Molesting a child is the most reprehensible crime a person can commit. The saddest aspect of this crime is that it is often committed by a person who is trusted by the victims and their families. Close relatives, teachers, even parents are known to have committed this crime. It is important to understand this aspect to truly understand the depth of this crime.
To a catholic, there is no one more trustworthy than your own priest. After all, you confess your deepest, darkest secrets to this man. He listens patiently, advices sagely and after a gentle admonition sends you on your way – absolved of all your sins. How harmful can he be? Pretty damned much if you go by the reports coming in from all over the world of priests who have abused this trust to satisfy their sexual desires.
In the Unites States and in Ireland many a church has gone bankrupt as they paid up for sexual misdeeds by their priests. At a time when church attendances around the world are dwindling, this is not good press. However, not content with going after the actual perpetrators of the crime, lawyers are now sharpening their knives against the church itself. The smoking gun is a letter written by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) in 1981 asking priests to bring charges of sexual abuse by other priests to his department rather than to the notice of local law enforcement agencies. This, claim the lawyers, makes the cardinal part of a cover-up of a crime.
It is easy to see why the lawyers and the media are queuing up for this one – it is a classic David v/s Goliath story. One on hand innocent children and families on the other the huge, monolithic church trying to protect its own while leaving the ones it should protect abused and helpless.
However before we rush in to condemn and stone, let us take a step back and consider the premise. An action by itself is never wrong or right, it only becomes one of the other by the circumstance and intent with which it was done.
Are the molesting priests guilty? Definitely! Nothing can absolve them off this.
Are the church and Pope Benedict guilty?
To answer this we need to understand priesthood. Becoming a priest is not like getting hired at an IT company or a bank; it is akin to a marriage. You enter into a life of priesthood; you do not take up a job as a priest. So much so, that if your family member were to join priesthood, the church doesn’t even have to return his dead body to you, they bury him as if he were their family member. If they do give you the body, it is a favor they are doing you. This helps in understanding how one priest looks at another priest. They are not colleagues, instead they are brothers.
On the outside we have it easier. If a Technical Writer were to commit a crime, I would not feel a sense of shame, except maybe as a human being. But when one priest strays, every priest feels the shame, because they are brothers.
Over the years, constant badgering of the church has meant that like any family, the church has turned inwards afraid that by being more open it would open itself to more abuse. When an employee commits a crime, the company usually terminates his employment. However the church is like a family and you cannot throw people out of a family. Cardinal Ratzinger only did what any patriarch would do when he comes to know of an errant family member – he tried to solve the problem privately, within the family.
In hindsight, it is easy to see the cardinal’s mistakes and point them out. But at the time, the cardinal was not, at least in his mind, breaking the law and harboring molesters. Instead, he was working hard to clean up the mess.
All our lives people try to convince us that life is all black and white. We are bombarded with rules like “Thou shalt not kill”. But if someone were killing your child, would you think of the commandment and not kill that person? However, life’s rules cannot be condensed in a “Do/Don’t Do” list. The fact is no action can be judged without perspective. Here, the cardinal was not so much covering up a crime instead he was working tirelessly to make sure the church was protected.
The church is an institution of hope for millions around the world. Like any institution it has its bad apples. But bringing down the institution is not the answer. Like Pope John Paul before him, Pope Benedict has to come to terms with the flaws of his church and present its human side to the world. The future of this institution now lies in his hands. He needs to open it out so we can peer in and see the beauty and complexity within.