Where does accountability begin and end? I hosted a heated HuffPost Live discussion about that question with Marci Hamilton, a lawyer trying to hold the Vatican accountable for pedophile priests.
This week, the Church won a victory over Hamilton when an Oregon federal court ruled that the Holy See is not the “employer” of molester priests. The case could shield the Church from possible monetary damages, although Hamilton says she’ll appeal.
The Vatican's responsibility for the actions of priests on the other side the world is not just a legal question. It’s a moral one. Defending the Vatican on HuffPost Live was writer-reporter James Marshall Crotty, who asked: “Is the Pope responsible for every action of anybody who works in a church? … Is the Pope responsible for the part-time guy who helps in a church with the liturgy and does something wrong? Is the Pope responsible for the person who volunteers at a shelter that’s overseen by the Church?”
No. He has a point. The Church can only be held responsible for what it should reasonably have known. The problem for Crotty and the Church’s other defenders is… it knew a lot. The Vatican is not an impartial head office, detached from the daily workings of its dioceses. Nor does it lack moral influence over its global franchise. It is a deeply engaged institution -- and it has systematically enabled child rapists to escape justice and freely rape again. When Pope Benedict ran the diocese of Munich and Freising in 1980 as Archbishop Ratzinger, it came to his attention that one of his priests had taken an 11-year-old boy into the mountains, fed him alcohol, locked him up, stripped him naked, and forced the boy to give him a blow job. Ratzinger’s response was to send the priest off for "therapy."
Quite apart from the absurdity of the idea that a man of Ratzinger’s character enjoys the deepest possible kinship with an all-wise creator of the universe, is there any doubt that he, his predecessors, and his colleagues have presided over a global operation that encourages its foot soldiers to turn the same blind eye he did?
As I argued on HuffPost Live, imagine if the Catholic Church were a secular child care institution that ran a franchise of dormitories and boarding schools. Imagine if that child care company was implicated in a vast, recurring cover-up of child rape. Would we absolve the CEO of responsibility because he didn’t know about every instance? Would we leave the board of directors in place, on the narrow grounds that its pedophile employees were technically hired by subsidiary operations -- even though they wore the company’s uniform, adhered to its instruction manual, used the same training methods, provided the same services, hired and fired whom the head office told them to, and pledged fealty to the CEO every day? The company would be shut down in a heartbeat. Its owners would be in jail.
Barbara Blaine, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, was the third guest in the HuffPost Live conversation. As the founder and president of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests, she argued that Church officials try to have it both ways. “When it comes to something that has to do with the abuse of children, they want to wipe their hands of it and keep a distance," she said. "But if that same priest were to come out in support of same-sex marriage, you can be sure that he or she would be removed or disciplined, and the Vatican would assert their authority.”
Sadly, most lawyers I’ve spoken with regard Hamilton’s case against the Vatican as a loser. When it comes to employment law, the Holy See has successfully distanced itself from the priests who work for it (or rather, apparently, who don’t.) It’s unsurprising that the institution has structured itself in such a way as to evade legal responsibility for its crimes. But that has no bearing on its moral responsibility. The Vatican may win in the courts of law. But in a higher court -- a court whose judgment the Church, of all institutions, should care most about—the Vatican still has a case to answer.
Watch the full segment below: