AMIE DOWARD’S April 24, 2005 Guardian column, “The Pope, the letter and the child sex claim,” closes with the assertion that the reign of Benedict XVI may well be judged in relation to the sexual crimes and criminals long cloistered by the Vatican, and indeed Mr. Ratzinger himself. As the current Pope departs, the time is full for a summation of these crimes as well as these criminals.
As consequence of the courage and tenacity of the victims — of which there are as many as ten thousand, according to the John Jay College report — an indictment of the church’s topmost offices may now be assembled. For years, rarely a month has passed without some new and lurid disclosure thickening the already rotten stench of a closed-rank institution obsessed with its self preservation. In January we were informed of the Cardinal Roger Mahony’s removal from duties and the release of priest files which contain the “terribly sad and evil” acts (as Archbishop Gomez termed them) committed throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
This latest revisiting of a decade-long, international outrage recalls what is perhaps the most notorious case of Boston’s then Archbishop, Bernard Law, whose cover-ups of child rape led to disgrace and resignation late in 2002. Since that time many thousands of allegations have issued, and a disgusting pattern of institutional obfuscation and evasion, guided from the very top, has emerged. The rot did not begin with the Holy See’s current Pontiff, as Gratian’s De Poenitentia shows. An internal discussion over management of sexual crimes — or sins, if you prefer — has run across the centuries. What has changed is the capacity of the Catholic church and its agents to appoint themselves the exclusive judge and jury. Of this depraved and failed effort, let the public record show that Joseph Ratzinger was a leading proponent.
Modern-day policy derives from Vatican documents of the 1960s. Having anticipated a public scandal, the church under John Paul II initiated an internal investigation, under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — an office earlier known as the Roman Inquisition and placed in 1981 under the Prefect Ratzinger. Doward’s two Guardian columns of April 24 — the second is titled “Pope ‘obstructed’ sex abuse inquiry” — capture the tone and substance of the present Pope’s effort to contain the uncontainable, by deferring to the long-standing policy of secrecy and silence, “under the penalty of excommunication” for renegade priests.
For as long as possible, the Vatican enforced the secrets. For as long as possible, senior officials arrogated to themselves the roles of judge and jury. When these efforts collapsed soon after 2000 under the weight of public disclosure, scrutiny and outrage, Mr. Ratzinger charged the crimes to the accounts of secularism, asserting that “pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children.” Suddenly the church, that sacred chalice from which alone flowed the absolute knowledge of beauty and moral rectitude and God’s Truth, was simply an unwitting victim of moral relativism.
The truth however is more nuanced than that, and less amenable to the Vatican’s propaganda. Whatever one may say of moral relativism, it happens that every step forward, under Benedict XVI, was compelled by secular pressure. Once the multiple defensive tactics had failed, apologies were issued and commitments to doing better were made. In Ireland, the church was compelled by law to report crimes to secular authorities, while in Canada a flood of lawsuits brought lawyers for the Catholic Entities into negotiations of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
In the meanwhile, the disgraces of both Bernard Law and Roger Mahony were rewarded by Ratzinger with rich appointments — in particular to the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic church. Both Law and Mahoney participated in the Papal Conclave which selected the now-retiring Vicar of Christ, as Mahoney will do once again in the choosing of a successor. Also participating in the 2005 conclave was Ratzinger-ally and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who in 2010 characterized abuse allegations as “petty gossip of the moment” and who seven years earlier had intervened on behalf of the convicted sexual abuser Marcial Maciel in an effort to shut down the investigation.
With filth such as this at the very core of the Vatican, we should not be surprised that above all imperatives obtains a cardinal injunction to somehow renew and revive an institution caught in the act. Mr. Ratzinger’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, for example, dwells pitifully upon the tribulations of the Roman Church in the late 1600s, inadvertently reminding us of a more recent Ireland and more recent sacrifices of children to the same sordid religious tribalisms. Joseph Ratzinger not only failed to renew the Catholic church — he created the very conditions which will make a meaningful renewal improbable.