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The real scandal is the cover-up

2010 March 27
by Paul Vallely

Sex is always a good juicy subject for a journalist. It explains, partly, why the unseemly saga of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is such a page-filler. There is a prurient fascination as well as a high outrage in much of what is written. But there is more to the story than that of course. It has the ingredient of hypocrisy in high places, indeed in the highest places if the claims that Rome makes for itself are to be believed; not that they are by most of the people penning the stories and the headlines. To sex and hypocrisy you may add the glee of schadenfreude.

So it is worth asking what is the real core of the corruption in this case. Many will not want to hear it but it is not the child abuse itself. Nor is it, in the conventional sense, an issue about celibacy, despite the efforts of many commentators to suggest otherwise.

The government-sponsored report into child abuse in Ireland published in 2002 showed that 5.8pc of boys who had been abused had suffered at the hands of priests or religious figures. The other 94 per cent had been abused by members of their family, babysitters, family friends, teachers and others – the vast majority of whom were not celibate. The idea that the priesthood contains a disproportionate number of paedophiles is not borne out by the facts.

It is revealing to study the profuse apology and admonition issued by Pope Benedict XVI to the church in Ireland this week. He said to the victims, in abject and heartfelt terms: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry”.  He was uncompromising in telling abuser priests that they must answer for their crimes to Almighty God and “before properly constituted tribunals”. And he was bald in his verdict that his Irish bishops had committed grievous errors of judgement and failed in their leadership.

But, being Pope – and especially the man who as Cardinal Ratzinger was a chief protector of the internal secrecy with which the Vatican conducts itself – he could not apologise for the institutional power of the church, and its unswerving sense that its divine mission places it in every respect above the secular law, which has been a key contributor to the current scandal.

Many have suggested that celibacy is the root problem here. And it is true that we do not read that many stories about paedophile priests among Anglican clergy, the vast majority of whom are married. But if celibacy is a factor it is not I suspect the usual “sex and the single priest” argument that sexual frustration leads celibates to seek found inappropriate sexual outlets. The burdens carried by celibate clerics are far from exclusively sexual; they are the deprivations of the companionship, affection and intimacy which sustain the happily-married.

By contrast, in an institution bonded by celibacy, as Andrew Brown perceptively pointed out in one of his recent Guardian blogs, the bonds of primary affection are diverted into an institutional loyalty which can in some circumstances become pathological.

One of the big lessons of modern politics, from Watergate onwards, is that it is very often not the original offence but the cover-up which produces eventual downfall. That is what so outrages ordinary people about the behaviour of the Catholic Church over clerical child abuse. Institutional interests and the preservation of reputation were elevated over the correction and prevention or wrong-doing.

That is why the Pope, who gave a  job in Rome to Cardinal Bernard Law after he was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston because of the sex scandals there, had no real chance of making an apology which many would ever accept as adequate.

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