Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died 30 years ago this week, was assassinated at his altar because of his unremitting defence of the human rights of his congregation against the attacks of an extremist government. Romero's resistance in the name of the individual rights that he believed came from God remains a powerful example of the good that the tension between spiritual and temporal authority has done in the history of the west. The manner in which the Vatican has handled the scandal of clerical sex abuse is equally an example of how much damage it can cause to what is arguably the world's most powerful institution, the billion-strong Roman Catholic church.
By coincidence it is also 30 years since Pope Benedict "“ then Archbishop Ratzinger "“ according to yesterday's New York Times, was made aware of the decision to move one of his priests accused of abuse to another parish. The secular authorities were not informed of the allegations against him. Father Martin Hubermann went on to abuse more children. The day before yesterday, the New York Times published documents from another abuse scandal involving 200 boys from a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, which suggest the pope, this time in his former role as the Vatican enforcer at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, may have intervened to stop a church prosecution of the priest Father Lawrence Murphy. There is no smoking gun yet, but the tide of scandal is lapping at the doors of the papal chambers.
This is both tragedy and disaster. It is a tragedy for the victims of abuse, as the pope himself acknowledged in his letter of apology to the children of Ireland just over a week ago, when he told them "your trust has been betrayed ... no one would listen ... you must have felt there was no escape from your suffering". And it could be a disaster for the church. No one knows quite how many thousands of victims there might have been, nor how many more will emerge, but there are hundreds in Ireland, more than a thousand in the United States and growing numbers in Germany, Switzerland and France. They are emerging in Latin America too. Yet 50 years after allegations first began to appear, the Vatican apparently remains paralysed by the implications and struggles to acknowledge their extent, let alone to apologise. Yesterday, its newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, rounded on critics accusing them of trying to strike "at any cost". An editorial claimed the pope always handled abuse cases with "transparency, purpose and severity". In London, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols ,insisted there was no cover up too. And although he did acknowledge that mistakes had been made, he suggested that the system was now fit for purpose. The church seems unable, or unwilling, to accept the depth of the crisis in which it has mired itself and blind to the way its foot-dragging apologies merely exacerbate the damage.
In another institution it would be impossible to imagine the survival of a leading figure who was even marginally implicated in such a terrible betrayal of its founding purpose. Indeed, if there were a way of removing Pope Benedict, it might serve to demonstrate the defeat of a generation who for all the charisma of Pope John Paul II adopted this disastrous policy of ignoring and often perpetuating the tragedy inflicted on the victims by putting the protection of the church and the needs of the abusers first. But popes do not resign and they are not sacked. They are appointed by divine inspiration. So under Benedict, the church hobbles on, haemorrhaging support with each new charge against it. There is one other possibility: that the next generation of cardinals, together with the bishops and the laity who play an ever-growing role, demand reform that gives them more power. The Vatican shows no sign of enthusiasm for it now. But it might yet find its survival depends on it.
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27 Mar 2010, 2:21AM
Just like the very fallible global banking system the Catholic Church is seen as being too big to fail. Perhaps this is now the only thing left supporting the Pope's supposed infallibility.
27 Mar 2010, 2:23AM
There is no smoking gun yet