Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The Catholic Church's priorities are in dire need of a rethink

For 40 years the Vatican has had a policy of the `strictest' secrecy about sexual abuse claims, including the threat to excommunicate victims who complain

By Karen Armstrong  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

IN 1962 the saintly Pope John XXIII signed a confidential document that outlined a policy of "strictest" secrecy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests and threatened those who spoke out with excommunication. It was dispatched to bishops all over the world.

This document has recently come to light and has been hailed by lawyers acting for the victims of abuse as a blueprint for an official Vatican policy of deception and concealment. A spokesman for the Catholic church has denied this, claiming that the lawyers have distorted the document, which deals only with the church's internal disciplinary procedures, by quoting it out of context.

This misses the point. One of the most chilling aspects of this latest revelation is that it has caused barely a ripple of surprise, even among Catholics. Sadly, this is what we have come to expect from an institution which has consistently involved bishops, priests and laity alike in a network of denial and deceit ever since 1870, when by dint of coercion and political chicanery, Pius IX got the first Vatican council to promulgate the highly controversial doctrine of papal infallibility.

Once the authority of the pope was exalted above the priesthood of all believers, it became impossible to admit that the church had ever been wrong. The sex-abuse scandal is only one instance of this determined flight from truth, justice and compassion. We have also seen it in the church's relations with the Jewish people. Pius X encouraged the Catholic press to denounce Jews as the eternal enemies of the Church. When Pius XI tried to back away from this anti-Semitic policy towards the end of his life, Vatican officials who expected his imminent death blocked his encyclical. The cardinals subsequently elected Pius XII, whose apparent failure to condemn the Nazis has become a notorious scandal.

To this day, Catholic officials find it well nigh impossible to admit that Pius XII was in any way at fault. When the Second Vatican Council tried to address the Jewish question in the 1960s, the more conservative bishops refused to pass a document that referred explicitly to any Catholic persecution of Jews in the past. The present pope, John Paul II, has issued an apology to the Jewish people that has widely been dismissed as anodyne, and he still supports the proposed canonization of Pius XII.

Once an institution declares that it enjoys unique divine guidance, it becomes constitutionally unable to admit culpability. Cover-up has become automatic.

The same process of cumulative denial is also evident in sexual matters. In the past, the church had no fixed teaching on contraception, and until the 13th century it was possible for priests to marry. But Paul VI's views were so inflexible that he could not accept the findings of his own commission on birth control, and flew in the face of science, biblical scholarship and the poignant experience of married people. His encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) split the church, with the hierarchy upholding the ban and the laity virtually ignoring it. Many Catholics have felt spiritually impaired by the struggle to be loyal to Rome while disregarding its solemn dictates in the most intimate part of their lives.

Still more disturbing has been the present Pope's refusal to change the laws on clerical celibacy, even though it appears that some 40 percent of the clergy simply do not keep their vows. The greatest casualties of this disastrous policy have been the victims of those priests who have been unable to remain celibate and have resorted to compulsive pederasty and abuse. The suffering of thousands of children and women, who have also been abused and abandoned by priests, goes unacknowledged by a church that seems more concerned with its own image than with the demands of truth and charity.

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