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Clerical Crimes

Clerical Crimes

George De Stefano (May 21, 2009)
Hair-raising tales of abuse...that the Vatican wants to cover-up

A New Report from Ireland Exposes Decades of Child Abuse by Catholic Clergy


“I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”

So said comedian George Carlin, with impeccable logic. Carlin, a brilliant iconoclast and lapsed Catholic, died last year. If he were still with us, he definitely would have something scathingly funny and painfully true to say about the revelations that have just come out of Ireland. For seven decades, Catholic clergy sexually abused and horrendously mistreated children and adolescents whom the Irish government entrusted to the Church’s care. You could hardly ask for a worse example of what can happen when Church and State, religious and secular power, converge.

The details are in a new report issued this week by an Irish government committee charged with investigating child abuse. The 2,600 page report, which included testimony from thousands of victims, as well as officials of church-run institutions, found that sexual abuse, including rape, was “endemic” in boys’ facilities, run mainly by the Order of Christian Brothers. Girls, entrusted to nuns, mainly from the Sisters of Mercy (time to retire that name), were sexually abused, too, often by more than one person at a time. They were victimized, the report said, in “dormitories, schools, motor vehicles, bathrooms, staff bedrooms, churches, sacristies, fields, parlors, the residences of clergy, holiday locations and while with godparents and employers.”

Girls also were regularly beaten and humiliated. “In some schools a high level of ritualized beating was routine ... Girls were struck with implements designed to maximize pain and were struck on all parts of the body,” the report said.

More than 30,000 children were sent to Ireland’s church-run industrial schools, reformatories, and orphanages, from the 1930s until the 1990s, when the last of these dreadful places was closed. Some were deemed to be petty thieves or truants. Others were unwed teenage mothers. Some came from dysfunctional families headed by alcoholic parents. But others were sent to these institutions just because their parents had split up. Conservative and priest-ridden Ireland looked askance at single-parent families.

And what did Catholic authorities do when they were confronted with evidence of sexual and other physical abuse by priests and brothers? Just as Catholic hierarchs did in America, Irish church leaders transferred the offenders to other places, where they could continue being abusers.

The report, nine years in the making, has infuriated many of the victims because it doesn’t name a single one of the hundreds of Catholic priests, brothers, and nuns accused of abuse. That means there won’t be any prosecutions. As the British daily The Guardian reported, “The Christian Brothers delayed the investigation for more than a year with a lawsuit that successfully defended their members' right to anonymity in all references in the report, even in cases in which individual Christian Brothers had been convicted of sexual and physical attacks on children.”

Mary Laffoy, the judge originally assigned to head the government commission investigating the abuse, resigned in 2003 because Ireland’s Department of Education had refused to release important documents. The report criticizes the Department for what it called “toothless” inspections of the church-run facilities that ignored the problem and instead deferred to the church. Deferring to priestly authority has a long history in Ireland, where Catholic prelates often had more power than elected officials.

Ireland’s Cardinal Brady has expressed sorrow and remorse over this disgrace, but the Vatican so far hasn’t said a word.

But Rome’s past rhetoric and behavior gives us a pretty good idea of how the pope and company are likely to respond – by blaming the victims. Or gay people. Or “The Sexual Revolution.” Or Vatican II. Or the media. There’ll be some rote expressions of outrage and regret. But it’s the church’s own policies and practices that have fostered the sexual and physical abuse of children and young people, which by no means is restricted to Ireland or the United States.

In 2007, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, gave an interview to American media in which he claimed that victims of abusive priests wanted to shake down the church for money. He also minimized the extent of the problem, and defended American bishops’ scandalous failure to respond appropriately.

This was too much for Thomas Boyle, a Jesuit priest and Vatican attorney. In a letter to Bertone, he chastised the cardinal with surprising candor and severity. Boyle began by assuming that the information upon which Bertone based his statements came from American bishops – hardly a reliable source in this matter. The most important information, Boyle said, “comes from actually listening to the victims themselves.”

“Most bishops have never taken the time to listen and I am confident that no one in the Vatican has ever met with a victim of sexual abuse by a priest or bishop,” Doyle wrote. (A year later, however, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, did meet with some abuse victims, in Washington, DC.)
“The experience of the past 24 years clearly shows that this is not a minor problem involving a minuscule number of clerics who have victimized a few children.” Doyle noted. (The extent of the sexual abuse by Catholic clergy didn’t become fully known until 1984.) “The problem is complex, widespread and deadly. The victims include children of both sexes as well as adults who have been sexually assaulted or abused. The perpetrators are not a minuscule number of misguided priests but a sizeable number of priests, brothers and bishops. Included also are religious women who have abused children placed in their care or have abused younger members of their own communities.”

Doyle noted that American bishops “hardly faced this scandal with dignity and courage…the bishops have been forced by the media, by an outraged public and by the civil courts to face what they had covered up for decades. The bishops and their representatives have repeatedly lied and distorted their role by trying to place blame on the secular press, on the psychiatrists and psychologists, on invisible anti-Catholic forces, on post-Vatican II liberals or on the so-called sexual revolution.”

“By attempting to shift the focus to other segments of society…the Church is only trying to re-direct the attention from its own grave shortcomings and offenses in the area of sexual abuse. The only reason Catholic Church authorities have taken any steps…is because they have been forced to do so by public anger, massive secular media attention and civil court judgments. Had none of these three factors occurred in the past two decades, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy would still be hiding clergy sexual abusers and ignoring their victims.”
Quite an indictment. It probably won’t surprise you that Father Boyle was subsequently fired from his position as a Vatican attorney.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI, the current pope, wasn’t ensconced on St. Peter’s throne when the priests, brothers, and nuns of Ireland and the U.S. were busy abusing their young charges. But in 2001, Ratzinger, then the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued an edict that made the practice of covering up abuse the church’s official policy.

The edict, signed by Ratzinger and sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001, asserted the church's right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and to keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood. “Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,” the edict states. Breaches of “the pontifical secret” at any time during the 10-year jurisdiction order can incur penalties, including excommunication. The letter was co-signed by Tarcisio Bertone.

As the edict makes outrageously clear, law enforcement would be kept out of the loop. No wonder why the American Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley remarked, in 2002, “Church leaders abroad are saying, in effect, that the Catholic Church does not have to obey the civil and criminal laws in the United States and respond to charges of having ruined the lives of young people. The Church is and should be immune to the laws of the American republic.”

And what of Italy, the nation that hosts the Vatican, that government-coddled, taxpayer-supported imperial state-within-a-state?  Unlike in Ireland, it’s difficult in Italy to ascertain the extent of clerical sexual abuse, given the Italian government’s treaty with the Vatican that grants certain immunity to church officials, including priests and bishops. And Ratzinger’s 2001 edict means that accusations of abuse will be handled by the Vatican, under strict secrecy.

George Carlin was right. Church + State = death. If not actual physical death, like in the days of the Inquisition, toxic corruption, and lethal abuse of power. 





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