The latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests have rocked the Catholic Church and seriously damaged the Pope’s credibility. They have also revived a long-standing issue which the Church insists is inviolable: celibate clergy.
The scandals have left Pope Benedict looking less like a guardian of the faithful and more like a staunch defender of orthodoxy and clerical authority. And even the reputation of his beloved predecessor, John Paul II, could be damaged.
The Catholic Church has a lamentable history of abuse, especially of children. Worse still is the impression gained, not of denial, but of containment. In the past it is alleged that victims of abuse by priests were told to keep silence for sake of the Church – not to mention their immortal souls. Guilty priests seldom faced any charges, but were simply moved to more obscure places, where in some cases they continued to offend.
If the reports are correct, institutions run by the Church for disadvantaged or disabled children have for decades been hunting grounds for predatory priests. A damning report on the Church in Ireland said the Dublin archdiocese had systematically concealed abuse cases. Further reports of abuse have surfaced in the United States (particularly of the abuse of some 200 boys by a priest at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin), as well as in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The Pope’s initial response was to issue a written apology to the Catholics of Ireland, but subsequent public pressure forced a more emphatic stand against alleged abuse. The Vatican published a guide for clergy and laypeople (see tinyurl.com/y7rx9x3) and Benedict promised everything possible would be done to protect children and bring abusive priests to justice.
Religious writers have also cast doubt on the attitudes of John Paul II, suggesting that Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, had to deal with scandals surrounding favourites of John Paul, who turned a blind eye to claims of abuse concerning clergy who were close to him.
But a deeper problem for the Church is the growing perception of an institution out of touch with modern life, run by aging, celibate men. The Vatican insists celibacy is non-negotiable. But can it hold this line, given declining church attendance and the increasing difficulty of attracting young people to the priesthood?.
A change in attitude looks unlikely in the forseeable future. Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was quoted as denying a link between celibacy and pedophilia, but asserting that child abuse was linked to homosexuality.