Pope Benedict's Gang -- Too Big to Fail?

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rick Ayers Asst. Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco

For a brief period, when liberation struggles were rocking Latin America, activists in the Catholic Church distinguished themselves in popular movements, social justice campaigns, and an excellent application of idealistic ethics. That movement, known as Liberation Theology, has been harshly suppressed within the church - spearheaded by the so-called Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now the Pope. After the defeat of Liberation Theology, the church has reverted to its worst traditions of authoritarianism and repression. It is that cruel history that is being exposed today.

The efforts of the church to limit the damage from the newest revelations of massive child abuse have been surprisingly effective so far. The task of Pope Benedict's team has not been to deny that these crimes took place. Rather, they have sought to reframe the debate, to deflect the discussion from the deeper implications that cry out for examination. Here are a few of their key points:

1) A Few Bad Apples: These cases of child abuse are simply a matter of a few bad apples, say the Pope's spin doctors. They are isolated cases here and there that the church has perhaps made mistakes in dealing with. The key point is to emphasize that such abuse is an aberration, something narrow and tragic. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Let's be clear about the kinds of acts routinely committed by this repressive, authoritarian institution. The church ran Magdalene Asylums for "fallen women" throughout Europe, Canada and the United States. Women who were pregnant, sexually independent, or just too headstrong were committed to these "laundries" and forced labor. The 2002 film Magdalene Sisters examines one of these centers in Ireland during the 1960's, and the Ryan Report by the Irish Government (the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) documents the torture and punishment that characterized these asylums as well as orphanages, schools, etc.

The abuse of children - which included beatings, humiliation, forced oral and anal copulation - has now been documented in the US, Germany, Ireland and many other parts of the world. The German Catholic boys choir Regensburger Domspatzen, run by Ratzinger's brother, as well as deaf children's services in the US and Italy, were known centers of abuse. But they are not the only sites where this abuse occurred. It is ridiculous to imagine that such an outbreak took place simply in the past few decades but did not happen before. Such horrors are a byproduct of an institution which presumes to control the bodies and the choices of children.

2) The doctrine of sin and forgiveness. The Pope has declared that sins have been committed but that, according to their religion, they can be forgiven if the sinner repents. Is the abuse and rape of children something which is "a sin, to be confessed and then, by the grace of God, forgiven?" While real community reconciliation, with full responsibility and healing, is a laudable approach to criminal justice, the Pope is invoking a special privilege, a right to a separate system of justice. It seems to be a convenient exit clause for an institution which is itself responsible for the crimes. Is the church so powerful, so "too big to fail," that it can consider criminal matters according to their own values? Would they harbor a priest who was a serial killer? Where is the line drawn? The gentle treatment the church has gotten from the media would have us believe there are two types of child rape - that committed by despicable people in secular society; and that which is an unfortunate aberration within the church.

One disturbing side element of this doctrine is the ways it has made the families of believers complicit in the ongoing physical and sexual abuse of children - their own and others'. Yes, many victims and their families have now come out, pointing the finger at perpetrators. But for years, decades, even centuries, the crimes have continued with hardly a peep of protest. How many families, like wives of abusive husbands who creep into children's bedrooms at night, turn away, pretend ignorance, even wink at a known sub-rosa tradition of initiation of their own children? This is a painful reality that must also be explored.

3) The separation of church and state. All of a sudden, the Pope is making a plea for the state to stay out of church business - to keep secular criminal justice considerations out of things done within the family of the church. Apparently this doctrine is important when they have a crime to cover up. But when the Catholic Church has the ability to control the state, they seize it without hesitation.

They had no problem throughout history in demanding authority over every aspect of the lives of subjects. Not only the Crusades and the Inquisition, but much more recent acts testify to that. During the Mexican Revolution the Cristeros fought against democratic development; in the Spanish Civil War, priests blessed fascist troops, carried out interrogations, and fingered democratic forces. And even today, in the apparently secular US, they are quite active in constructing civil law that enforces their dogma - for instance about gay marriage and abortion. Somehow, with the exposure of child rape, suddenly the church becomes believers in the separation of church and state.

4) The Catholic Church is being singled out, slandered. The Pope's preacher, Rev. Cantalamessa, likened the outrage against the sexual abuse to anti-Semitism. This is particularly outrageous coming from a church that was deeply implicated in the rise of fascism and in the Holocaust; with a Pope who was a member of the Hitler Youth in Germany.

For an institution that wields such overwhelming power to claim the mantle of an oppressed group sounds ridiculous, but it is a move often made. It is seen in the whine of white people who worry that we may not get to lord it over the world forever. Invoking one's victimhood is a time tested way to avoid responsibility. Israel does it today - but at least Jewish people have a compelling recent historical case of being subjected to genocide. Still, Israel should not get a pass for war crimes, ethnic cleansing, etc. But for the Catholic Church to complain that they are being victimized is just laughable.

Even if the church is forced to take responsibility for individual cases of sexual abuse, they have succeeded if they have limited the damage to a discussion of how to deal with errors, aberrations. The important thing now is to see beyond the smoke screen they have erected and question a deeply authoritarian institution - one that degrades women and their personhood as a matter of doctrine, one that polices and represses sexuality, one that presumes to control children's bodies. Abuse, violence, and rape are all common policies of institutions bent on terrorizing and controlling populations. That's where this discussion should lead us.