Sunday, March 28, 2010

clerical collar crimes

ex-cardinal R, believed to have signed with the red devils during the recent transfer window

The Catholic church is in the news again, seeking to defend, by blustering attacks on investigative reportage, its more than simply shaky self-image as an institution above the corruptions of the flesh. By the way, if you’re ever in the mood for a juicy read, and plenty of material to heighten your sense of self-righteous superiority, I suggest you google ‘catholic church denies allegations’, and you’ll be guaranteed to garner enough salacious stuff to keep you going for a month of Sundays.

It’s ironic to find the hierarchy of an organization so long tied to oppression, persecution, intimidation and worse crying foul over these carefully investigated and worded allegations, and making noises about witch-hunts. At the same time it’s probably true that liberal papers such as the NYT and the Guardian scent the blood of a wounded beast and are happy to go in for the kill – though I suspect the Catholic church will stagger on for a long time to come.

Of course, if a Pope were to be brought down, that would really be something, and currently it’s the man himself who’s in the crosshairs of the liberal media. The most recent claim from the NYT suggests damning evidence, but the wording is confusing.


The claim concerns the church’s treatment of Father Peter Hullermann, described as a known paedophile, in the seventies and eighties [and perhaps beyond]. According to the NYT:

the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was copied in on a memo from his deputy in which the priest was transferred to parish duties in Bavaria that brought him into contact with children. As a result of that decision by the then vicar-general, Father Gerhard Gruber, the priest was able to continue abusing boys, for which he was later tried and convicted.

It’s unclear what ‘copied in’ means here. Was the memo addressed to Ratzinger? Did he sign it? Does the memo still exist? Investigators are apparently still probing the records, and the church is still being evasive. The  former vicar-general, who’s more directly implicated in the scandal, is refusing to answer questions about the matter, all of which raises the question of Catholic immunity.

Immunity has been a major issue, and a cause of much outrage, in Ireland, where three separate inquiries have been conducted into priestly abuse in recent times.  In one of them, the Commission to Inquire into the Dublin Archdiocese, it was found that ‘hundreds  of crimes against children from the 1960s to the 1990s were not reported while police treated clergy as though they were above the law’. Four archbishops at least were involved in the cover-up, and it would be na├»ve in the extreme to imagine that Dublin was an isolated archdiocese in this respect.

The immunity issue was never spelt out, it seems, but it was taken for granted, from the sixties [before which child abuse hardly seems to have been recognized as an issue at all] through to the eighties, that the Catholic Church, which of course had a position of great power and prestige in Ireland, was beyond the remit of police and legal investigators. Now, with the church being forced to abandon its secrecy and its policy of harm-minimisation [to the reputation of the church that is] at all costs, it’s a matter of playing catch-up, and the revelations will continue to come thick and fast. But immunity is still something that the Catholic Church is determined to cling to, it seems. This sense of immunity, which hangs on an outmoded and destructive tradition, needs to be shredded.

Returning to Ratzinger, the Hullermann scandal comes hard on the heels of another, involving a Father Lawrence Murphy, serial abuser of some 200 deaf children in Wisconsin. Ratzinger was informed, or at least written to, but did nothing. He claims not to have known about the case. It’s true enough, I’m sure that hundreds and thousands of memos and notes and letters would have crossed the desk of the busy and ambitious cardinal in those days – but how many of them would have been about serious, criminal abuse of defenceless children? These should never have been ignored, though it’s possible that in this case the letter was intercepted by some underling [which might exonerate Ratzinger, but it would inculpate the Catholic hierarchy all the more].

An op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday, written by Maureen Dowd, whimsically argued for a Nope instead of a Pope next time round – or perhaps immediately, after Ratzinger’s impeachment or whatever. By a Nope, she means a nun-pope. Given everything we know about the Catholic Church and the papacy, it’s a laughable suggestion, even though, given all that we know about good governance, sanity, openness and trust, it’s the soundest option available.

The appalling attitude of the Catholic hierarchy to women is one of the major reasons why it’s been on the nose for centuries. Its appalling attitude to other religions and to ‘heretics’ is another reason of course, but you can always put that down to in-group prejudice and the need to patrol the margins, to clamp down on heterodoxy all the more when the orthodoxy is essentially arbitrary. But without doubt the church’s hostile attitude to women wielding power, together with the church’s own powerful position from the fourth or fifth century CE until quite recently, has had a disastrous impact on the position of women in the west. Sarah, an avid reader of ‘historicals’, as she calls them, recently read a book called Godiva [apparently pronounced Godeeva],  about the eleventh century lady of Coventry, which featured this interesting postscript:

… the historical Godiva lived at a moment in time when the history of women was about to take a turn for the worse. Up until the age of the Norman Conquest women throughout Britain, whether in England, Wales or Ireland, could inherit and bequeath substantial property, including land. Women could also instigate divorce [where there were grounds that were legally acceptable], and retain access to their children and to their share of the marital property. Widows and divorced women could also remarry. During marriage, women were protected by law against violence and neglect and were not, in general, prohibited from practising specific crafts or skills, or from riding, bearing arms or travelling. The basic social model for the pre-Conquest adult woman was that of a partner in a marital relationship: sometimes a lesser partner, often equal and occasionally superior.
Over the centuries following the Norman Conquest, under the influence of Church lawyers, all these advantages that women in Britain had hitherto possessed withered away and passed into history, leaving women of all social ranks subject to vastly increased male authority in the family, dispossessed of property in everything but name, and in general degraded to a state of inferiority – disarmed in an age of ‘chivalry’, unemployed in an age of guilds, and uneducated in an age of growing literacy. Men and women were set on routes of social change that split the age-old customs of partnership and introduced the enmity of the genders. The overwhelming responsibility for this unhappy change is borne by the Catholic Church, which obtained jurisdiction in all matters to do with the family and pushed forward an agenda for the dispossession of women – especially powerful, landowning women – which found keen support in ruling military circles in Norman England [from the postscript to Godiva, Nerys Jones].

I suspect there’s much truth in these lines. The Catholic Church, throughout its long history, has been socially and politically disastrous for women, and it would continue to be so, if given the power. It has changed but little, and that little with great reluctance and against its own eternally self-serving judgment.

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