06/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Easter Sunday Questions

Whatever the truth may be about the Pope's culpability in the widening scandal of sexual assaults on children that is rapidly enveloping the Catholic Church, several things are by now clear:

There has been a worldwide epidemic of sexual assaults on children by priests -- not an isolated incident or two, but an epidemic, involving many thousands of children over decades.

What is even worse, there has been a consistent pattern of a systematic cover-up of these sexual assaults by church officials, including many higher ups, over many decades. A Wisconsin priest who sexually abused hundreds of deaf boys over many years was known to the church hierarchy in the Vatican, but instead of intervening, and either referring him to civil authorities for criminal prosecution or trying him within the church, he was protected in order to spare his "dignity," and reassigned to a parish where he continued to have access to children, and continued to sexually assault them. As Ireland's Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, whose diocese is Dublin (where four prior archbishops ignored decades of similar abuse in Ireland) said this past week, "Shameful abuse took place within the church of Christ. The response was hopelessly inadequate."

But more is at stake here than an epidemic of heinous crimes, and the cover-up of those crimes by the Church. The Catholic Church positions itself in society as a moral institution. It sets itself up to provide moral instruction not only for members of the Church, but for the rest of us as well. In America, the Church plays an active and aggressive role in pressing their controversial moral views on legislatures and courts and elected officials. These views aim, in the name of morality, to restrict what many Catholics and non-Catholics see as fundamental rights, for example the rights of gay people to be treated equally before the law; the rights of women to decide for themselves, without government interference, whether and when to bear a child; and the rights to have access and to use various methods to prevent contraception.

These are all controversial issues in America, and whether these rights exist or should exist as Constitutional rights that override restrictive legislation, or whether statutes should guarantee such rights, deny them or remain silent, are matters that remain in dispute and far from settled.

The Catholic Church has not been shy about forcefully trying to use the law to impose its views on such questions on all Americans, including those who do not subscribe to or believe in the Church's doctrines. And it was not too many years ago that the Church was also a force in trying to ban books and movies it found sexually , philosophically or theologically offensive. Until 1966 when it was abolished, the Church's Index of forbidden books included thousands of works by condemned authors like Descartes, Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, Zola, Sartre and Gide, whose entire body of work was prohibited, as well as particular works by John Stuart Mill, Edward Gibbon, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, Balzac and many others. And while strictly speaking these prohibitions only applied to Catholics, they had a much broader effect on the rest of society as well, influencing libraries, book publishers, booksellers and various film production codes.

During the 1950s when the moral force of the Church's instructions on what could and could not be read was at a peak, sexual assaults of children by priests was widespread and being covered up by the Church hierarchy. It is only in recent years that these depraved assaults, and their cover-ups, have begun to come to light.

No one defends these sexual assaults, and only a few defend the cover-ups. But even now, some Church officials resist accountability. The Pope himself has recently dismissed some criticisms of the inadequacy of the Church's response to these crimes by calling them "petty gossip." But one Catholic commentator recently referred to these revelations as "the collective violence and recurring symptoms of the global plague of Catholic priests who harmed children, enabled by the malignant neglect of the Vatican."

And the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday called this "a colossal trauma" and suggested that as the result of its defensiveness and cover-ups of the abuse scandal, the Church had lost "all credibility" as a moral institution.

And that is the question I wish to raise: in light of the sustained epidemic of sexual assaults on children, and the even worse systematic cover-ups by many church officials over decades, what gives the Church moral standing to impose its claimed moral views on the rest of us through law, on issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion?  Why does anyone, elected officials in particular, listen to the Church anymore as a source of moral instruction?  If any other institution had this kind of scandal within it, it would be out of business and its leadership indicted.  And certainly it would have zero influence on determining the laws that govern the rest of us.

Yet during the recent fight over the health care law, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied intensively to persuade Congress to bar the use of public funds, in the form of subsidies to people who couldn't afford insurance premiums, to help provide abortion services for women covered by such insurance. The Conference did this on the basis of its view of morality, and as an institution with a particular moral force. They are constitutionally entitled to do so. But why does anyone any longer take them seriously as a moral force when they have been complicit over decades in protecting priests who sexually assaulted children?

Until the Church gets its own house in moral order, I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury: it has lost all credibility as a moral institution, and does not deserve to instruct the rest of us, much less impose its views on us through the enactment of laws. The laws the Church should be focusing on are those that make it a crime to assault children sexually. That is a sufficient moral problem to occupy the Church fully, without telling the rest of us how it thinks we ought to live.