(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail.)
Six years ago, I wrote about the disgraced New Zealand Catholic priest Alan Woodcock, who had just pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s. Woodcock was a teacher at my old school, though not in my time.
At that time the Catholic Church internationally was reeling under a wave of sex abuse allegations. These started to surface during the 1980s and steadily gathered momentum, notably in the United States and Ireland.
Woodcock’s court appearance followed revelations of a long history of sexual abuse by St John of God brothers in Christchurch. In the US, an investigation commissioned by the Church substantiated claims of abuse against more than 4000 priests.
Catholics were shocked not only by revelations of appalling behaviour by men they trusted and respected, but equally by the efforts of high-ranking people in the Catholic hierarchy to hush up the crimes and protect their perpetrators from legal repercussions.
Some of the offenders had been carrying on their depredations for decades. When they were uncovered, the standard solution was simply to move them to a new location where, as often as not, they took up where they had left off. This became known, with bitter wit, as the “geographical cure”.
I wrote in that 2004 column that as a child I never heard of, still less experienced, sexual impropriety by priests, although I was brought up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools. As far as I could tell, the priests I knew were men of probity who honoured their vows. In fact one of the many sad aspects of the crisis engulfing the Church was that a shadow of doubt and suspicion now hung over many good men.
At the time of the Woodcock and St John of God scandals, Catholics must have been tempted to dismiss such cases as isolated aberrations. But no; six years on, the allegations just keep rolling in. Like a tsunami that strikes once, then retreats and gathers even greater force before sweeping in again, the sexual abuse scandal continues to batter Catholicism.
Virtually no country with a substantial Catholic population remains untouched. Only this week, a highly influential Mexican priest – founder of an order apparently much admired in the Vatican – was exposed as a serial abuser of the most contemptible kind.
The ripples have reached the very top, with evidence that Pope Benedict, while a cardinal, was personally complicit in the covering-up of abuse.
Even setting aside publicity stunts such as the atheist Richard Dawkins’ threat to have the pope arrested when he visits Britain, and allowing for the likelihood that the ever-swelling ranks of complainants will include a few unscrupulous chancers jumping on the bandwagon with an eye to a payout, the sex abuse imbroglio is a shocking indictment of a look-the-other-way mentality within the Church.
It is also a betrayal of the millions of devout Catholics who try hard to lead good lives and who expect the heads of the Church to lead by example. I am no longer a Catholic but many of my friends and extended family are. They deserve better.
It would be understandable if the revelations against the clergy had shaken the faith of these Catholics. In some of the countries caught up in the escalating scandal, such as Germany, people are abandoning the Church in disgust. Those who choose to remain faithful to Catholicism are doubtless clinging to a belief in something higher and more transcendent than the deeply flawed men who lead the Church.
The sight of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome flailing about in panic, at times giving the impression of trying to defend the indefensible, has not been edifying. What this crisis has demonstrated is the inability of the Vatican to deal with external scrutiny, still less with demands for accountability.
The Church is a deeply insular institution governed by arcane ritual and a rigid hierarchy. That insularity not only provides a closed environment where abusers were clearly able to prey with virtual impunity; it also leaves the Church ill-equipped to deal with the sort of pressure it now faces, particularly from an aggressive secular news media that has the scent of blood in its nostrils.
The Catholic hierarchy is skilled at exerting tight internal control but has been almost comically clumsy and inept in its attempts to fend off outside criticism. It has managed to antagonise everyone from gays to Jews – two lobbies notoriously quick to take offence. And it does itself no favours by couching its official statements in a peculiarly opaque language as impenetrable as that used by totalitarian regimes in places like North Korea and the former Soviet Union.
At least here in New Zealand, far from the ossified bureaucracy in the Vatican, the Church seems to have learned something. In 2004, after Woodcock was exposed, Church leaders turned to a prominent Catholic, a retired judge, for advice. That was a mistake. He was a former pupil of the school where Woodcock had taught and I wrote then that his main concern seemed to have been to minimise harm to the school’s reputation.
Now the Church has employed former police commissioner John Jamieson, a non-Catholic, to investigate alleged cases of abuse. That’s far more likely to encourage public confidence in the Church’s procedures.
Where and when all this will end is open to speculation, but it could theoretically result in the unthinkable: the forced resignation of a pope, for the first time in hundreds of years.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would be like shock therapy, which may be exactly what the Catholic Church needs. At the very least the doors and windows of the Vatican need to be thrown open so that light and fresh air can penetrate. A re-examination of the sacred cow of priestly celibacy might be a good place to start.
Oddly enough, one of the most apposite comments on the Catholic Church’s other-worldly response to the crisis enveloping it came from former Beatle Ringo Starr. Apparently intrigued by the fact that the Vatican, amidst all the uproar over clerical abuse, found time to absolve the Beatles of sins supposedly committed 40 years ago, Starr observed: “I think the Vatican, they’ve got more to talk about than the Beatles.”
Amen to that, to coin a phrase.