John Walsh: Reminding the faithful of the resurrection of Christ isn't for wimps

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

It's been a tough Easter weekend for Catholics. Devout adherents of the Church of Rome take the spring festival far more seriously than they do the Baby-Jesus sentimentality of Christmas, and the Easter liturgy, reminding the faithful of the death and resurrection of Christ, isn't for wimps. You need a strong constitution to endure the grisly reading of the Passion on Good Friday and the Holy Saturday midnight ritual with the paschal candles. The image of 200 faithful souls standing meekly in the dark at my church in Battersea, waiting for a single flickering light to appear through the doorway and save them, is a potent memory indeed.

How do they feel, though, about the news from Rome that a letter has surfaced from 1963, written by a Fr Fitzgerald to Pope Paul VI, recommending that priests "who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young" should be "laicised", i.e. made to join the laity or non-religious world, rather than returned to "active duty"? It's clear that Fitzgerald knew the that Vatican's usual response to "abnormal practices" in 1963 was to ship the miscreant to another diocese where it hoped he might wait a while before fiddling with fresh supplies of children.

Did the Vatican take his advice? Evidently not. It hushed up embarrassing outbreaks of sexual abuse, or relocated the guilty to provincial dioceses, as one might try and cure a cholera outbreak in Kent by sending symptom-bearers to Dorset.

Modern Catholics will be appalled that such things were common (and commonly covered up) 50 years ago – but also puzzled to think of Fitzgerald and others like him in the Church. If they'd thought something should be done about the abuse around them, why didn't they speak out?

I think I know. In 1963, I was nine, a London Catholic kid and weekly altar-server at Mass. Despite the short trousers (and the winsome manner) I was never abused by priests, at my Jesuit school or in my church, but I remember the unthinking respect in which they were held. Even the pink-necked, nervy ones from Irish seminaries were treated as if they were ambassadors from a great empire, and if the Papist faithful learned one thing, it was obedience.

Obedience! How that word, and its opposite, dinged through my childhood. In any recitation of sins at confession, it always came first: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I was disobedient to my parents three times..." Doing as you were told was all-important, far more crucial to being a good Catholic than Being Kind to the Poor, or Avoiding Occasions of Impurity. You learned not to question what you were told to do by parents, teachers, priests and nuns, no matter how illogical or perverse it seemed. Their authority as grown-ups was back-lit by the fires of hell, and woe betide you if you questioned them.

Fitzgerald was head of something called Servants of the Holy Paraclete, dedicated to looking after priests in trouble. The name is typical: they may have existed to deal with human failings among priests, but they were still "servants" of the Holy Ghost, and therefore of the Holy See. Their chances of taking action independently of their Vatican bosses were nil. It would be disobedient to the Pope.

Today, you can hear in Pope Benedict XVI's voice, in his body language, how appalled he is to be brought to account for the things he did or failed to do while running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. People who expect him to behave like a modern politician, and apologise for not shopping his paedophile clergy, are living in dreamland. Pope Benedict's attitude, like that of all senior Catholics, is: Do not defy me, do not disobey me, do not question or judge me, for I am above such concerns. I am the candle coming through the door of the darkened, musty church to bring you enlightenment. Suck it up, believers.