[The following is a rant brought on by some of the more disgraceful comments of the Vatican recently (referring to the attacks on the Pope as 'petty gossip', equating such (entirely justified) attacks as 'anti-semitism', and so on; see here). There's probably nothing here that hasn't been said better elsewhere, but these are my opinions, and I stand over them.]
There was once a well written and entertaining TV series called Absolute Power about a PR firm, starring Stephen Fry. In one episode, the firm is employed by a group who turn out to be fanatical neo-Nazis, and before sanity prevails one of the PR men is carried away by the possibilities of trying to ‘spin’ the Nazis. “It’s the ultimate PR challenge!” he exclaims (or something along those lines). (Later he says: "What the hell was I thinking?") This is, of course, presented as satire; what is interesting is that something very similar is happening right now. The Catholic Church is currently involved in a deliberate and utterly cynical attempt to ‘spin’ decades of covering up clerical sex abuse. The only alternative is mass resignations (do you believe that there is a single person over the age of forty in the church who’s not implicated in the scandal in some way?) and criminal investigations, which would profoundly weaken the church’s political power and influence. It is not, of course, that the ruthless, intelligent men who head the church actually believe the horse-crap they’re peddling; it is more to provide the deluded faithful with ways to justify to themselves the status quo as exists in the Catholic Church, and to give them fuel for argument when inevitably they are presented with the sheer horror of what the church, the supposed guardian of morality, has actually done. It is also on the principle that if you tell a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. There are several basic lies the church is telling:
The priests who covered up abuse at the time were only following orders (usually used by the priest themselves; the most notable exponent of this line is Cardinal Sean Brady). (Also known as The Nuremberg Defence).
[This didn’t work in Nuremberg, and it doesn’t work now; especially as child abuse, and its cover-up, is an absolute wrong that cannot be justified under any circumstances. Human beings have the moral obligation to refuse to carry out acts they know to be abhorrent and against humanity, especially if they are already illegal under civil law.]
The priests at the time who covered up abuse didn’t understand the gravity of what they were dealing with. (The “It Was A Different Time” Defence).
[Nonsense. Most priests are well-educated, intelligent men; the aforementioned Sean Brady, for example, was possessed a doctorate in canon law. And there has never been a time, outside of the most depraved and barbarous societies, when it was considered appropriate behaviour to rape a small child, or to beat them to a pulp!]
Abuse occurred in other sections of the community, so why is the church being singled out by the media? (The “We’re Victims Too” Defence, also known as the “It’s The Liberal Meedya’s Fault” Defence, also known as the “Let He Who Is Without Sin” Defence.)
[This defence can hardly hold water considering the power and global extent of the Catholic Church. That an organisation this large, and one whose primary focus is morality, should commit such an appalling cover-up of such foul crimes means that it should be investigated until the entire truth is known, for the good of humanity. The church has never shied away from publicity when it thundered against divorce and contraception in Ireland, so it can hardly complain when its own crimes mean the spotlight is turned back on it!]
Even if clergymen made mistakes, they shouldn’t resign now, as it would have no purpose, and they are merely being pursued out of a spirit of vengeance. We should forgive them. (The “Head On A Plate” Defence).
[Since when is demanding that someone in a position of power be held accountable for a crime “vengeance”? And a system of justice based solely on “forgiveness” would destroy society as we know it.]
The church has recognised its past faults, and has changed now, so no further action is required. (The “We Are Where We Are” Defence).
[The church's actions show that it is still more interested in protecting itself than standing up and being held accountable for its crimes. I see no change in the church’s basic attitude than hasn’t been forced upon it.]
There are good people in the church, including those who may have covered up the abuse many years ago, so by attacking the church you’re undermining their good works (the “If There Is One Righteous Man” Defence, also known as the “Good Nazi” Defence).
