Among many reasons to be dismissive of the catholic church’s response to child abuse by its priests one was recently provided by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bartone, when he linked paedophilia to homosexuality while on a visit to Chile. Or better again were the reported remarks of retired Italian bishop Giacomo Babini, who sees the church’s woes through more anti-semitic lenses.
The increasing vocalism of atheism and secularism in Europe’s public sphere profoundly shapes the church’s response
It is a further indication, if one were needed, that the Vatican and its hierarchy have still not grasped the seismic importance of the church abuse crisis. The church’s response remains one of deflection, of equivocation and of excuse-making. The dynamic behind all this is obvious: the increasing vocalism of atheism and secularism in Europe’s public sphere is profoundly shaping the church’s response. And it’s getting it badly wrong. In Ireland defections from the church via the countmeout website currently stand at over nine thousand.
Arrest the pope
The very possibility that Pope Benedict XVI might be arrested on his forthcoming UK visit between 16-19 September on charges related to his handling of child sexual abuse by priests has undoubtedly given members of the Roman Curia (the governing body of the church - ed) pause for thought. Such a possibility could make the pontiff’s pastoral missions abroad very tricky. Britain is not the only state on the pope’s itinerary this year. Nor is it the only country where priestly child rape has occurred. The fact that this might happen at the instigation of those pesky atheists will cause predictable apoplexy. French writer Victor Hugo once remarked that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Atheism has arrived. In a curious inversion of the historical norm, the deepening polarisation between atheist activism and institutionalised religion has culminated in mobilised non-belief snatching the moral high ground from the professional ethicists of the Vatican. But as the British atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins remarked on 11 April, why did it have to take atheists to do this? Where were national governments? Police forces?
The fact that most Europeans might write off a papal arrest as outlandish, disgraceful or simply unrealistic shows just how entrenched Europe’s collective deference to religious authority remains. Well-meaning but misguided sympathy for the embattled church, or expressions of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ will not bring justice to countless victims of abuse. Casting Dawkins and his partner-in-arrest-the-pope-crime atheist author Christopher Hitchens as ‘agenda-driven’ or ‘aggressive’ doesn’t erase the church’s catastrophic moral failure. If Europe is serious about freedom and the protection of the vulnerable then we have an obligation to see to it that no-one – no-one – is shielded from justice by virtue of their public role or persona. That includes popes, cardinals, bishops, rabbis and imams. We would not accept excuses from politicians.
No-one should be shielded from justice by virtue of their public role or persona
The Vatican and Joseph Ratzinger have a clear case to answer. The initiation of criminal or civil proceedings against him is necessary. Whether or not pope Benedict XVI can or will be arraigned is now irrelevant. The fact that his arrest is being considered at all has blasted apart an important taboo: faith leaders are not above the law. They are, as Nietzsche might remark, human, all too human.