I have tried – I really have tried, believe me – to avoid commenting on the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. But my sense of moral indignation has finally got the better of me.
What tipped me over the edge was the sheer enormity of the comments made, for Heaven’s sake, by the Pope’s own personal preacher, The Rev Raniero Cantalamessa. And to add insult to injury, he made his comments on Good Friday, and they were published in full by the Vatican’s own newspaper, Osservatore Romano. What the Rev. Cantalamessa said was that criticism of the Church over the child abuse scandal was comparable to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews.
It takes a moment for the enormity of that claim to sink in. It should scarcely be necessary to dissect it, but for the avoidance of doubt, let’s just think it through. Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, amounted to one of the greatest acts of evil, and of genocide, that the world has ever known. It was wholly, utterly unjustified: first, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Jew. The Jewish faith has an ancient and proud heritage, and Jews down the ages have arguably done a great deal less damage than some other faiths. And second, because (apart from limited conversion, and Judaism is not a proselytising faith) Jews are born as Jews, and have no choice in the matter.
Contrast that with paedophilia. There is everything wrong with paedophilia, as surely all decent people will agree. And child abuse is a behaviour generally speaking of adults, who have made a deliberate moral (or immoral) choice. Paedophile priests have chosen deliberately to reject the precepts of their Church and their faith. They have deliberately flouted the explicit teaching of the Saviour they claim to follow, who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”. And Our Lord went on to say that it was better that a man should have a millstone tied around his neck, and that he should be cast into the sea, rather than that he should allow a child to be led astray.
Yet for decades the Church has tolerated what I can only describe as “institutional paedophilia” on a semi-industrial scale. Not one or two, but dozens or hundreds of priests have been involved. Child abuse seems to have become an accepted norm in some Catholic schools and institutions, and physical abuse often went along with sexual abuse. But what justifies the charge of institutional paedophilia is the response of Church authorities when cases could no longer be hidden. Rather than rooting out the behaviour and the perpetrators, Bishops and Church officials chose to cover it up. Sometimes they simply moved the offenders to a new parish where they could continue to offend. They put the reputation of the Church ahead of morality and child welfare – and as a consequence, did far greater long-term damage to the Church’s reputation than they could ever have imagined.
So to compare criticism of paedophilia with anti-Semitism shows a vast, breathtaking amorality at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. At another level it shows (as we used to say of the bankers) that “they just don’t get it”. There is only one way for an organisation to respond to a scandal of this gravity. Shame, sorrow, contrition, confession, open admission, and a commitment to seek to make amends are the only adequate responses. Attempts to defend their position only dig them deeper into the hole.
I rarely find myself in agreement with Archbishop Rowan Williams. But when he said that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland had “lost all credibility” over the child abuse scandal, he was not being provocative. He was not trying to undermine ecumenism. He was not even seeking revenge for the Pope’s earlier offer to recruit dissenting Anglicans. He was merely stating the obvious.