When Pope John Paul II was still living in Poland as Cardinal Karol
Wojtyła, he claimed that the security police would accuse priests of
sexual abuse just to hassle and discredit them. (New York Times,
3/28/10). For Wojtyła, the Polish pedophilia problem was nothing more
than a Communist plot to smear the church.
By the early 1980s, Wojtyła, now ensconced in Rome as Pope John Paul
II, treated all stories about pedophile clergy with dismissive aplomb,
as little more than slander directed against the church. That remained
his stance for the next twenty years.
Today in post-communist Poland, clerical abuse cases have been slowly
surfacing, very slowly. Writing in the leading daily Gazeta Wyborcza,
a middle-aged man reported having been sexually abused as a child by a
priest. He acknowledged however that Poland was not prepared to deal
with such transgressions. "It's still too early. . . . Can you imagine
what life would look like if an inhabitant of a small town or village
decided to talk? I can already see the committees of defense for the
While church pedophiles may still enjoy a safe haven in Poland and
other countries where the clergy are above challenge, things are
breaking wide open elsewhere. Today we are awash in a sludge of
revelations spanning whole countries and continents, going back
decades---or as some historians say---going back centuries. Only in the
last few weeks has the church shown signs of cooperating with civil
authorities. Here is the story.
Protecting the Perpetrators
As everyone now knows, for decades church superiors repeatedly chose to
ignore complaints about pedophile priests. In many instances, accused
clerics were quietly bundled off to distant congregations where they
could prey anew upon the children of unsuspecting parishioners. This
practice of denial and concealment has been so consistently pursued in
diocese after diocese, nation after nation, as to leave the impression
of being a deliberate policy set by church authorities.
And indeed it has been. Instructions coming directly from Rome have
required every bishop and cardinal to keep matters secret. These
instructions were themselves kept secret; the cover-up was itself
covered up. Then in 2002, John Paul put it in writing, specifically
mandating that all charges against priests were to be reported secretly
to the Vatican and hearings were to be held in camera, a procedure that
directly defies state criminal codes.
Rather than being defrocked, many outed pedophile priests have been
allowed to advance into well-positioned posts as administrators,
vicars, and parochial school officials---repeatedly accused by their
victims while repeatedly promoted by their superiors.
Church spokesmen employ a vocabulary of compassion and healing---not
for the victims but for the victimizers. They treat the child rapist as
a sinner who confesses his transgression and vows to mend his ways.
Instead of incarceration, there is repentance and absolution.
While this forgiving approach might bring comfort to some malefactors,
it proves to be of little therapeutic efficacy when dealing with the
darker appetites of pedophiles. A far more effective deterrent is the
danger of getting caught and sent to prison. Absent any threat of
punishment, the perpetrator is restrained only by the limits of his own
appetite and the availability of opportunities.
Forgiving No One Else
The tender tolerance displayed by the church hierarchy toward child
rapists does not extend to other controversial clergy. Think of those
radical priests who have challenged the hierarchy in the
politico-economic struggle for liberation theology, or who advocate
lifting the prohibitions against birth control and abortion, or who
propose that clergy be allowed to marry, or who preside over same-sex
weddings, or who themselves are openly gay, or who believe women should
be ordained, or who bravely call for investigations of the pedophilia
Such clergy often have their careers shut down. Some are subjected to
hostile investigations by church superiors.
A Law Unto Itself
Church leaders seem to forget that pedophilia is a felony crime and
that, as citizens of a secular state, priests are subject to its laws
just like the rest of us. Clerical authorities repeatedly have made
themselves accessories to the crime, playing an active role in
obstructing justice, arguing in court that criminal investigations of
"church affairs" violated the free practice of religion guaranteed by
the US Constitution--as if raping little children were a holy
Church officials tell parishioners not to talk to state authorities.
They offer no pastoral assistance to young victims and their shaken
families. They do not investigate to see if other children have been
victimized by the same priests. Some young plaintiffs have been
threatened with excommunication or suspension from Catholic school.
