A Catholic friend recently told me, “What we are faced with is a circumstance where it is sometimes an embarrassment to be a Catholic,” not for reasons of religion, but for reasons of church government. He went on to say that hopefully, with the selection of a new Pope, there will soon be more affirmative action in addressing the ongoing suffering caused by the coverup, over several decades, of the facts associated with priests who were and are sexual predators.
Is there reason for my friend's hopeful view about future church policies? In some ways, yes.
There have been changes in how the bishops are being instructed to deal with child sexual abuse, and some guilty priests have been removed from parish duties. There have been efforts to provide better responses to the needs of the priests who require treatment for their pathological behavior.
And certainly there has been court-ordered restitution for known victims of this abuse.
Just another government coverup
However, in the more fundamental sense, the Vatican is still an hierarchical and undemocratic government, whose responses to the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church today seem little different from its historical response to controversial issues that have been perceived to threaten its worldview and its well-being.
So far, it has responded to the facts only when forced to, out of public view, if possible, and it changes the facts to best suit the perceived secular needs of the church, sometimes at the expense of truth and morality. In this regard, it is not so far removed from the principles so brilliantly exposed, in the 16th century by the Italian philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli, in his political satire, “The Prince.” These principles of Machiavellianism are defined as: “A pragmatic morality, often involving the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or general conduct.”
The key, of course, is in the phrase “pragmatic morality,” as if morality can be negotiated. From there it is but a short stroll to another maxim found in Machiavelli's satire, “the ends justify the means,” giving governments permission to compromise on morality whenever morality is an inconvenience.
In the current context, a good example is the attempted coverup by former Archbishop Bernard Francis Law of Boston, who, in the words of the attorney general of the state of Massachusetts, “... has shown an institutional reluctance to adequately address the problem (of child sexual abuse) and, in fact, made choices that allowed the abuse to continue.” Pope John Paul II then allowed Law to resign as archbishop in 2002, brought him to Rome, outside the legal jurisdiction of the state of Massachusetts, and rewarded him by giving him the title of archpriest, and by putting him in charge of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. He remained a cardinal until 2012, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 80 years. Not once during the decades of child sexual abuse in Boston did anybody call the cops. How many future victims could have been saved from rape and betrayal with a phone call?
The Catholic church government is no more infallible than is any other government, and, for it to retain or recapture any moral high ground, it must promote absolute transparency in all its dealings. It must put itself within the world and the law, and not above it. Its conspiratorial actions, and those of its cardinals and their popes, were attempts to coverup the wholesale betrayal and sexual abuse of children, for a very long time. This constitutes a fundamental flaw in the governance of the church. They cannot apologize for this. They must acknowledge it all and put into place a mechanism that will guarantee transparency. They must guarantee that the coverup, if not the specific events, cannot and will not recur. They would do well to contemplate the words of the poet, José Martí: “He who witnesses a crime in silence commits it.”
The issue now in front of the cardinals in Rome is not any issue of religion. Nor is it the issue of homosexuality, nor even the issue of celibacy. What demands to be revealed and recanted, publicly and unambiguously, is the attempts to cover up the issue of pederasty, and the depth and breadth of this betrayal and sexual abuse of children. Herein lies the issue of morality, which is not negotiable. Herein lies the issue of a government sponsored conspiracy of enormous and profound consequences, not just to the violators and their victims, and their pain and suffering, but consequences to the very nature of the government of the Roman Catholic church and its claim to any kind of moral standing in the worlds of government or religion.
The Conclave of Cardinals meets in Rome this week to choose a new pope. In so doing, what could be a more important question for them to ask the candidates than: “If elected, what will you do to make sure that never again will these criminal acts of priests go unreported? What will you do to save future children from the pain and suffering of so many children at the hands of our priests during recent decades? When will you instruct the bishops to call the cops?”
(Norman Bernstein lives in Havre.)