I recently attended a seminar at which an eminent philosopher described how he would react if he died and found himself, against his expectations, ushered into the presence of God. He would simply explain, he said, that autocratic forms of government are outmoded and demand a timetable for democratic elections. He has a point: churches are far from being democratic institutions and they do not even, judging by the extraordinary behaviour of the
Roman Catholic hierarchy, consider themselves subject to the laws that other citizens are expected to uphold. So the imminent arrival in Rome of all the American cardinals for a crisis meeting with the Pope reminds me of a Hollywood movie, the kind where the heads of mafia families are summoned for a dressing-down by the capo di tutti capi.
What is on the agenda when they meet in the Vatican on Tuesday is nothing less than a conspiracy to protect US priests who have molested children, and in some cases raped them, over a period of two decades. Priests like William Effinger, for instance, who confessed to sexually abusing an altar boy in 1979 and was shielded by Rembert Weakland, Archbishop of Milwaukee, for 13 years. Or John Geoghan, a Boston priest who was the subject of dozens of allegations of sexual abuse. Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, knew about the allegations but transferred him from parish to parish.
Effinger and Geoghan are just two of 3,000 Catholic priests facing allegations of sexual abuse in the US. Nor is the scandal confined to one side of the Atlantic; a French bishop was given a three-month suspended sentence last year for failing to report a paedophile priest, who was eventually jailed for rape, to the police. I have never been a fan of the vow of celibacy. But I don’t think allowing priests to marry would address the problem of paedophilia, which is as much about power and secrecy as it is about sexuality.
This scandal arises from the church’s assumption that its own moral authority was sufficient to deter serial sex offenders. Even now, when the scale of the abuse is being exposed in hundreds of criminal investigations, senior churchmen are having to be dragged kicking and screaming to co-operate. Senior clerics have effectively been operating a parallel and clandestine system of justice, so used to regulating the sex lives of their congregations that they apparently believed it would also work with parish priests.
But priests are part of the power structure. Priests with paedophile tendencies seem to have judged correctly that their calling would protect them against allegations of sexually abusing minors. There is a kind of erotic excitement attached to the exercise of power and there is no reason to believe that priests are untouched by it. Rather, they enjoy not just status in the community, but unparalleled opportunities to be alone with vulnerable young people. Add the lure of the forbidden and you have a blueprint for trouble.
The meeting between the Pope and the American cardinals is scheduled to last three days. But I doubt whether John Paul II is the man to deal with a scandal that has come near to destroying the authority of his church in the US. Like a mafia boss, he can issue rebukes and insist on changes. But secular habits of democracy and openness are unlikely to come easily to an organisation built on secrecy, repression and a tragically mistaken assumption of its superior moral values.
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What is the word for prejudice against people of Arab origin? It is “anti-Semitic”, although it is rare to hear it used in that context. I mention this because the definition of anti-Semitism is being re-written. At a time when leading Israelis like Ariel Sharon are guilty of anti-Semitism towards the Palestinians, it is being narrowed down to hostility towards Jewish people. But it is being expanded to include criticism of the conduct of a state, a government and an army. It should be obvious that none of these can ever be exempt from scrutiny, and suggesting otherwise would not be taken seriously in any other context. The charge of anti-Semitism should not be used to stifle debate about the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, when it is only by correcting that injustice that this conflict can be solved. In the second half of the 20th century, a body of international law came into existence which regards the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes as unacceptable. Israel’s supporters should acknowledge this, just as Palestinians need to reject the horrible tactic of killing Israeli civilians in suicide bombings.
Joan Smith is a columnist for The Independent.