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A chance for the Vatican to spring clean

2013 March 1
by Paul Vallely

Our cellar flooded with sewage two months ago. The pong has gone but the clean-up seems unending, with stuff moved from room to room in a protracted sorting process. It will look worse before it gets better, a friend said sagely.  The same is true of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought the other day, as the accelerated departure of Cardinal Keith O’Brien followed on the heels of  a papal resignation unprecedented in seven centuries.

It is only the latest of a series of damaging news stories surrounding the Vatican which have left Roman Catholics like me punch-drunk with the repeated blows. On Ash Wednesday Pope Benedict XVI publicly lamented the rivalry and disunity of the factions disfiguring the church – a not so-veiled reference to the report he had commissioned, and just received, from three top cardinals into the Vatileaks scandal where the Pope’s own butler started passing secret documents to a journalist to expose the intrigue and in-fighting inside the Roman Curia.

Italian newspapers claim that the 300-page dossier exposes that one of the Vatican factions is a gay clerical mafia, which includes several cardinals, who indulge in sauna sex parties in private lives that run entirely contrary to church teaching. It shocked Benedict into resigning, placing the dossier in a papal safe for his successor to tackle.

The Pope’s respected press secretary Fr Federico Lombardi has dismissed all this as a swirl of “gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander”. But there can be no doubt of the gravity of the moment. The historian Professor Tom Devine has described the O’Brien affair as “probably the gravest single public crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation” whose effects are “incalculable”. And this is only the latest in a succession of scandals, around sexuality, the Vatican bank and authoritarian intolerance which secularist critics like to see as a succession of nails fired into the church’s coffin with the ferocity of a high-powered staple gun.

It may well be that we are now seeing, to mix metaphors, the chickens coming home to roost after decades of controlling clerical secrecy. But, if my friend is right in saying that things will have to look worse before they get better, it may be a necessary purgation.

Pope Benedict has, despite unfair suggestions to the contrary, been much firmer in dealing with the what he called the “filth” of sex-abuse than was his papal predecessor. He did not want to wash soiled clerical linen in public and has carried on his crackdown largely behind closed doors. Many of the worst offences are long in the past. New tighter measures of child protection have been put in place in the church. But there is abroad a new mood of intolerance – as the Liberal Democrats have this week learned – of those who abuse their status and power to pressure others into sex.

What the O’Brien affair has shown is that this new openness is finally seeping through the church to the point where three priests and a former priest have felt able to complain about their cardinal-archbishop to the papal nuncio. A generation ago they would not have dared to do so.

There is hope too in the fact that even arch-conservative figures like Australia’s Cardinal George Pell are now publicly saying that “significant reforms are needed within the Vatican bureaucracy”. Since 8pm last night the papal seat been vacant. The task before the next conclave is to elect a new pope who will approach all these problems with a new openness in his zeal to cleanse the Augean stables.

But, as my cellar has shown, long after the sewage has been shovelled the stench lingers. And even when that dissipates the process of making good the damage will take far longer than might be expected.

The Church Times

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