Church leaders impugn their credibility, even going after them with
Responding to charges that one of his priests sexually assaulted a
six-year-old boy, Cardinal Bernard Law asserted that "the boy and his
parents contributed to the abuse by being negligent." Law himself never
went to prison for the hundreds of cover-ups he conducted. In 2004,
with things getting too hot for him in his Boston archdiocese, Law was
rescued by Pope John Paul II to head one of Rome's major basilicas,
where he now lives with diplomatic immunity in palatial luxury on a
generous stipend, supervised by no one but a permissive pontiff.
A judge of the Holy Roman Rota, the church's highest court, wrote in a
Vatican-approved article that bishops should not report sexual
violations to civil authorities. And sure enough, for years bishops and
cardinals have refrained from cooperating with law enforcement
authorities, refusing to release abusers' records, claiming that the
confidentiality of their files came under the same legal protection as
privileged communications in the confessional---a notion that has no
basis in canon or secular law.
Bishop James Quinn of Cleveland even urged church officials to send
incriminating files to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, where
diplomatic immunity would prevent the documents from being subpoenaed.
Just a Few Bad Apples
Years ago the Catholic hierarchy would insist that clerical pedophilia
involved only a few bad apples and was being blown completely out of
proportion. For the longest time John Paul scornfully denounced the
media for "sensationalizing" the issue. He and his cardinals (Ratzinger
included) directed more fire at news outlets for publicizing the crimes
than at their own clergy for committing them.
Reports released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (one of the
more honest organizations in the Catholic Church) documented the abuse
committed in the United States by 4,392 priests against thousands of
children between 1950 and 2002. One of every ten priests ordained in
1970 was charged as a pedophile by 2002. Another survey commissioned by
the US bishops found that among 5,450 complaints of sexual abuse there
were charges against at least sixteen bishops. So much for a few bad
Still, even as reports were flooding in from Ireland and other
countries, John Paul dismissed the pedophilic epidemic as "an American
problem," as if American priests were not members of his clergy, or as
if this made it a matter of no great moment. John Paul went to his
grave in 2005 still refusing to meet with victims and never voicing any
apologies or regrets regarding sex crimes and cover-ups.
With Ratzinger's accession to the papal throne as Benedict XVI, the
cover-ups continued. As recently as April 2010, at Easter Mass in St.
Peter's Square, dean of the college of cardinals Angelo Sodano, assured
Benedict that the faithful were unimpressed "by the gossip of the
moment." One would not know that "the gossip of the moment" included
thousands of investigations, prosecutions, and accumulated charges
extending back over decades.
During that same Easter weekend, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera,
archbishop of Mexico City, declared that the public uproar was an
"overreaction" incited by the doings of "a few dishonest and criminal
priests." A few? An overreaction? Of course, the picture now becomes
clear: a few bad apples were inciting overreaction by engaging in the
gossip of the moment.
The church seems determined to learn nothing from its transgressions,
preoccupied as it is with avoiding lawsuits and bad publicity.
Really Not All that Serious
There are two ways we can think of child rape as being not a serious
problem, and the Catholic hierarchy seems to have embraced both these
positions. First, pedophilia is not that serious if it involves only a
few isolated and passing incidents. Second, an even more creepy way of
downplaying the problem: child molestation is not all that damaging or
that important. At worst, it is regrettable and unfortunate; it might
greatly upset the child, but it certainly is not significant enough to
cause unnecessary scandal and ruin the career of an otherwise splendid
It is remarkable how thoroughly indifferent the church bigwigs have
been toward the abused children. When one of the most persistent
perpetrators, Rev. John Geoghan, was forced into retirement (not jail)
after seventeen years and nearly 200 victims, Cardinal Law could still
write him, "On behalf of those you have served well, in my own name, I
would like to thank you. I understand yours is a painful situation." It
is evident that Law was more concerned about the "pain" endured by
Geoghan than the misery he had inflicted upon minors.
In 2001, a French bishop was convicted in France for refusing to hand
over to the police a priest who had raped children. It recently came to
light that a former top Vatican cardinal, Dario Castrillón, had
written to the bishop, "I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest
to the civil authorities. You have acted well, and I am pleased to have
a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all
the bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his ‘son' and
priest." (The bishop actually got off with a suspended sentence.)
