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’TOOLE looks 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 But as the flood of allegations has risen ever closer to the Pope’s own door, humility has been replaced by an aggressive backlash.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.

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10 Comments.

  1. words are free and simple to use. when you have power it is supposed to mean something.
    what a load of horse shite. the only way they can say sorry is to change the laws for the people not the state and church.
    and the crap coming out from the vatican is not even written in the bible as anyone knows who have read it.
    they are the words of social control nothing more nothing less.
    the only way for both government and church to say sorry is to replace what they have taken or make an honest offer for the damage they have done.
    if they send out an apology to each and every survivor they then have admitted they have done the damage to that person, so this is not going to happen because the redress would be worth nothing.
    if this whole affair was dealt with properly the reports would have proven the damage caused to one and all survivors, the groups would not have had the power to make deals and survivors would be stronger to stand up and make an honest claim of compensation.

    THERE HAS BEEN NO SUCH THING YET OF AN APOLOGY FROM THE CHURCH OR THE GOVERNMENT

    THAT IS AS BLACK AND WHITE AS THIS STATEMENT.

  2. Dove Ui Dalaigh

    Dear Anne,

    Calling from the Kingdom of Thailand. Ratzy stated in his Letter that he is willing to meet each Child Abuse Survivor individually to hear there Stories. I have already suggested that all Redress and Parochials send their acceptance to him of his invitation. They could also set up a central PO Box to receive every ones letters of acceptance and then courier them to the Pope.

    If possible while straying outside the Dail in a few months in protest at the Church State and Legal Profession Corruption both I and others have experienced. I am waiting till my second son is one years of age before I travel. My protest is called Death or Justice.

    Did St Patrick drive the Snakes out of Ireland or was Ireland invaded by Rome and then subjected the Celts and placed a nice conversion story for futhure generations. Well now we are seeing the Snakes.

    Anyway Martin John Petty-O’Callaghan why do you want to give up a historic record for. All of Eire know all the redress survivors innocence, except for Paddy, he is still guilty.

    I grew up believing Eire to be Christian, crying at the torture and death of Jesus in movies. Christian Justice?

  3. Martin John Petty-O'Callaghan

    NOW THAT THE CHURCH HAS APOLOGISED – HOW ABOUT THE STATE?
    Church Leaders Say Sorry For Child Abuse Share Share Comments (4)
    4:11pm UK, Thursday April 22, 2010

    Lulu Sinclair, Sky News Online

    Leaders of the Catholic Church of England and Wales have apologised to those who were abused as children by priests.

    The Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols

    “We express our heartfelt apology and deep sorrow to those who have suffered abuse, those who have felt ignored, disbelieved or betrayed,” the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, and his bishops wrote in a statement to their five million followers.

    “We ask their pardon, and the pardon of God for these terrible deeds done in our midst. There can be no excuses.

    “Furthermore, we recognise the failings of some bishops and religious leaders in handling these matters. These, too, are aspects of this tragedy which we deeply regret and for which we apologise.

    “The procedures now in place in our countries highlight what should have been done straight away in the past. Full co-operation with statutory bodies is essential.”

    The Pope has accepted a third Irish bishop’s resignation

    Writing on an official website, the bishops say: “Our first thoughts are for all who have suffered from the horror of these crimes, which inflict such severe and lasting wounds. They are uppermost in our prayer.

    “The distress we feel at what has happened is nothing in comparison with the suffering of those who have been abused.

    “The criminal offences committed by some priests and religious are a profound scandal.

    James Moriarty

    “They bring deep shame to the whole church. But shame is not enough. The abuse of children is a grievous sin against God. Therefore we focus not on shame but on our sorrow for these sins.

    “They are the personal sins of only a very few. But we are bound together in the Body of Christ and, therefore, their sins touch us all.”

    Meanwhile, the Vatican has confirmed that the Pope has accepted the resignation of a third Irish bishop over the hierarchy’s handling of clerical child abuse.

    Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin James Moriarty was one of those criticised by a report into inadequate church investigations into a paedophile priest in Dublin in the 1990s.

