The world continues to watch with genuine interest as the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church parades masks of contrition before the media, in an effort to convince the faithful that the Church has turned the corner on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. On Nov. 19, a gathering of Cardinals from every corner of the Church's influence will convene in Rome at the request of the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. This meeting of Cardinals will include a discussion about the Vatican's response to sexually abusive priests.
"And as Catholic cardinals from around the world talk about abuse in Rome, clergy sex abuse victims from four countries will hold two events nearby," said Barbara Blain, president of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests).
"SNAP leaders will also present detailed steps, urging world-wide Catholic prelates to protect the safety of vulnerable children now. They will ask the bishops and cardinals to act immediately regardless of the Vatican actions," said Kim Michele Richardson, SNAP spokeswoman, survivor and author of The Unbreakable Child.
I wonder if the Cardinals will discuss the full spectrum of abuse within the Catholic Church. There is another facet, an entire history that, if brought to light, reveals the abuse of thousands of orphans and other children of the faithful who were systematically abused by nuns, orphanage lay workers and countless other opportunists who snatched the chance to victimize the helpless, hidden as they were from the protective eye of law enforcement, under a veil of piety and charity.
I have spent the better part of the last decade advocating and fighting for justice for hundreds of adults, who, as children, were abuse victims during a period of 50 years (implicating a total of eight priests) within the community of Louisville, Ky., all the while trying to get my head around the ever-changing public relations machine within the "loving arms" of St. Peter's.
In 2003 several women and men revealed that they were victimized while captives at an orphanage operated by nuns from the order known as the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. From the late 1930s and into the 1980s, the various Archbishops serving the Louisville archdiocese, as well as parish priests, were empowered to remove a child from their parents and have them institutionalized against their and their parents will. Local government officials were lulled into a sense of security when social workers and other officials made infrequent and announced visits to the orphanage. I had the privilege to work closely with and for the survivors committed behind the mammoth walls of this dark orphanage. These children without families suffered the worst abuse I have ever uncovered, spanning a period of some 60 years. Many were residents of the orphanage for most of their childhood, suffering cruel abuses on a daily basis. These atrocities included ritualistic sexual assaults, brutal beatings and nuns dressing up little girls in white gowns and delivering these children to the resident priest for his sexual pleasure.
Over this past year we have come to learn that Pope Benedict XIV himself shielded these criminals from law enforcement, while serving as an Archbishop in Germany. In those days, the Pope was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, who would later become the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) from 1981 to 2005. The CDF is responsible for receiving all reports of clergy sexual abuse from bishops around the world.
This time period encompassed the greatest efforts the Church has ever exerted to shield itself from scandal. Then, the early 1980s saw the first criminal prosecution of a priest in the United States, followed by a wave of civil lawsuits that gained traction only when the Boston scandal broke in early 2002. What role did Cardinal Ratzinger play in quelling the inevitable scandal for nearly two decades? While he has literally had a change of "hats," he is the same human being who worked so diligently to keep the secrets of the Church safely within the walls of St. Peter's while childhoods were destroyed.
In the past few months we have heard the Pontiff publically criticize abusive priests, but he has yet to confront the root cause of this abusive culture: the cover up of abuse by bishops and cardinals. We do know that bishops who served in the United States from the 1950s through the early 2000s were forced to confront the reality of an abuser within his diocese. Cardinal Ratzinger exemplified the crisis elsewhere in the world by shielding abusive priests within his control as an Archbishop serving in Germany. In the early 1960s, legislatures of various states began to pass laws making it a crime for any citizen to fail to report known or suspected child abusers. By the time the scandal broke in this country in 2002, there was not one instance of a bishop reporting child sexual abuse to a law enforcement agency. Not one report.
This week, as the most powerful officials of the most politically influential religious organization in the world gather to discuss the Church's response to the priest sexual abuse scandal, the stark contrast between those with power and those with none could not be more profound. The Church continues to operate in complete secrecy, without any governmental oversight or accountability. This confluence reminds me of Lord Acton's most famous quote regarding the corruption inherent in power. Most readers will know this oft-quoted phrase, but few, if any, will know that Lord Acton was speaking of the Pope when he wrote the following in a letter to Mandell Creighton in 1887:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.
Until the governments of our world wrestle the power over children away from religious organizations operating in secrecy and without accountability, justice will remain an elusive butterfly.