The recent allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has turned into a public relations disaster for the Vatican who, under the leadership of a mild mannered Pope, has failed to take the necessary steps in response to these damning accusations. This failure in crisis management has also unearthed internal power struggles still raging after the Vatican elected Cardinal Ratzinger to the Papacy in 2005. The scandal has also brought to the surface some veiled, but albeit dangerous, sectarian attacks against the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has been rocked over the past few years by significant allegations of clergymen sexual abusing children in their care. These scandals have afflicted the Catholic Church worldwide in countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Holland, Germany and The U.S.A. One of the latest scandals hit Ireland – where Catholicism is the religious denomination of choice – with the revelation in March this year that the head of the Irish Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, was present in 1975 at the signing of vows of silence by children claiming to have been sexually molested by the now convicted paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.
Pope Benedict XVI missed opportunities to nip the worldwide scandal in the bud by failing to categorically state the Vaticans policy would be to report allegations of sex abuse to local civil authorities in the first instance, to suspend the accused pending investigation, and to defrock with immediate effect any individual charged with an offence. Instead, Pope Benedict has – fairly one could say – taken a step back in consideration that albeit these allegations are serious, they are not indicative of a religion with 1.086 billion followers worldwide, and what could turn out to be damaging to the integrity of the Church would be the imposition of speedy draconian policy. Doing so could lead to further allegations being made with no foundation – made for whatever reason, be they financial or religious – and innocent clergymen being labelled as sexual predators, in turn unfairly damaging the worldwide reputation of the Catholic Church.
Indeed, it has been suggested by leading British Catholic commentator, Clifford Langley, that Ratzinger was thwarted by others in the Vatican during the eighties when he tried to clamp down on sexual abuse allegations and have the situation rectified. Although Ratzinger is now Pope, the internal power struggles remain, and the un-helpful emergence of a letter signed by Ratzinger in 1985 – tentatively being described as proof of the Popes involvement in a cover up – may be a sign of internal opponents at work.
Divisions between religious denominations are often fierce and often violent. The recent scandal to hit the Vatican has the potential to stray into the ugly territory of religious persecution against the Catholic Church. A senior figure in the Vatican, Father Federico Lombardi, was lambasted for comparing the latest attacks on the Church being akin to anti-Semitism. However, he has a point when the senior Anglican official in the UK, archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, claims the Catholic Church in Ireland has “lost all credibility”. The Catholic Church is not in crisis. Issues of child abuse – sexual or physical – are understandably met with vociferous criticism around the world. In Britain we only have to look at the criticism over the handling of cases such as Baby P, James Bulger, Victoria Climbie to see how hard it is to ensure our children are safe without becoming overly, and unnecessarily, intrusive.
The Pope is set to the visit the UK this September and British victims of clerical sexual abuse are asking to meet him. It seems the Catholic Church is faced with two methods to move forward. Firstly, it should accept requests from past victims of sexual clerical abuse to meet with the Pope and his entourage when they visit countries affected by scandals. Secondly, ithe Vatican must implement a policy in time whereby any accusation of sexual abuse is forwarded to local civil authorities and the accused is suspended from religious duties – and prevented from contact with children – whilst under investigation. However, it remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church will be allowed to move on by those opposed to the religious denomination, and whether the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI will be allowed to move on by internal agitators keen to milk the scandal and ultimately force a change of leadership at the Vatican
First published April 11th 2010