[Firstly, morality is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping, as PJ O’Rourke once said. You don’t get one bad act permitted for every good one (unless that good act involves taking immediate action on the bad one, so as to reverse its effects and prevent it ever happening again). Besides, having such a moral obscenity festering at the heart of the church invalidates any good work the church has done or will do in the future. As a cynic, I think it’s fair to say that much of the good work done by the church, like helping the poor in the Third World, has been done with as much of an eye to consolidating the church’s power and influence as it has been through sheer altruism. The church has always been enthusiastic about helping the poor in poverty-stricken ghettos; it has been noticeably reluctant to enquire as to why those people are so poor, or how their poverty could be alleviated, while at the same times snuggling up with murderous and brutal dictators.]
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, none of these pathetic excuses can stand up to even the most simple logical examination. But it’s worth repeating the facts that everyone knows at this case, just to remind ourselves of what the church actually did. For upwards of fifty years the institution of the church in Ireland (and a certain number of the laity involved with the church) knew that there were horrendous and widespread physical and sexual abuses being perpetrated upon children by its members, both in industrial schools and in the wider community. Not only did the clergy do nothing, but they engaged in a deliberate cover-up to prevent knowledge of these activities coming to light, by moving offending priests from diocese to diocese without informing anyone of their predilections (thus allowing them to abuse again and again), by forcing victims to sign oaths of secrecy, and so on. When information about the true scale of abuse first began to appear in the media, the church fought both victims and investigators every step of the way, often using bullying legal tactics to try and silence the traumatised victims of abuse, while putting in place measures designed to protect its assets in the event of compensation claims. Its first and only consideration has always been to protect itself above all else, and it has no compunction about destroying life after life to do so. These are not assertions; these are hard facts that can be backed up by volumes of documents. And now that it cannot hide any more behind lies and evasions – now that the facts are indisputable – it is seeking to spin its way out of accepting the only course compatible with honour: mass resignations, including the Pope himself; removal (in Ireland) of schools from church control; and handing themselves and all relevant documents over to the authorities for the immediate instigation of criminal proceedings.
Let us also not forget, and I remember very well, being a child of the seventies, just how the church dominated Irish life, and used its influence to force its own twisted, puritanical sexual morality onto everyone in the country. A homosexual? A single mother? An unmarried couple? A woman who wished to use contraception to avoid being continually pregnant? A person who questioned the church’s authority? A couple whose marriage had broken down irreconcilably, and who wanted a divorce? The Catholic Church in Ireland did everything in its power, which was practically unlimited, to ensure that your life was absolutely intolerable. It thundered from the pulpit every week about sin and guilt, lecturing people on how they should live their lives according to the church’s teaching. It used its power in the schools to enforce religion; seeing as the church controlled the schools and the local bishop, as patron of the school, could refuse a child’s entry, very few people with children could publicly challenge the church’s teachings if they wanted their child to be educated at all. Yet all the time that we were being lectured and bullied by priests, by the men who stood up and said “We are the very epitome of morality. We set the standards that everyone should follow!”, they were covering up the most monstrous, despicable crimes, in a conspiracy that went right from the Vatican down to the diocesan bishop. They all knew. And they did nothing. Nothing, that is, until they were forced by events to do so, in which case, rather than admit their culpability and beg forgiveness, they went on the attack. If one wants to see the true face of the church, see it in this action: in 1987 the diocese of Dublin took out insurance to protect itself against compensation claims from victims, but didn’t bother to put any rules in place to protect children from predatory priests, or report its concerns to the civil authorities. Yet this was the institution that would claim to be our moral guardians! And I see no evidence that they has changed in any meaningful way between then and now, except with extreme reluctance.
Reading the Murphy Report and the Ryan Report, one is reminded of the words of Primo Levi: “[One feels the shame] that the just man feels at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.” That men like Cardinal Sean Brady and Desmond Connell do not admit to this shame, but instead seek to weasel their way out of their responsibility towards justice, should utterly destroy in the eyes of the right-thinking person any shred of moral authority which the church claims to possess. Until the church openly says: “It was us, and us alone, and we are sorry, and therefore we resign all offices and hand ourselves over to face the full rigours of the law”, there can be no forgiveness for them. To quote from a man who knew a thing or two about religion, Jesus Christ himself (gettin' all Biblical on yo' ass!): "Do not do what [the teachers of the law and the Pharisees] do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them ... Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and things unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23, 2-4 and 27-28)