Sunday, April 11, 2010

the vatican's protection racket

Colm O'Gorman, passionate campaigner

Colm O'Gorman's book Beyond Belief is an autobiographical account of the impact, upon himself and his family, of serious sexual abuse at the hands of a paedophile priest, Sean Fortune [who insisted on being addressed as Father Fortune right up to the eve of his suicide]. More than that, though, it's a well-documented account of the appalling, and in some sense harrowing failure of the Catholic hierarchy, in Fortune's diocese and throughout Ireland, to deal with sexual abusers within the priesthood, and its consequent betrayal of children and young people. It also clearly implicates the Vatican in this gross betrayal. Further investigations in other countries have revealed that the betrayals, the cover-ups, the protection rather than the outing of paedophile priests, are to be found in just about every Catholic diocese on the globe. Barely any digging required. It's true of course, that the abuse of children was widespread in many institutions up to a few decades ago, whether those institutions were religious or not, but no institution has been more concerned to protect its own reputation, often at the expense of children, than the Catholic Church, especially at the very top.

This stuff's very much in the media currently, with every armchair pundit having a spray. O'Gorman, as a victim, is very much at the coal-face. For him the key issue is that the power of the Church in Ireland, its unquestioned and unquestionable authority until recently, made it enormously difficult for a powerless adolescent boy to make sense of being abused and raped by an apparently respected member of that mighty institutiion. The church needs to be brought firmly and permanently within the confines of the law.

So it's as much about the abuse of power as the abuse of children, and the problem of course isn't confined to Ireland. The Catholic Church, receding in power and influence in Europe, Australia and especially the USA, where it's unlikely to recover from recent scandals, is still a disturbing authority in Latin America and many African nations. There's surely little doubt that it entrenches its position in those regions through its secretive and high-handed methods. Investigations in Brazil by a team including O'Gorman and reporter Sarah Macdonald found the same old pattern, and it was clear they'd only scraped the surface.

The Vatican itself has made a rod for its back by responding in a belated, half-hearted and blame-shifting way. Here's O'Gorman's response to a Papal letter dealing with the Irish reports into Church abuse cases:

The letter is clearly an effort to restore the credibility of a church rocked by the publication of three state investigations into clerical crimes and church cover ups in Ireland. The Pope has seen all three of these reports.
And yet, disgracefully, he used his letter and this issue to attack one of his favourite targets, secularization. We are asked to believe that the secularization of Irish society led to abuse and cover up. In fact, it is the secularization of society that finally led to the exposure of the crimes of the church. The most horrific abuse was perpetrated, not in a secularised Ireland, but at a time when Irish society was dominated, socially and politically, by the Catholic Church. That the Pope appears to have wilfully ignored this established fact is a blatant and disgraceful deceit. 

Such outraged and pained remarks would once have been dismissed as impertinent by an institution in the ruthless ascendant, but now they're given more credence than anything the former arbiters of Truth can come out with. And few are in doubt that O'Gorman has skewered the Vatican in its dishonesty, arrogance and callousness by pointing out, inter alia, the lack of attention, in the lengthy papal letter, to the sufferers of the abuse, the children and young people under Catholic care.

The self-serving nature of the Catholic hierarchy's response, not only to paedophile priests, but to criticisms of its management of children's homes, and its protection of Catholic war criminals from the second world war to Rwanda and beyond, has done incalculable damage to its brand. The Norman Jewieson film The Statement [2003], based on the book by Brian Moore, presents an ugly but convincing portrayal of the Church's machinations where war criminals are concerned, and its possible complicity in the Rwandan genocide is explored here and on many other websites. Again and again it comes to the same problem - protecting the rights of the clergy, and the laity, above the rights of others, and behaving as if it is above the law. Clearly they won't be getting away with it so easily in the west from now on, but they'll continue to try it on, methinks, in more complaisant states.

Beyond Belief is also a vital record of a personal journey. O'Gorman was abused for some two years by a relentlessly dominating priest, under the noses of his own family. Because of the enormous respect in which the Irish Catholic church was still held in the eighties, the fourteen-year-old couldn't bring himself to divulge what was happening, and took on the guilt for it himself [encouraged by the priest]. This captures a common pattern, but is no less harrowing for that. The effect of this abuse was devastating. O'Gorman left home and became a wanderer in the streets of Dublin, taking some years to find his way back to himself, to release the sense of guilt and corruption from his mind and body. Fortunately, thanks to the support of family and friends, and thanks to his own resilience, he was able to recover, and to become a force for reparation and recovery in others, founding the organisation One in Four [a reference to the proportion of the abused according to one study], to provide psychological and legal assistance to victims, first in London and later in Ireland. He has since become one of the most prominent spokesmen in Ireland for accountability and reform of the Catholic Church and for seeking real justice for its victims. It seems from some lines towards the end of his book that O'Gorman remains a Catholic - always surprising to me as I recall Chekhov's lines - and this makes his challenge to the Vatican all the more difficult to dismiss as 'anti-Catholic skullduggery'.

Reading this book has been rather felicitous for me, timing-wise, with further revelations from Germany coming hard on the heels of those from Ireland and the US, and with the Vatican trying to bluster its way out and getting into more hot water by claiming its mostly down to an anti-Catholicism on a level with anti-Semitism. It's good to see the Vatican lawyers, spin-doctors and supporters are coming out of their shell a bit, breaking their long silence. Now we can see and hear them for what they really are.

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