Losing their religion?

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 them.

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 congregation.

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 the messenger.

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 abuse.

"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 local friars.

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 continued abuse.

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."


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