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Suffer Little Children

It was a pretty easy call for Pope Benedict XVI. He expressed outrage over the tales of abuse of children in Ireland. It turns out that when Jesus said, “suffer little children to come unto me” what happened in Ireland was not what Jesus had in mind. The Pope was said to be “deeply disturbed and distressed” by the report of the Independent Commission of Investigation known as the Murphy Report. It examined more than 300 abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004. The 700-page report said that instead of being concerned for the victims of the abuse, the Church was more concerned about “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets.” (The last item is easy to sympathize with since a number of dioceses in the United States have been driven into bankruptcy because of the claims of victims of sexual abuse.)

The Pope said he shares “the outrage, betrayal and shame” felt by the folks in Ireland over the disclosure of years of sexual abuse of children by priests in Dublin that went unpunished even after it was detected by the local police.

According to the Catholic News Service he is going to write a special pastoral letter to the Catholics in Ireland. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said a pastoral letter was “quite a significant document” and would mark the beginning of a whole process aimed at “a very significant reorganization of the church in Ireland.” The Pope probably won’t have to spend a lot of time writing the letter. He can use some of the same language he used in 2008 when describing his distress at sexual abuse by those who work for him (and the Lord) in the United States and Australia.

As pleased as one has to be at the Pope’s willingness to confess error, as it were, one cannot help but feel a touch of sadness that notwithstanding its distress over the Irish scandal, its distress is not enough to cause it to abandon its willingness to abandon the poor and distressed in Washington D.C. now that the D.C. Council has acted.

On December 15, 2009, the D.C. Council voted 11-2 in favor of a bill that legalizes same-sex marriage in the District. Subject to a possible Congressional review within 30 days after its final passage, the District will join the states that recognize same sex marriage. That distresses the Pope and his employees almost as much as sexual abuse of children but, and this is unfortunate, the distress threatens to manifest itself not in a relatively harmless (if “significant document” as Archbishop Martin described it) pastoral letter but in a withholding of support for the poor in the district. (The poor in Ireland can be grateful that the Pope’s disapproval of what went on there is punished by a pastoral letter rather than withholding support from the needy.)

When the possibility of approval of same-sex marriage reared its head in November, spokespersons for Catholic Charities said they might eliminate social service programs that, among other things, help the poor with homelessness and health care. Catholic Charities has long been a significant provider of benefits to those living in the District. According to the Catholic on Line, each year “it serves 68,000 people . . . through a range of services, including shelter, nutrition, counseling, employment and job training services legal and health care assistance, immigration assistance and more.” It has been receiving $18 to $20 million annually for its services.

The bill does not require religious organizations to let same sex couples wed in disapproving churches’ facilities or require the churches to perform the services. However, the church is worried that it might have to give same sex couples employed by the church employee benefits offered to couples in traditional relationships. If the church is seeking peace of mind on this question, rather than political propaganda, it might wish to consult with Nancy Pollikoff, a law professor at American University.

In a thoughtful analysis of the question Ms. Pollikoff observes that the church could opt out of the requirement imposed by the District that requires that heterosexual spouses and same-sex domestic partners receive equal benefits. The church has the option of electing to be subject to federal law rather than the District’s law and federal law does not require employers to treat same sex partners the same as married couples. If the Pope is as concerned about helping the needy as his employees suggest, perhaps he could write a pastoral letter complaining about the District’s actions and permit Catholic Charities to continue their useful work. The new law in D.C. hardly seems to warrant a harsher response than that given the Murphy Report.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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