Castrillón claimed that Pope John Paul II had authorized the letter
years ago and had told him to send it to bishops around the world. (New
York Times, 4/22/2010.)
There are many more like Cardinal Law and Cardinal Castrillón in the
hierarchy, aging men who have no life experience with children and show
not the slightest regard or empathy for them. They claim it their duty
to protect the "unborn child" but offer no protection to the children
in their schools and parishes.
They themselves are called "Father" but they father no one. They do not
reside in households or families. They live in an old-boys network,
jockeying for power and position, dedicated to the Holy Mother Church
that feeds, houses, and adorns them throughout their lives.
From their heady heights, popes and bishops cannot hear the cries of
children. In any case, the church belongs not to little children but to
the bedecked oligarchs.
The damage done to sexual victims continues to go unnoticed: the
ensuing years of depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, panic attacks,
sexual dysfunction, and even mental breakdown and suicide-all these
terrible aftereffects of child rape seem to leave popes and bishops
more or less unruffled.
Circling the Wagons
The Catholic hierarchy managed to convince itself that the prime victim
in this dismal saga is the church itself. In 2010 it came to light
that, while operating as John Paul's über-hit man, Pope Benedict (then
Cardinal Ratzinger) had provided cover and protection to several of the
worst predator priests. The scandal was now at the pope's
door---exactly where it should have been many years earlier during John
The Vatican's response was predictable. The hierarchy circled the
wagons to defend pope and church from outside "enemies." The cardinals
and bishops railed furiously at critics who "assault" the church and,
in the words of the archbishop of Paris, subject it to "a smear
campaign." Benedict himself blamed secularism and misguided
applications of Vatican 2's aggiornamento as contributing to the
"context" of sexual abuse. Reform-minded liberalism made us do it, he
seemed to be saying.
But this bristling Easter counterattack by the hierarchy did not play
well. Church authorities came off looking like insular, arrogant elites
who were unwilling to own up to a horrid situation largely of their own
Meanwhile the revelations continued. A bishop in Ireland resigned
admitting he had covered up child abuse cases. Bishops in Germany and
Belgium stepped down after confessing to charges that they themselves
had abused minors. And new allegations were arising in Chile, Norway,
Brazil, Italy, France, and Mexico.
Then, a fortnight after Easter, the Vatican appeared to change course
and for the first time issued a directive urging bishops to report
abuse cases to civil authorities "if required by local law." At the
same time, Pope Benedict held brief meetings with survivor groups and
issued sympathetic statements about their plight.
For many of the victims, the pontiff's overtures and apologies were too
little, too late. Their feeling was that if the Vatican really wanted
to make amends, it should cooperate fully with law enforcement
authorities and stop obstructing justice; it should ferret out abusive
clergy and not wait until cases are publicized by others; and it should
make public the church's many thousands of still secret reports on
priests and bishops.
In the midst of all this, some courageous clergy do speak out. At a
Sunday mass in a Catholic church outside Springfield, Massachusetts,
the Rev. James Scahill delivered a telling sermon to his congregation
(New York Times, 4/12/10): "We must personally and collectively declare
that we very much doubt the veracity of the pope and those of church
authority who are defending him. It is beginning to become evident that
for decades, if not centuries, church leadership covered up the abuse
of children and minors to protect its institutional image and the image
The abusive priests, Scahill went on, were "felons." He had "severe
doubt" about the Vatican's claims of innocent ignorance. "If by any
slimmest of chance the pope and all his bishops didn't know--they all
should resign on the basis of sheer and complete ignorance,
incompetence, and irresponsibility."
How did Father Scahill's suburban Catholic parishioners receive his
scorching remarks? One or two walked out. The rest gave him a standing
Michael Parenti's recent books include: Contrary Notions: The
Michael Parenti Reader (City Lights); Democracy for the Few,
8th ed. (Wadsworth); The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), Superpatriotism (City Lights), The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press), and God and His Demons (forthcoming). For
further information, visit his website.