Joan Smith: Brand Vatican is a failing company

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The Independent Online

Imagine that you are a senior manager in a highly regarded organisation, responsible for many junior employees, some of whom you know personally. Their jobs put them in frequent contact with the public, and you trust them to work conscientiously.

Then you discover that some have abused your trust. They have sexually abused children on many occasions, and are likely to carry on doing so unless you alert the criminal justice system. What do you do? In the case of the Roman Catholic church, the answer is that you try to bury the scandal. You move a few priests and hope that the whole thing will go away.

It doesn't: in the UK, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Bishop of Arundel, later to become head of the church, moves a paedophile priest to the post of chaplain at Gatwick airport. Michael Hill goes on to abuse a boy with learning difficulties; 12 years later, he is jailed for five years for 10 assaults on children.

In Ireland, a young priest called Sean Brady, who will become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, is required to record evidence at a secret tribunal where two children claim they have been abused by a priest called Brendan Smyth. The young victims must sign an oath that they will not talk about the abuse other than to a priest. The police are not informed. Twenty-two years later, Smyth is jailed for abusing 20 children.

In Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich and the future Pope Benedict XVI, approves the transfer to his archdiocese of Peter Hullermann, a priest who is accused of abusing boys, on condition that Hullermann undergoes weekly therapy. Unknown to Ratzinger, Hullermann is assigned to a parish and eventually given a suspended prison sentence for sexually abusing children. Promoted to Cardinal, Ratzinger has to decide how to respond to growing allegations about sexual abuse in the church; he issues a directive instructing bishops to keep accusations confidential. Ratzinger's elder brother Georg, choirmaster at Regensburg Cathedral, will one day furiously deny any knowledge of claims that young choristers were being sexually abused by priests and older boys.

Last week, as the international crisis over paedophile priests laps at the doors of the Vatican, Peter Smith, Archbishop of Cardiff, appears on Friday's Today programme. He says that Murphy-O'Connor was right not to step down over his leniency towards Michael Hill, because resignations "are not the most appropriate way of doing things". In fact, four Irish bishops have resigned after failing to report paedophile priests, but Murphy-O'Connor and other bishops claim they did not understand the "addictive" nature of child abuse.

A commercial organisation that knew its employees were sexually abusing children and failed to report the offenders to the police would by now have been savaged by its shareholders. The board would be accused of inflicting possibly terminal damage on the "brand", the directors would have been sacked and the police would be demanding to see company files to establish the extent of the cover-up.

For decades, the Vatican has condemned contraception, abortion and homosexuality while the hierarchy covered up thousands of assaults and rapes. Today a pastoral letter from the Pope will be read to Ireland's Catholics, but it is miles away from a categoric statement of the church's responsibility to report sex crimes to the police. When Benedict XVI arrives in this country later this year, I hope he will be greeted with the disdain due to the head of an organisation that has sheltered hundreds of serial sex offenders.