Sunday, March 28, 2010

I can stay no longer in this Church of Disgust

The Sunday Times March 28, 2010

Holy Father, I can stay no longer in this Church of Disgust
India Knight
My daughter was baptised into the Roman Catholic faith when she was two months old. She is now six, and should really be gearing up for her first communion. The fact that she isn’t is down to one factor: the parish priest at the local church was suspended, pending investigations into allegations of child abuse.

He was eventually cleared of all charges, which was nice for him but didn’t really work for me because I don’t want any of my children left alone with adult men in any context where the words “child abuse” are hovering in the air. In recent years that context has, sadly, broadened to include the entire church.

To be blunt about it, my daughter was baptised because we feared she might die — she had complicated open-heart surgery a few weeks after she was born, and for some reason I found the sacrament intensely comforting. Beautiful, too.

Her father, a cradle Catholic, lost patience with his childhood faith long ago. I’m only nominally Catholic — my (late) father was pathologically anti-clerical, which makes me wonder what happened in his childhood to make him hate priests quite so much, and my mother, although educated by nuns, is nominally a Muslim.

But I was born into an otherwise Catholic family, and baptising your child into the faith is what you did when I was born. My mother then remarried another lapsed(ish) Catholic; my sisters went to a convent school. None of us was exactly what you would call religious, to put it mildly.

Nevertheless, there were aspects of Catholicism that I loved, and not only because they made me good at reading religious paintings (this is why RE lessons are so important — never mind God; feel the culture). They were mostly all the things people make fun of and call superstitious: the ceremony, the ritual, the saints, the relics, the Latin, the grace.

I went to Lourdes and Knock and Medjugorje — once each — and dragged along friends who observed the whole thing with amazed, incredulous hilarity (“You can’t seriously believe ... ?”) but I always found myself moved. I went to a particular church in the Rue du Bac whenever I was in Paris, because of St Catherine Labouré, who had always answered my calls for intercession, especially ones concerning my daughter. I’ve probably lost you right there — but never mind, because at this point they’ve lost me, too.

It is simply not possible, having read the papers or watched the news over the past couple of weeks, to stick with the programme. Like many of my generation, I could hardly be described as a good, or even decent, Catholic, but I’d managed to hang on in there, in the vaguest way imaginable.

Vague because it’s hard to pay lip-service to a faith that you feel hates you; a faith that would rather let you die in childbirth than have an abortion, won’t let you take the contraception necessary to prevent said abortion, hates gay people despite having many homosexual priests; a faith that talks ignorant nonsense about HIV and Aids, that would rather watch people die in Africa than let them use a condom; a faith that is unbelievably slow to say sorry about the fact that some of its members are habitual rapists of children.

I mean, you know, at some point you just give up. Not one of these things is defensible taken individually. Collectively, they are beyond comprehension.

A faith based on central authority and infallibility must understand that failure immediately to condemn the rape of children — in Ireland, in America, in Austria, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Brazil, so far — is essentially to allow it.

The Irish may have got a letter from the Pope last week, but it’s a pitiful drop in an ocean that has turned into a cesspool. Benedict XVI is now personally accused of failing to take action against a serial paedophile, Father Lawrence Murphy, who worked at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin from 1950 to 1974 and who is said to have abused 200 deaf boys. It has been alleged that Murphy avoided justice after an intervention by Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Pope. Murphy was moved to another parish in 1974 and spent his final two decades working with children. He died in 1998, still wearing his dog collar.

The New York Times has documents showing that Archbishop Rembert Weakland, then Archbishop of Milwaukee, twice wrote to Ratzinger requesting that Murphy be defrocked. Ratzinger did not reply. There was a canonical trial but it was halted when Murphy said he had repented and was in poor health.

This makes me want to be ill, as does a 1962 document that Ratzinger updated in 2001, when he was the Vatican’s head of doctrine. It’s about priests who are accused of sexual relationships with children. The 2001 instructions read: “Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.”

Meanwhile, in Munich, one Father Peter Hullermann was convicted of molesting boys in 1986. Victims have complained that repeated warnings were ignored over decades of abuse. In 1980, the Pope was the Archbishop of Munich, overseeing the archdiocese in which Hullermann was given a few days of treatment and then told he could return to work. The Munich archdiocese said earlier this month that “bad mistakes” had been made, but that officials subordinate to Ratzinger had made them.

Unfortunately, a memo in the possession of The New York Times shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on January 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest to his district, but that he was kept informed about his later reassignment.

There is plenty more where this came from: stories about abuse of the vulnerable by priests have become a kind of background drone to society. I know that many, perhaps even most, priests are decent and honourable people, but it’s no good. When the head of 2 billion Catholics, the infallible heir to St Peter, is personally implicated in some of this stuff, it’s time to give up the ghost, at least for me.

Religion — all religion, not just Catholicism — is supposed to be good for the soul, but everything I’ve written about here pollutes mine. You can’t take lessons in morality from people who disgust you.

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