    NOW THE STATE IN THE IRISH REPUBLIC SHOULD ADMIT IT’S ROLE IN – THROUGH IT’S 1908 CHILDREN’S ACT – USHERING INTO THE CLUTCHES OF THE ABUSIVE RELIGIOUS, THOSE THOUSANDS OF “INNOCEN CHILDREN” SUCH AS YOU AND I AND NOT JUST APOLOGISE, BUT IN ORDER TO SHOW SINCERITY, EXPUNGE THE MANY ILLEGAL DETENTION ORDERS THAT – EVEN TO THIS DAY – REMAIN AS “A CRIMINAL RECORD FOR ALL OF THE SURVIVING SURVIVORS, DO IT NOW MR JUSTICE MINISTER.

  4. Anne
    That phone number does not work. Is there a code that should be in front of it? Are you in Ireland or the UK?

  5. The truth is that organised religionism is not about gods, eternity, spirituality or love, its about power.

  6. Real Justice would be the victims telling their truth on radio and TV and writing like Paddy….write it out of our systems, all of it.

    Let this generation listen to his-her story as it needs to be documented by the victims themselves, in their own words.

    Bring all the truth to light, so that healing may begin.

    All the excuses used by the men of god are those of old men drowning, and trying to hold on for dear life….but it is futile.

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

    It is called WAKING UP TO THE TRUTH.

  8. Apart from the help we need as survivors, more and more people need to recognise this fact, that abuse is always about power, and try to understand the dynamic processes that lead to this kind of learned behaviour because it is endemic in our society, and unless we deal with it, none of the various ‘movements’ for change will ever have any chance of real success as that will leave the children in an ever worsening situation.

    Part of the work required is for each of us to examine again our childhoods, not from the adult rationalised viewpoint, but from what it really felt like to have power of any kind exercised over us.

    Most survivors are doing this work. We have to. Our very survival and the quality of our lives depend upon this work. Now it is time for all people to do this work.

    Compensation is meaningless if the abuse cycles continue.

  9. Yes. The European High Court! for justice for every single survivor.

    NEVER EVER FORGET-WE WERE PROMISED THE EQUIVALENT OF HIGH COURT PAYMENTS UP TO £300,000. This is stated, in writing which we have in our possession!!! We have heard it from the Government..” The caring Religious” why are we allowing this?

    Did we not work to run those institutions??..were we not took from our mother’s, father’s?..and beaten, starved, buggered, fondled, told we were paupers and bastards! no good for nothing. We had no education!!! what chance did we have. now we need to be looked after.
    If I knew it were possible I’d tell Ratzinger to his face what I wanted and I’d make him listen to every detail of my the yrs spent in them cruel, cold dumps.

    Please contact me if anyone has any Ideas?..I’m just me..on my own..a survivor like many. Trying to get what we deserve and what I need at this age.
    Regards,
    Anne
    07895479387

  10. This is a crucial distinction to make.

    Abuse, of any kind, is ALWAYS about POWER.

    Sexual Abuse is but one part of a spectrum of behaviours that are based upon a desire to use others, to coerce children and people, for some perceived benefit.

    And the facts are that those behaviours are learned, they are not innate.

    What is being missed by almost all in this matter is that learned behaviours are learned through experience – and that begs the question : what kinds of experience teach these lessons and what kind of adult rationalises the use of Power in such ways?

    For sure, The Pope, and The Irish Government, The Canadian Government and other similar Institutions must be rationalising every decision they are making. That means, with regard to the abuse of children within Institutions of ‘care’, they are sitting together around tables and saying “How can we manage this and retain our Power?” rather than saying “This is a dreadful situation for those who have suffered so much, and what can we do to help those people to recover, to feel safe again, and what can we do to ensure that all children are protected from abuse, whatever the situation they find themselves in?”

    Those questions can best be answered by those who have survived, and by those who can act as Alice Miller writes, as ‘enlightened witnesses’.

    There is so much now known about brain development in infancy, early childhood and adolescence; about empathetic parenting; about working through the distress caused by abuse; about how learned behaviours are transmitted across generations that no Government nor any other Institution has any excuses not to implement these learnings.

    Therefore it must be the case that those with Power are refusing this knowledge, that they are actively obstructing the processes of revelation and healing, and thus are themselves complicit, often unwittingly, yet in many cases knowingly.

    It is time that clarity reigns.

    There is so much at stake here, for all parents, all children and indeed our entire community.

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