Thursday, August 15, 2013

Scandal In The Roman Catholic Church: The Charade Goes On!

by John Shelby Spong

The Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, is the Most Reverend George Pell. He is a tall, impressive-looking man, whose career in his church has followed the traditional path of those who become significant Catholic leaders. He, like most upwardly mobile priests, received at least part of his training in the Pontifical College of Rome, where he came to the attention of Vatican leaders. Promotion came rapidly until he found himself the Archbishop of Melbourne in the Australian province of Victoria. Here he developed a leadership style that included a group of priestly advisers that stood somewhat outside the traditional lines of the church’s authority system. Their existence was not unknown to the wider public and they began to be referred to as the “Archbishop’s kitchen cabinet.” The membership of the group was certainly known to those who cared to know. This group even had a nickname. In some critical circles they were referred to as “the girls.”

During this time, the Australian Catholic Church was reeling with stories of the priestly abuse of minors. There was a public cry for a “thorough investigation.” Some even wanted that investigation to be conducted by some authority outside the church, fearing that a church-led investigation would be little more than a cover up. That has been a common experience in other countries. It is quite difficult for any institution to investigate its own sins and shortcomings with any degree of objectivity. For that same reason in the world of politics, when corruption or misbehavior is suspected, there is always a cry from the party not in power for an “independent” prosecutor or investigator.

The Roman Church, which has always shrouded many of its activities and operations in mystery and secrecy, resisted that call and announced that this investigation of the misbehavior of Catholic priests would be undertaken and directed by a much respected bishop, who was also a rising star in the Australian Catholic Church. His name was the Most Reverend Geoffrey Robinson. He and his investigating commission were appointed amid all the usual promises of thoroughness and the express commitment to “to get to the bottom” of this embarrassing episode. It was said by Bishop Robinson, upon his appointment to this crucial work, that he would not hesitate to recommend the purging and the punishment of those who were found to be guilty. Because of Bishop Robinson’s sterling reputation for integrity, the appointment of this committee under his leadership was accepted in good faith and its existence served to quiet the wolves who were howling around the structures of Australia’s Catholic Church.

This Australian commission had to get beyond the usual defenses in which this church has traditionally dodged its responsibility by suggesting that the abuse was the result of “a few bad apples in the priesthood.” To support this point of view the argument of mathematics has usually been applied. It goes something like this: “Out of the thousands of Catholic priests around the world, the number accused of misbehavior is miniscule. When these few violating individuals have been dealt with and purged from the church, order will be restored and the dignity of the Church and its priesthood will also be re-established.” The church also offered the threadbare excuse that at that time this church did not have the proper protocols in place. They seemed not to recognize that it should not take protocols to recognize that child abuse is a crime. So also is the covering up of that abuse a crime.

Three things were wrong with these smokescreens. First, the records indicated that the clerical abuse of minors had been well known to the hierarchy of this church for decades and it had not been dealt with. Secondly, it was discovered that offending clergy had not been purged, but had rather been transferred to another jurisdiction where the pattern of abuse could and did continue. Thirdly, it was discovered that the silence of victims had been purchased and apparently achieved to guarantee that the reputation of the church not be damaged! The leaders of this Church were far more interested in protecting their facade of righteousness than they were with rooting out the problem and dealing with it. A massive cover up was orchestrated from the very top, which serves very well to broadcast guilt, but does little else.

Ultimately, it began to be clear that the clergy abuse of minors was a universal reality. There is hardly a diocese in the Catholic Church in America that has not faced lawsuits and public accusations. There is hardly a prelate who has not been tainted with the charge of cover up. A problem this widespread cannot be dismissed as the result of “a few bad priests!” It was also then revealed to be a worldwide phenomenon. Ireland, Canada, Germany, Scotland, Italy, England, Latin America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many other nations and regions of the world reported a veritable epidemic of priestly abuse. “A few bad apples” could not account for the world wide dimensions of this scandal. That was little more than a face-saving delusion.

Every time this church proclaimed that the problem had been addressed and the wound cauterized, another public charge appeared. Some of the highest ranking cardinals in this church, including those in major Catholic areas like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago had their reputations soiled and their guilt exposed. Among the most guilty was Bernard Law of Boston. He was forced to resign, but in an act which cast doubt on whether “the old boys club” of the Catholic Church would ever deal honestly with this issue, he was immediately appointed to a prestigious position in the Vatican, where he had the “honor” of presiding over one of the funeral masses when Pope John Paul II died. That is a long distance from the prison cell that his behavior merited. Systemic revelations reveal not an individual, but a systemic problem. The scandal even approached the office of the former Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger, who was at that time ruling over this church as Pope Benedict XVI.

Meanwhile in Australia, Geoffrey Robinson’s committee began to ruffle feathers with the thoroughness of its investigation. No one in the hierarchy expected him to be this zealous, this willing to expose corruption in high places. When the report was issued, it was welcomed by everyone in Australia except the hierarchy of his church. He had violated a governing principle of that church, which had been incorporated into the vows of everyone chosen to be one of its bishops, namely that they would always protect the public reputation of the church. They never quite understood that one of the clearest ways to protect the public reputation of the church is to root out scandal publicly and to purge the church of offending priests and those hierarchical figures, who were guilty of covering up these crimes.

The result of Bishop Robinson’s investigation was that his own faith and integrity began to be challenged and attacked by his colleagues. He was quickly marginalized. His report was received and, in effect, filed. His promising ecclesiastical career was derailed. There were many who believed that he might have been appointed the Archbishop of Sydney, a position in Australia like that of New York in America, where such an appointment is seen as almost always the preliminary to be given the Red Hat of a Cardinal. That, however, was not to be. His report gathered dust in the files of Rome and Sydney and his career was effectively ended.

When the appointment of the new archbishop of Sydney was announced, George Pell, the Archbishop of Melbourne, was the choice. Pell himself was then accused of molesting a 12 year old boy when he was a seminarian, so he stood down while an investigation was conducted led by a committee of the church that finally cleared him not on the basis of established innocence, but on the basis of “insufficient evidence.” It was hardly a ringing exoneration. When he was chosen for the position in Sydney, he made public comments that were considered quite derogatory to homosexual people. When he was installed, his first message to the people of Australia was not some grand vision of the Australian Catholic and Christian future, it was an announcement that “unrepentant” homosexuals and those who “supported homosexual acceptance” and who worked for homosexual justice through an Australian organization know as “The Sash” were not to be welcomed to receive the Eucharist. He even said upon his appointment to Sydney that he hoped there were “no homosexuals” there. In despair over this appointment, Bishop Robinson offered his resignation as a bishop to the Pope, indicating that he could not in good conscience pledge his loyally to the new Archbishop of Sydney.

In time, the Cardinal’s hat was placed on the head of George Pell. Recently, the scandal of priestly abuse and hierarchical cover up in the Australian Church broke out again publicly with seemingly incontrovertible evidence. In the ensuing trial Cardinal Pell formally admitted that a cover up had gone on in the Australian Catholic Church, though he claimed not to have been a part of it. He attempted to excuse it with the tired and uninspiring statement that the cover up was initiated “out of concern for the reputation of the church.”

Nothing has changed. The cover up of the cover up is now exposed. Bishop Robinson in retirement continues to write and to lecture. He will not be silenced. Francis, the new Pope, recently announced that he was forming Council of Cardinals to advise him on problems facing his church. One of those appointed advisers is George Pell of Sydney. Do they think we don’t remember? Do they think we don’t know? The charade remains intact.


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