Dominic Lawson: The Pope is vilified, Polanski indulged

I had always imagined that it was people who raped children, rather than organisations, but perhaps Richard Dawkins is not so much interested in that

Last weekend I went to see a new film by a child-abuser. Very good it was, too. Roman Polanski's The Ghost shows no diminution in the artistic powers of one of cinema's most enduring talents: I can understand why the reviewers have been unstinting in their praise. Yet Polanski has not been doing the usual TV interviews that accompany critical acclaim. He is under house arrest in his Swiss chalet, fighting the attempts of a California court to extradite him for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer, in 1977.

The world of film – indeed, of art in general – regards this (Polanski's arrest, that is, not his abuse of a 13-year-old girl) as a scandal. This attitude was most clearly evident in the remark of the Hollywood actress Whoopi Goldberg, who last year defended him with the observation, "I know it wasn't rape-rape". With this remarkable neologism, Goldberg gave a new gloss to the old line (usually uttered by men) of "she said no, but she meant yes".

Geimer's testimony to the grand jury of the Los Angeles Supreme Court therefore bears repetition. She told the court how the then 44-year-old director plied her with the drug Quaalude mixed with champagne at the home of Jack Nicholson, and then, ignoring her befuddled requests that she wanted to "go home", began to molest her. Polanski, obviously much less befuddled, repeatedly asked her if she was on the pill; not satisfied with the clarity of her response, he buggered her.

Geimer told the court that she had not resisted more strongly because she "was afraid of him"; but not so scared that she obeyed his demand that she not tell her mother about "our little secret". The rest is more common knowledge: Polanski, aided by some excellent lawyers, bargained a plea of guilty to the lowest possible charge, of "sex with a minor", but then fled the US on the eve of his sentencing, and has been, as the Americans would put it, "a fugitive from justice" ever since. As I say, the "enlightened" view – at least in this country and even more so in Polanski's adopted nation of France – is that this was all a very long time ago, and that the great auteur has suffered quite enough, if only in not being able to go to back to Hollywood to pick up any of his awards.

Pope Benedict XVI, by contrast – without such creative achievements as Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown to adorn his CV – does not enjoy similar indulgence. So such leaders of enlightened opinion as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have called for the leader of the world's one billion or so Catholics to be arrested for complicity in the covering up of child abuse when he arrives in Britain for a state visit in September. Professor Dawkins wrote in The Washington Post last week that "this former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares set foot outside the tinpot fiefdom of the Vatican, and he should be tried in an appropriate civil court". For good measure, he declared the Catholic Church to be a "child- raping institution".

I had always imagined that it was people who raped children, rather than organisations, but perhaps Prof Dawkins is not so much interested in bringing men to book for their abuse of children, as the Catholic Church for the opinions it propagates. In fact this was made clear – Dawkins is at all times wonderfully lucid – in his book The God Delusion, published in 2006. He wrote then that "we live in a time of hysteria about paedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witchhunts of 1692". Dawkins went on: "The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium ... I dislike the Catholic Church, but I dislike unfairness even more and I can't help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonised over this issue, especially in Ireland and America."

It seems that the Pope himself – admittedly four years after Dawkins wrote those words – takes a much less tolerant view of what went on in Ireland. Last month he issued a "pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland" in which he said he shared "in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts [of abuse of children by priests] and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them ... You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured ... Many of you found that when you were courageous enough to speak of what had happened to you, no one would listen."

Now, it may be that I have missed something, but I don't recall Roman Polanski offering any sort of apology to the person he actually abused, although he did agree, in 1993, to pay Ms Geimer $500,000, presumably on the understanding that she would cease to be a hostile witness. The point is, I suspect, that whereas the Pope does understand that great wickedness has been perpetrated – systematically – by individuals within the Catholic priesthood, Polanski genuinely regards his own conduct as blameless. In fact, he sees himself, and not the 13-year-old girl he sodomised, as the victim.

Polanski, it might be said in his defence, is not a hypocrite. He never pretended to be a maintainer of any moral order. This is why the behaviour of priests who abused children in their care, and any subsequent cover-up by their bishops, revolts us particularly: they claimed to embody the spiritual authority of Christ himself, who declared: "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

Yet there is also a similarity between Polanski's behaviour and that of the sexually predatory priest. In both cases the abuse was one of a position of power. That is much more obvious in the case of the clergy: especially in a country such as Ireland, where the constitution of the Republic itself gave them "special" authority. They had, in effect, absolute power, which was not just (as Acton observed) absolutely corrupting, but which also intimidated their victims into acquiescence.

Similarly, the world-famous film director fully understood the power he had over a 13-year-old would-be starlet, whose pictures he had promised to take for a future edition of French Vogue. It is almost the oldest story in Hollywood, but none the less disgusting for that; the defence of "she wanted it, really" would not impress the cultural world if the proposer of that eternal exculpation were a man without artistic pedigree.

Just as it was outrageous for the Catholic Church, at any level, to put the burnishing of the reputation of its priesthood ahead of the sufferings of children, so those who put their faith in artists should realise that they too have no special claim to be beyond good and evil.