A C Grayling: Why no Asbo for the Pope?

Joseph Ratzinger and the head of Goldman Sachs head powerful organisations that are above the law

Sunday 02 May 2010 00:00 BST

Why is it that large, rich, influential organisations and those who run them get away with big crimes and misdemeanours, when ordinary folk are punished for their miniature versions of them? It's an old story, of course, but no more pleasant or right for being so.

Compare the circumstances of two men whose occupations and avocations have brought them to pubic notice recently. One is Harry Taylor, an unemployed 59-year-old, who was found guilty last week in a Liverpool court of putting "offensive religious images" in the prayer room of the city's John Lennon airport (which he did on the grounds that having such a room in an airport named after John Lennon would, he said, have offended John Lennon). The jury of 10 women and two men had all sworn to consider his case fairly – on the Bible.

Mr Taylor received a five-year Asbo forbidding him from carrying religiously offensive images in public, and sentencing him to six months' imprisonment suspended for two years, but with 100 hours of unpaid work and £250 costs to make him feel the sting of the judge's disapproval.

The other man is Joseph Ratzinger, otherwise Pope Benedict XVI, right, current head of the Roman Catholic church. To appreciate the contrast between the Pope and Mr Taylor, we need to remind ourselves of the following simple facts. Child sex abuse is a serious crime. Concealing crimes is a serious crime. Systematic, decades-long deliberate concealment of many thousands of crimes in many countries is a very large-scale criminal conspiracy. It is a matter of public record that the Catholic church is guilty of just such a conspiracy. The Pope, as head of the church, is accountable for the its actions. It is also on public record that he personally protected abusers and covered up cases of child abuse before becoming Pope.

Is the Pope in any danger of receiving 100 hours of community service for hiding hundreds of paedophiles from the law all round the world? Is he likely to get an Asbo? Or has he been invited to the United Kingdom as an official visitor who will meet the Queen and be feted and courted, secure in the knowledge that efforts to arrest him and put him on trial for heading a huge criminal conspiracy will fail?

It is not only the Vatican that enjoys the immunity, the get-out-jail-free card, so willingly conferred by far too many people and their governments on anyone or anything big, rich and influential. The same curious and unquestioning deference is accorded to institutions like (to take a relevant current example) Goldman Sachs. This enormous bank has more in common with the Vatican than the fact that both "do God's work", as the Goldman Sachs chairman, Lloyd Blankfein, claimed on his organisation's behalf. (By "God's work", he meant creating wealth and jobs. The irony is that for everyone other than itself, Goldman Sachs has lately done the very opposite.) It shares with the Vatican the same immunity, the ability to do massive harm and yet, Teflon-like, get away without a scratch.

For only consider: for years, it seems, Goldman Sachs had knowingly and deliberately packaged and sold bad debt, and then bet against that bad debt, thus winning twice at others' expense. Goldman maintains that its clients knew what the score was. To the untutored eye, this looks straightforwardly like the crime of fraud, but hey, who are we non-bankers to judge? What we know is that as tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and homes in 2009 because of the dodgy things that banks such as Goldman Sachs were doing, Goldman Sachs was making a profit of $13bn (yes, billion).

Is Lloyd Blankfein, as head of the bank in question, in danger of an Asbo preventing him from going anywhere near an investor? Is he likely to get 100 hours of community service for earning tens of millions of dollars in recent years as he and his bank helped drive the world economy towards meltdown by their unscrupulous tricks, thus seriously harming millions of people?

Well, Mr Blankfein and others in his company's management testified before a Senate committee last week. Even as they were being told by one senator that Las Vegas was offended by comparisons with Wall Street – because Vegas casinos are honest enough to acknowledge that the odds are on their side – the share price of Goldman Sachs rose. Why? Because everyone knows that Mr Blankfein and his cronies and their bank are safe as houses and will come to no harm. (By the way, the senator in question, John Ensign, is himself under investigation for sexual inappropriateness with a member of his staff. In America, "ethics" is about money and "morals" is about sex.)

Two images spring to mind regarding the Pope of Banking and the CEO of the Vatican, each heading organisations publicly acknowledged to have done immense harm and yet neither is in any danger of having to pay for it, not even with the punishment that Harry Taylor must undergo. One is the image of such men as Erich Honecker and Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, suddenly exposed by the collapse of the gigantic cardboard myth behind which they hid. The other is the image of the Wizard of Oz at his levers, caught as the curtain hiding him is whisked aside, revealing a puny fellow in his underpants.

If we did not buy the big cardboard myths that protect the papacy and the bankers, we would apply to these men exactly the same standards as we would if, say, our government's inspectors of schools were shielding sexually abusive teachers, or if the finance department of our local authority were betting other people's money for its own gain. This is precisely what the Vatican and Goldman Sachs have done: but they are not being held accountable because of the cardboard myths that they, in their turn, hide behind.

In a world that was the right way up, what Harry Taylor did might be regarded as bad manners or lack of taste, but not a crime. Giving offence in respect of what someone chooses to believe or do should never be a crime; matters are otherwise with gender, sexuality, age or disability, because these are not matters of choice. In the Taylor case, the real offence is the crime committed against free speech. But it is even more offensive that Harry Taylor can be subjected to a criminal prosecution and the Pope and Lloyd Blankfein not. Tearing down the cardboard myths that protect them would be the first step to putting this right.

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