It is hard to believe the senior ranks of the Roman Catholic
Church, increasingly under siege in Fortress Vatican, have
any real appreciation of the extent of the calamity facing
For if they did, surely they, and Pope Benedict XVI, would be
cutting a radically different course from that now being
offered to a confused, disappointed and sometimes angry
Prominent among the strategies it has adopted in the face of
what is beginning to seem like a perfect storm of recent
revelations - of sexual abuse cases and "cover-ups" in
Brazil, the United States, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria,
Italy, Germany and, periodically, in this country and
Australia - has been the time-honoured tactic of attacking
Thus attempts to unravel the extent of historical sex abuse
cases at the hands of clergy in Germany, where at least 170
former pupils of Catholic schools have come forward with
accusations, and where questions have been raised over the
Pope's own earlier knowledge of abuse and over his subsequent
actions, have essentially been to accuse agencies of an
attempt to undermine the Pope and discredit the Church.
But the evidence continues to accumulate.
Consider the testimony of Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of
the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, who has acknowledged
taking part in two secret tribunals in 1975 at which a boy
and a girl were made to sign oaths of secrecy about their
"Yes, I knew that these were crimes," Cardinal Brady said.
"But I did not feel that it was my responsibility to denounce
the actions to the police."
Or the Brazilian television programme that exposed an
82-year-old priest having sex with a 19-year-old boy.
Or the story that emerged out of northern Italy last week of
an alleged victim who said that, in the 1960s, as a
15-year-old, he was forced to provide sexual services for
Or the fact that bishops in the Netherlands are investigating
200 suspected cases of abuse.
Fr Fergus O'Donoghue, editor of the Irish Jesuit journal
Studies, contextualises the Church's code of silence, and
allegations the Pope, as former Archbishop of Munich Joseph
Ratzinger, may have been aware of priestly crimes, thus: "The
Pope was no different to any other bishop at the time.
The Church policy was to keep it all quiet ...
Of course there was cover-up," but worse, he added, was "the
systematic lack of concern for the victims".
It is this apparent lack of concern that troubles many within
the Church itself.
Where, they ask, is the public display of compassion from the
the higher orders? And in addition, a refusal at top level to
acknowledge the extent to which the discipline of "celibacy"
could have impacted on the Church's predicament.
Some lower down in the hierarchy, such as Hans-Jochen
Jaschke, an auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, are now openly
questioning this: "The celibate lifestyle can attract people
who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality
into their lives," he said recently.
Then there is the troublesome relationship between Church and
State, God and Caesar, sin and crime.
To the layperson not schooled in the intricacies of the
Catholic theology, it is difficult to reconcile the Church's
supposed intention to rid itself of the scourge of
paedophilia when officials remain publicly wedded to
doctrinal practice that continues to shield such affronts.
In an interview with a Vatican newspaper on Tuesday this week
on the responsibilities of a Roman Catholic confessor
confronted by knowledge of paedophilia, senior Vatican bishop
Gianfranco Girotti said: "The only possible outcome of
confession is absolution."
Unkind commentators could construe this as a charter for
Supporters of the Catholic Church have rightly pointed out
that abuse has routinely occurred in more secular
institutions; and others that the clamour of scandal unfairly
dwarfs the momentous good works of the Church.
But as the Catholic Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in
Britain, the Rt Rev Kieran Conry, said this week: "The Roman
Catholic Church sets itself up to be the great moral
authority. When it does fail its own rigid standards, it
deserves to be attacked and criticised."