Monday, December 7, 2009

Faith and power is the fundamentalist’s brew

November 30, 2009
Faith and power is the fundamentalist’s brew
Don’t blame anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers for the cover-up in Ireland. The Church protected itself, not its children

I would rather not have come back to this topic. Back in May, I wrote about the Ryan report into child abuse by Irish clerics, having been shocked by an unfortunate comment from the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, about the “courage” of clergy who in “weakness” may have believed they were just “taking a bit of comfort from children”. I said that until the Catholic Church abased itself, faced reality and irrevocably altered its culture of secretive authority, it would “live with one foot in Hell”.

This admittedly melodramatic phrase brought a predictable torrent of messages from adherents, some expressing decent shame but many excoriating me for “fuelling modish anti-Catholic feeling”.

Trained up by nuns in correct examination-of-conscience procedures, I seriously asked myself whether I was indeed doing this. Like many cradle Catholics of a liberal bent I am often exasperated by the Vatican’s attitude to matters such as priestly celibacy, contraception and homosexual love: was I just picking up a handy stick to beat it with? Joining a fashionable outcry against a church whose followers do much good? Not every priest is an abuser, not every nun a harridan, not every bishop purblind or dishonest. Should we not cut Mother Church some slack?

The attempt on my conscience failed. Now a new report comes out, from the Murphy commission on abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

If possible the evidence is even more damning. The accounts of rape, assault and beatings are familiar but almost worse — because cooler, more institutional, more deliberate — is the detail of the cover-up.

To quote the report, the archdiocese remained wedded to “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the Church and the preservation of its assets”. Right up to 2004, priestly sex offenders were quietly moved to new parishes, even promoted. Victims were told to keep silent. Archbishops held back files; the Papal Nuncio and the Vatican showed no inclination to throw open the records: a “studied silence” met requests for additional information. The pattern follows earlier investigations in the US and Australia; as one victim there said, cover-up “was a policy, a system, it was throughout the Church . . . it’s not just rogue elements”. In Ireland the gardai are now huffing about possible legal action, but their own inattention and deference to the clergy is also bitterly criticised in the report.

This is not old stuff from the era of Angela’s Ashes.

For seven years till 1995, Cardinal Desmond Connell, then Archbishop of Dublin, kept incriminating documents locked in a secret vault, detailing abuses by seventeen priests; there are five Irish bishops still in office whose complicity is shown in the report. The Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny calls for their immediate resignation. This is not over, despite the rhetorical apologies. An abusive priest, a collusive bishop, could still wrap protection around themselves. No point pretending otherwise.

Nor am I impressed by the excuse frequently trawled up by church authorities, that in the bad old days of the 20th century people simply didn’t understand the seriousness of the crime. That is hogwash. We are not talking about “inappropriate remarks” here, or a hand left too long on a child’s shoulder. We are more often talking about full rape and secretive, regular assaults on young children, who are then terrified into silence by threats of Hell and excommunication.

Come now, Father: how hard is it, how hard was it ever, to grasp the deep wrongness of that? Especially in a Church so ready to condemn and regulate free, loving adult sexuality? Cite Matthew xviii, 6: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Not, you note, just moved on to a new parish at Ballygobackwards after a quick confession and a secret memo to His Grace in the Archdiocesan office.

But let us try to understand why the Catholic church did this — and why the Vatican continues so evasive and priests so silent.

Roll back to the American cases uncovered at the turn of the century by The Boston Globe. A correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, John F. Allen, described the Vatican’s perspective with chilling precision. “They think that the reporting is fuelled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church. That thinking is tied to the larger perception about American culture, which is that there is a hysteria when it comes to anything sexual, and an incomprehension of the Catholic Church.” Thus, he says, the Vatican was slow, tentative and halfhearted in its public statements. “It’s not that they don’t feel bad for the victims, but they think the clamour for them to apologise is fed by other factors that they don’t want to capitulate to.”

Well, maybe it is.

That is what my angrier correspondents wrote in May. But such an attitude is not a dignified response to clamorous hysteria. It is self-protective, paranoid arrogance; the canker that threatens all religions and ideologies. We recognise it all too well from history, and from modern fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Once you are convinced that you alone hold the truth — whether your god is Amun-Ra or Marx — you slough off self-doubt and self-examination. You build rich hierarchies of obedience, surround them with impressive ritual and illogical rules, and then circle the wagons to protect your artificial structure.

I do not think it is unfair to say that Catholicism — over 2010 years — has done just this, betraying its faithful and wandering far from the carpenter’s son and His message of love, tolerance, and humility. The systemic cover-up of child abuse scandals is not an invention of jeering, anti-clerical hysterics. I wish it were. Rather, it is a classic demonstration of what happens when belief is bolstered by power, and stripped of humanity.

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