Mark Steel: The Vatican should be thanking Rowan Williams

The assumption is that, if someone's a religious leader, they're wholesome

Wednesday 07 April 2010 00:00

Gordon Brown has one genuine chance left. He must employ the Vatican, as their public relations team operates at a level of utter genius. Somehow, while they're embroiled in an international paedophile scandal, they've fixed it so the person who's had to apologise is the Archbishop of an entirely different faith, for suggesting on Radio 4's Start the Week that the scandal has caused the Catholic church to lose credibility. Gary Glitter must have been straight on to 118 118 to gasp "Give me the number of the Pope".

The Pope's own preacher managed to make life even trickier for his boss, complaining that criticism of the Catholic Church on this issue was similar to anti-Semitism and "Collective punishment for Jews." Of course. I'm sure when a priest is told the children he abused want action to be taken against him, he thinks "I tell you what, now I know exactly how Anne Frank felt."

Still, I suppose we should be grateful he didn't add "But none of the priests used condoms so at least they're all good Catholics."

In a way this follows the history of the church, which has never been keen on owning up to its bad behaviour until the last minute. As a guide, having threatened to kill Galileo unless he withdrew his astronomical discoveries, they did manage to apologise, in 1996. So if the child abuse victims can be patient for three more centuries that should get everything cleared up.

You could argue there's something in the nature of the priesthood that makes this sort of activity more likely. A shrink for example might suggest that if you're seen as a conduit between your parishioners and the creator of the universe, and have to be celibate and even masturbation lands you with an eternity in unimaginable agonising torment, that could lead to behavioural issues in certain cases.

The Vatican has objected that the percentage of paedophiles in the priesthood is lower than in society as a whole. Who knows what polling company produced those figures but the problem isn't that some priests abuse children, it's that the ones who do it have been protected by their holy bosses.

It may be that a similar percentage of gas fitters are child abusers, but if they're caught they're sent to the police, and not told that as long as they quietly slip off to a different parish they can still advertise themselves as Corgi registered.

For example, one Father Lawrence Murphy is said to have abused around 200 boys at a deaf school over a period of 24 years in South Wisconsin, and when this was reported to the Vatican he was asked to move to North Wisconsin. And if they'd thought of it they'd probably have suggested he tried the blind school instead as at least they wouldn't be able to identify him in court.

Or there's the government commission in Ireland that concluded in one institution: "For six years priests and nuns terrorised boys and girls with physical, sexual and mental abuse."

If that was any other body, the press would plaster photos of all the abusers on their front pages under headlines saying "Boil this scum." And with your normal paedophile case, if someone suggests the institution that protected them will lose credibility as a result, the media reaction isn't "Hmm, well that seems a little strong."

But there's an assumption that if someone's a religious leader they are by definition wholesome and a bit saintly, so even a paedophile priest must mean well. And the person in charge of the branch of the Vatican that dealt with these misdemeanours was Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, so it must all be a result of a bureaucratic mix-up or something.

So the Pope will just have to offer a semi-regret, send a couple of the worst offenders to a clinic, maybe suggest in future if a priest can't help himself with a bit of child abuse, he should use patches to wean himself off it, and then complain how upsetting it is if in spite of all this someone suggests his church is losing credibility.

Or maybe we've all been fooled and the Archbishop's comments were part of a publicity stunt for the show he made them on, in which case it was a huge success and similar tactics will be used for other shows. So the first question on next week's Gardeners' Question Time will be: "Can the panel tell me why my hydrangeas have been riddled with greenfly since the Church of England has been effectively finished as a religion? And that comes from the Dalai Lama?"

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