The Catholic Church must pay a high price for its cover-up culture

The phenomenon of children’s unflinching obedience to sexual requests from the priest is induced by ‘reverential fear’

Geoffrey Robertson
Wednesday 27 February 2019 18:47
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Vatican treasurer George Pell heckled leaving court after being found guilty of sexual assault

News of the conviction and imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell, number three in the Vatican, for the rape of small boys in a sacristy came as a fitting end to a papal summit on child abuse which achieved nothing.

It had begun with other cardinals attributing the problem to homosexuals in the priesthood. Of course, the reality is that priests abuse small boys, not because they are gay, but because they have the opportunity. Most are not even paedophiles, but rather sexually maladjusted, immature and lonely individuals, unable to resist the temptation to exploit their power over children who are taught to revere them as the agents of God.

A church which has tolerated the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children – a crime against humanity in any definition, needs to face unpalatable truths and to make drastic reforms.

Cover-ups are no longer an option. The magnitude of the crimes is well established and the evidence of how the Vatican and its bishops hushed them up in order to protect the reputation and finances of the Catholic Church is fully proved. By insisting upon its right to deal with allegations under medieval canon law weighted in favour of the defendant and providing no effective punishment, the church itself became complicit.

It has allowed abusive priests to confess without fear of any report to police; it has encouraged bishops to withhold information from prosecuting authorities; it has refused to allow Vatican envoys (papal nuncios) to cooperate with government inquiries on the excuse that it is a state and hence they have diplomatic immunity.

The necessary reforms must begin with recognition that child sexual abuse is a crime, not just a sin, and must be reported to and dealt with by prosecuting authorities. Canon law, with its pathetic punishments of prayer and penitence, and its obligations to keep proceedings secret, must have no part in dealing with allegations of sex abuse. Nor can the veil of confidentiality any longer be allowed to shroud the confessions of paedophiles, let alone the absolution of one priest by another (“Brother, can you spare a crime?”). The confessed abuser must be told to confess to the police or else be handed over to them.

Obviously, there should be zero tolerance for clerics who confess or are convicted. They must be defrocked and certainly not allowed any appeal to the Vatican which in the past has permitted many to remain in holy orders – the sheep’s clothing in which they have often reoffended.

Even in countries where local bishops have announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex abuse allegations, there is always the qualification “only if the victim consents”. It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counselled that their son’s best interests lie in allowing the church to deal with the matter “in its own way” without involving the police. They give in easily to pressure and persuasion that their complaints should be dealt with in secret under canon law.

Abolishing the role of canon law in dealing with sex crimes will take some papal courage, but will be relatively easy beside the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse from happening in the first place.

The reform most often suggested is to abandon celibacy. This would not be doctrinally difficult – Christ’s disciples appear to have been married and the rule was a dogma introduced in the 11th century and almost abolished by 16th century reformers. But marriage does not “cure” paedophilia or treat the disordered personalities that prevent them from forming satisfactory heterosexual relationships. Abuse happens because they are too weak or emotionally immature to resist the temptation to abuse their power in the most heinous way.

Why does that temptation arise? The church indoctrinates children at the earliest age possible – usually at seven – that the priest is the agent of God. Communion is an awesome miracle performed by the God-priest, and then the impressionable and nervous child is made to confess his sins and seek forgiveness, from God, represented again by the priest.

The phenomenon of children’s unflinching obedience to sexual requests from the priest is induced by “reverential fear”: the victims have such emotional and psychological dependence on the abuser that they unquestionably obey and do not tell for many years afterwards.

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It follows that the only reform that could tackle the evil of clerical sexual abuse at its source would be to raise the age at which children are first given communion and confession from seven to, say, 13. Other churches, and the Jewish faith, leave indoctrination and spiritual commitment rituals until teenage-hood. By this stage young people are much more capable of resisting sexual advances and have more courage to report them.

Could the Pope ever contemplate this reform? The Jesuits say “give me the boy at seven…” and now we know what this has meant. But if such reforms are not implemented, there must be consequences.

One consequence could be to reconsider, not the state, but the statehood of the Vatican. It is, after all, the only religion allowed this elevated status, with diplomatic immunities, expensive embassies and a role at the UN where it condemns programmes that help homosexuals or propose family planning or gender equality. Yet it is in reality no more than a religious enclave in Rome, without the attributes of sovereignty or even an indigenous population (no one is born there, except by accident). If it continues as an organisation that facilitates the abuse of children, it should have no immunities at all.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a former UN appeal judge and author of ‘The Case of the Pope’ (Penguin)

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