Tom Sutcliffe: This papal tone of petulance is shameful

The Pope's weekend address reveals that he still doesn't understand what went wrong
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The Independent Online

I've been trying to resist the temptation to take satisfaction in the current embarrassments of the Catholic Church. Why? Well, one obvious reason would be that those embarrassments arise out of the suffering of children – and it would be far better if the occasions for the Catholic hierarchy's current confusion and disgrace had never occurred in the first place.

Another reason would be that I can't quite share the zeal in opposition of some of my fellow-atheists – whose sincere indignation on behalf of abused children has sometimes appeared to be mixed with an opportunistic loathing of clerics in general. And though I share their distaste for the institutional Church – and for the real-world effects of some of its dogmas – it seemed to me unseemly to crow, to say "we told you so", when there was real sorrow in this story – both for the victims of abusing priests and for disillusioned believers.

This self-denying ordinance got a lot harder over the weekend though, after an address from the Pope in which he appeared to dismiss recent criticism of him and his church as the "petty gossip of dominant opinion". I still find myself murmuring those first two words in tones of incredulity. Petty gossip. At a time when the Church is being found guilty of covering up real crimes and facilitating fresh ones, at a time when contrition would seem to be the only morally decent tone to adopt, he talks of how religious faith gives one the courage not to be intimidated by "petty gossip".

Perhaps it was a clumsy translation. Perhaps, as some of the more devout apologists believe, this is another instance of maleficent powers at work, attempting to undermine His Holiness through the agency of the Vatican's translation and media services. But for the moment we'll have to go with what we've got – and, in its petulant sense of grievance, "petty gossip" seems to offer a perfect distillation of how things went so badly wrong in the first place.

"How dare you criticise me" would be one way of paraphrasing it – prejudicial, I admit, but not indefensibly so. Because the sense of the Church as either above questioning by outsiders (or so vulnerable to criticism that it must be forestalled at all costs) lies at the heart of these scandals. There are other confusing – even mitigating – factors here: men who truly believe that the sinful will be cast into eternal perdition might be expected to feel that man-made justice is nugatory by comparison; men who truly believe that forgiveness is a Christian duty might lose sight of the fact that charity to a perpetrator can be inseparable from further cruelty to a victim. But at the centre of every failure to act and every ignoble compromise lay the conviction that Catholic values should never submit to secular ones. Indeed, as the Pope's remark about "dominant opinion" confirmed, it was a source of spiritual pride to be at odds with the world at large.

That pride came before a fall – and a shameful one. The Pope's weekend address reveals – with its dismissive choice of words – that he still doesn't understand what went wrong. There was a most telling echo of his phrase in one of the reports of his sermon, in a paragraph dealing with the trial of Father Ruggero Conti, a priest accused of abusing 30 children. When his bishop was asked by an investigating magistrate why he'd ignored complaints made against him he replied "because you hear so many rumours". Petty gossip, you might say. I think it's legitimate to take some satisfaction in the Pope's difficulties now – and not just for atheists, but for Catholics who care about their faith. The old system is rotten – and he can't mend it.

24 – not just too torturous, but dangerous with it

People rarely mourn when a bad television show comes to an end, but there are sometimes grounds for active celebration. 24, which Fox recently announced would not be recommissioned after the end of the current season, wasn't just bad because it was silly and grindingly repetitive. It was bad because it was immoral and corrupting – a cynical apologia for torture at a time when it was a present temptation for American soldiers and politicians. One study counted 67 torture scenes in the first five series – overwhelmingly with the hero doing the torturing and always (unless Jack Bauer was the torturee) productive.

You don't have to believe Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's claim that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield's enthusiasm for the show contributed to US policy in this matter or be some bleeding-heart appeaser to feel misgivings either. In November 2006 a West Point general and three senior military interrogators met with the 24 production team to express their concerns about the effect the show was having on cadets and soldiers in the field. They also asked them to consider including a scene in which torture was shown to backfire – as they knew it often did in practice. They were ignored – because feeding public fantasies about ticking-bomb scenarios and tough short cuts was just too lucrative.

As a reviewer I've occasionally written glibly about programmes causing me pain. This series almost certainly resulted in real pain being inflicted on people who'd never seen it – and its termination was long overdue.

Teenagers don't fear drugs – they relish the risk

California voters recently learnt that this November they will have the opportunity to vote for the legalisation of recreational use of marijuana, another small sign that the pack ice of prohibition is beginning to creak and crack.

Meanwhile, in this country our drug policy continues with the usual mixture of muddle and media panic. Another drug adviser tires of being used as a scientific rubber stamp and resigns from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, meaning that the Government now can't even jerk its knee in response to the Daily Mail's rubber mallet. The scientific study I would like to see conducted is some serious research into the effects of last week's fuss over mephedrone – an inadvertent advertising campaign for a drug which was described as cheap, potent and legal – but only for a limited time.

I'm guessing there will have been quite a few teenagers who had never previously thought of taking the drug, who found themselves drawn to the idea by the widespread media coverage. And the scare stories won't have been much of a deterrent.

Teenagers, after all, aren't famously unnerved by risks. They relish them. They tombstone off piers, and race cars down country lanes, and have drinking competitions not because these activities are safe but precisely because they aren't. I'd put money on the likelihood there was a big increase in mephedrone sales over the last week.

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