Let me be clear. Had I not been asked by WVFC to reflect on the pedophilia conflagration consuming the Catholic Church, I never would have written about it. Not because I don’t care, but because I do. It makes me so angry that I get, if not tongue-tied, then pen-tied. Let’s just say that as a parent, a woman, and in every other aspect of my humanity, I am outraged.

Why have so many priests betrayed the most vulnerable members of their flock? As one of my colleagues put it, why couldn’t priests fornicate with each other instead of betraying their charges? Apart from preserving the children’s innocence, safety and well-being, the cover-up would have been so much easier and less pernicious. The only offense would have been doctrinal, because two consenting adults harm no other person.

The Church has resisted mightily the social and cultural movements of the 20th century that have by now become mainstream. By remaining adamantly opposed to contraception, divorce, abortion for any reason whatsoever, female clergy and stem-cell research, it is increasingly out of touch with the thinking—and practice—of a growing number of its members. (Note that all but one of these prohibitions directly impinge on women.)

In refusing to accept that the world and its own position in it have changed, the Church continues to act with an imperiousness and arrogance of power appropriate to its authority in the Middle Ages.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, two years before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI.

As the scandal of child abuse unfolds, the paramount concern of the Church is starkly revealed: not the wellbeing of its flock, but its own perceived integrity as vessel of the faith. The Church, like the military, has its own courts and will not brook interference with its system of justice. It is operating in accordance with the belief that justice meted out in civil courts is merely temporal, that the soul will be truly judged when it meets its maker. Heretics were burned at the stake because they threatened the power of the Church and endangered the immortal souls of believers, whereas child molesters and rapists “merely” trouble the body, which is nothing but the temporary residence of the soul.

Following this way of thinking, the ecclesiastical hierarchy kept the criminals and their crimes (for that’s what they’re called in civil society) secret to protect the Church: as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the authorities treated priestly child abusers as sinners rather than criminals. And since children have no voice and no power, they continued to be abused in increasing numbers, for the consequences to those sinning against them were minor. In fact, the standard procedure of transferring offenders to another parish enabled serial abuse with a seemingly limitless supply of young victims.

Now, however, the secret is out, and the shame and humiliation suffered by the abused children  have rebounded on the Church, reaching up through the ranks to taint the pope himself. Cries for reform and justice may be ignored, but they will not be silenced.

Where will the Church go from here? Will the bishops and archbishops, the cardinals and the pope admit their culpability? Will anyone do penitence beyond mere apology—such as community service, suspension of clerical duties, and yes, jail time? Can women, relegated to inferior status throughout the Church on apostolic authority, ever be granted equality within the hierarchy? How can the laity persuade the Church patriarchy that the perspective and influence of women are of real benefit? That parents, whose trust the Church has violated, have rights that may not be ignored?

I’m not holding my breath. This may be the largest and most serious crisis the Church has faced in centuries, but I don’t see any willingness to confront the gravity and the magnitude of the scandal. To do what needs to be done requires challenging over 2,000 years of Church doctrine—reconfiguring the very pillars of the institution.

Last April, in honor of the 800th anniversary of the birth of Pope Celestine V, Pope Benedict visited his ancient predecessor’s tomb and proclaimed this as the Celestine year. What was there about the 13th-century pope that so interested Benedict? Interestingly enough, Celestine established the right of the pope to abdicate—which he did, five months after his election to the papacy. He was elevated to sainthood a few years after his death. I wonder what Pope Benedict thinks about that precedent.

Trained as a medievalist, Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at ComedyBeat.com and the New York City biweekly Chelsea Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to landmark designation and the arts.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • lisa March 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    ‘sinners’ and criminals! they deserve double condemnation. very well written, diane. my disgust toward the laissez-faire attitude and hypocrisy of the church cannot be put into words.

  • Bunnee March 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    It is the first time I’ve read the Church’s approach described as dealing with sinners rather than criminals, which certainly would explain, if not excuse, the wretched job the Church has done in dealing with this scandal. A wonderful piece of writing on a difficult subject. As a life-long Catholic, I am filled with dismay that the “old white guys” in the hierarchy either don’t get it or are afraid to take a stand and criticize the Pope. The Vatican is so out of touch. If the Church of Martin Luther’s day was anything like this, it is easy to understand why he pulled away.

  • abigail congdon March 30, 2010 at 10:11 am

    this is the best, most concise, writing i have seen on this subject. your point of ‘why not fornicate with each other instead of the children’ is so cogent and basic- it stopped me cold.
    for us as women, it’s interesting to bracket this issue with the film “The Magdalene Sisters’, about the ‘homes’ for girls and women who were considered wanton- often for the sin of having spunk and a gleam in their eyes.
    my husband is a lapsed Catholic so feels distant from this despicable history. i wonder how practicing Catholics are dealing with this?