It's a sad state of affairs when new allegations of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse are greeted with the same measure of surprise as another Tiger Woods porn star: none at all.
At this point the story has to take a particularly egregious and shocking turn to warrant front-page news coverage. This week it did. The Vatican -- not a local parish, or a local papal leader, but the Vatican itself -- stands accused of halting an investigation into a Wisconsin priest believed to have molested 200 deaf boys over a 20-year period. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
As reported by the Associated Press, the case bears disturbing similarities to a case in Italy in which a group of priests is also accused of preying on a group of deaf children, and on that matter the Vatican is also accused of dragging its feet. But even more shocking, the New York Times reports that during his tenure as Cardinal, Pope Benedict was cc'd on a 1980 memo that notified him and others of the return of a known pedophile to a parish. The priest was eventually convicted of molesting boys there. But I'm sure that came as no surprise to the people who helped put him there, which, no matter how you dress it up, includes the current Pope. And that's what makes these stories a turning point.
Let me ask you a question: if a memo surfaced making it clear that a CEO knew that a product was highly dangerous but turned a blind eye as the product was given to children during his career, ultimately injuring thousands of them beyond repair, would that CEO keep his corner office? No, because every mother and father of an injured child would demand his head, or at the very least his resignation. Yet for some reason the Vatican appears willing to protect Pope Benedict at all costs, despite the fact that his judgment has been proven reckless at the very least, and legally questionable at worst. For years, the leadership of the Church has tried to convince us that it operates with a level of confusion and disjointedness equivalent to the FBI and CIA pre-9/11 and that this is to blame for its own homegrown terrorist disaster. But now these documents have revealed that that is simply not true: the Church operates deliberately.
Before anyone starts the "you-must-be-anti-Catholic-and-anti-faith" chorus, let me say that nothing could be further from the truth, as regular readers of my writing know. I am not anti-Catholic, anti-religious, or anti-faith, but I am anti-pedophile, and I am even more fervently opposed to those who would protect pedophiles.
You can always tell a lot about a person, organization, or institution by how they respond to a crisis. President Bush's handling of Katrina will forever be haunted by echoes of "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," which became a YouTube symbol for how hopelessly out of touch he and his administration were. But the most telling sign is when those who stand accused, and whose guilt is in the process of morphing from maybe to certainly in the eyes of the public, go on the attack. Think former president Bill Clinton angrily declaring, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," and then going after the "vast right-wing conspiracy." (Yes I know there probably was one, but I think we're all in agreement by now that we can't really blame them for Lewinsky.) Think Gov. David Paterson insinuating that his gubernatorial woes were, in part, racially based. But when the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano recently attempted to blame the media for its current image crisis, it demonstrated a level of gall wrapped in chutzpah with a good dose of delusion sprinkled in that not even Bush, Clinton, or Paterson could match. The media was accused, in part, of acting as if the church "were the only one responsible for sexual abuses -- an image that does not correspond to reality."
Yes, the reality is that there are pedophiles elsewhere, many of them in prison where they belong, but many more not. But is the Vatican arguing on the record that it should be viewed just like any other business or institution in the secular world, where vigilantly protecting children from pedophiles is simply the price of doing business?
People of faith should -- and do -- expect more of our religious leaders, especially when these same leaders continue to try to dictate the morality of others.
But hypocrisy aside, the impact and level of victimization of this scandal reaches far wider than Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and Ted Haggard combined, as does Pope Benedict's role in this victimization. Yet while they all tearily resigned, his job so far appears to be safe.
If Pope Benedict is interested in saving his "company" -- the Catholic Church, in this instance -- then he should do what any CEO who had a role in distributing a dangerous product would do: fall on his sword by resigning. If he does not, then he and the church he leads are sending a clear message that they consider themselves above not only the law but possibly God. And if that is the case, then perhaps its remaining parishioners should send the Church the same message that they would send to a company that endangered their children with its products: boycott that company right out of business.
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