efforts of pope Benedict to portray the problem as an Irish one alone, it is clear that it is nothing of the sort. With the ink barely dry on his pastoral letter to the Irish church, he is beset by revelations that go to the very heart of the institution - and lead all the way back to himself.

The dissident Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, has called on Benedict to come clean about his part in the conspiracy. He alleges that, firstly as archbishop of Munich and then as cardinal in Rome, the pope was deeply implicated in the whole dirty business. In Germany he shielded his brother, Georg Ratzinger, who was choirmaster of the Domspatzen in Munich during a time when many choir boys were physically and sexually abused. Georg Ratzinger admits hitting the boys, but denies any knowledge of sexual abuse. According to Kung, the pope was close to his brother and would certainly have been aware of complaints. The abuse became an open secret within the German church.

Then there is the scandal about a ‘father H’, a paedophile shielded by the then cardinal Ratzinger in 1980. In order to avoid the allegations he faced in Munich, ‘father H’ was transferred to another parish, where he continued his abuse of children. Despite Benedict’s claims of ignorance and protestations of outrage at the abuse suffered at the hands of this priest and others in Germany, it would seem that he did know. What is more, the evidence shows that he actively engaged in measures to shield abusers and keep the problem under wraps.

During Ratzinger’s 24 years as head of the Congregation of the Faith, he himself was tasked with dealing with the problem. In 2001 he issued a firm directive to the clergy worldwide, known as De delictis gravioribus, on how allegations were to be dealt with. This order restated the rule contained in the 1962 Crimen Sollicitationis that all abuse was covered by ‘pontifical secret’ and must be hidden. The church would protect its own. It does not have a reputation as a deeply secretive and hierarchical institution for nothing.

Despite the massive concealment operation, however, it was impossible to keep the lid on things indefinitely. The revelations which began in Ireland in the 1980s spread to the US, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Germany and many other countries. They have sparked a flood of other complaints and criticisms of the church.

Benedict indignantly protests that he is the target of gossip and a media smear campaign, but insists that, as the ‘representative of god on earth’, he will not be intimidated. But the emperor - in this case the pope - has no clothes. He refuses to acknowledge what is obvious to all - that he and the church hierarchy were fully implicated in the policy of cover-up. After all, the moral authority of the clergy would be undermined by such horror stories of ill-treatment and exploitation. Those who preached ‘sexual purity’ could not be revealed as abusers.

In his pastoral letter the pope pledged to send an apostolic mission to investigate the church in Ireland - a Vatican hit squad. It is to be an inquisition made up of high-ranking cardinals who will conduct their activities in secret and report back to him in Rome. A blatant attempt at whitewash, it is exactly in keeping with the policy of De delictis gravioribus. Nevertheless it is a response to a deep crisis. There are rumours now that Benedict is under pressure to call an emergency synod of bishops to deal with the crisis. In an effort to stem the tide of criticism he may be forced to act in an unprecedented way and admit his own wrongdoing. Interestingly the proposed canonisation of Benedict’s predecessor is also in question because of his role in the cover-up. Apparently John Paul II was not such a saint after all.

In general the scandal has produced a distinct drawing away from the church, in Ireland at least. Many loyal Catholics are now questioning its authority and its fitness to preach moral values. There has also been a greater interest in secularism and the demand to divest the church from its dominant role in education is no longer so easy to dismiss. I have had some very valuable responses to my articles on this question, particularly in Ireland. Some are from religious people who agree that faith should be a private matter and that there needs to a separation of church and state. Contrary to the belief of many on the left, religious people can be secularist too. Secularism is not about imposing an alternative set of beliefs through the state: it is the absence of discrimination or privilege on the basis of religion or lack of it.

While obviously there must be no victimisation of Catholics for their beliefs, the church is not the same as those who follow the faith. And it is the institution itself that has victimised (and persecuted) its followers. It is a profoundly elitist organisation with an attitude of contempt for the masses. This has been reflected not only in the systematic sexual abuse of those in its care, but in its attitude to the poor and the vulnerable. This pope, like John Paul II before him, has refused to allow his missionaries to provide condoms to Aids and HIV sufferers in Africa. They should apparently resist their sexual urges (unlike the clergy). This policy has brought untold suffering and death in Africa.

Wherever it has influence throughout the world, the church has been responsible for reaction and repression. The impact of its policies in Poland, Ireland, Portugal, etc has been appalling, particularly for women and children.

We say, there must be full freedom of religion, including obviously for the Catholic church. But its privileged role and position in Irish society must be ended forthwith. The left must lead the fight for a democratic, secular republic - the form of working class rule - starting with the immediate separation of church and state. This will not be achieved by waiting around and hoping the church will collapse of its own accord. As an institution it will fight to the death to hold onto its power. We must ensure that it does not succeed.