The Vatican's Sex Cover-up

Europe is now being wracked by fresh priest-abuse scandals, much like the United States was 10 years ago. James Carroll on how the Catholic Church aided and abetted the offenders.

03.11.10 5:29 PM ET

The sex-scandal drumbeat of the Catholic Church approaches cacophony. Last month’s Murphy Report devastated Irish Catholics (and Irish-Americans) with its findings of massive abuse and coverups in Ireland (with numerous abusers shipped off the U.S.). The Netherlands and Austria had similar revelations. In Germany, widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic schools was exposed, including at a choir school that was run for three decades by Rev. Georg Ratzinger, the brother of Pope Benedict XVI. Father Ratzinger denied knowledge of the sexual abuse at his school, but was quoted in a German newspaper as saying that his own use of corporal punishment against the choirboys left him “a bad conscience.” The Vatican, meanwhile, was rocked by the exposure of a gay-prostitution ring run by a papal aide and involving a Vatican choir.

The nearly universal response of church authorities to these crimes, rising to the level of the papacy itself, is so consistently to protect the abusers and re-victimize the victims as to qualify for the crime of co-conspiracy.

Such revelations seem like the dream come true of know-nothing anti-Catholicism. Yes, the depravities of the guilty priests are crimes—but they are also evidence of a broader dysfunction, a depth of systematic corruption that the old bigotries never imagined. The nearly universal response of church authorities to these crimes, rising to the level of the papacy itself, is so consistently to protect the abusers and re-victimize the victims as to qualify for the crime of co-conspiracy. Bishops and other leaders have not only obstructed justice, shielding perpetrators from civil law, but they have also become criminal abettors by enabling these perpetrators to continue their abusive behavior. And it has been happening everywhere.

To people who follow the church closely, none of this is a surprise. The Vatican has long sought to shield Catholic clergy from the legal consequences of their sexual offenses. The church declared a priest’s abuse of a child to be a horrific crime in both 1867 and 1962, but, more to the point, it was also “a secret of the Holy Office.” Church officials were forbidden to refer such criminal behavior to civil legal authorities. After the scandals began breaking a decade ago in the United States, that tradition was explicitly (if secretly) continued by an order issued in 2001 by Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Crimes “perpetrated with a minor by a cleric” fall under church jurisdiction, not civil law enforcement. “Cases of this kind,” Ratzinger warned, “are subject to the pontifical secret”—the violation of which is punishable by excommunication. When Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, a Vatican spokesman was asked about the 2001 pronouncement. “This is not a public document,” he replied, “so we would not talk about it.” No way, no how.

The practical effect of this code of silence has been to allow the priestly abusers to become serial rapists, as they have been shipped off from one assignment to another. A most egregious case of this involved Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, who enabled the notorious sex sprees of then-Father Paul Shanley, who is now in prison in Massachusetts for raping a child. Even after authorizing secret payments to Shanley’s victims, Law kept him in the parish ministry, and ultimately recommended him for the position of director of a Catholic homeless shelter. The Massachusetts attorney general’s finding said that, but for technicalities, Law would have been indicted as an accomplice to Shanley’s crimes. Law, too, should be in prison. When another victim, Tom Blanchette, approached Law to tell of having been abused by a priest, Law, as Blanchette later reported, “laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes. And then he said this, ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.’” Blanchette was shattered, but he broke the secret. In 2002, Catholic outrage forced Law’s resignation as Archbishop of Boston, but to the Vatican he had behaved nobly. Pope John Paul II named him as Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, one of the most prestigious appointments in the church. Law still exercises wide influence at the Vatican, including a key role in the selection of bishops for the United States. “I am deeply ashamed,” Pope Benedict told reporters on his trip to America in 2008, and the Vatican now resounds with expressions of regret—but such mea culpas are meaningless as long as Rome continues to protect and glorify Bernard Law, the enabler-in-chief. His ongoing status is the ring of truth—loud and clear.

There are two lessons here. First, across a long period of time, the culture of an all-male celibate clergy included an at least passive expectation that sexual frustration would drive some priests to behave badly. Pastoral relationships with girls and adult men and women could be betrayed, too, but the priest predators seem mainly to have exploited the boys who were vulnerable to them. The church is far from the only setting in which children are sexually exploited, but the church has a special problem, tied to the clergy’s lifelong renunciation of sexual expression. The system anticipated exploitative sexual behavior, which is why there are procedures for dealing with it that go back beyond the 19th century. In effect, the Catholic Church compensated for stresses attached to celibacy by adopting a mode of looking-the-other-way—a kind of clerical version of “boys will be boys.” What the hell. Father Bob is a little bent. That it actually was boys came to seem normal.

And, second, the nearly universal response both of church authorities and of non-abusive priests, as they looked the other way, aimed to protect not so much the perpetrators but the whole pyramid of Catholic hierarchical power on which they all depended. If protecting the clerical structure meant protecting the abusers, too, so be it. To “avoid scandal” was to avoid anything that would call the pyramid into question. Abusers could simply not be exposed without having the whole malign structure brought into the light—its sexual repressiveness, contempt for women, authoritarianism, and dishonesty. Subtly homoerotic and officially homophobic. A hidden structure of malevolence that is now perfectly named as the Pontifical Secret. As these news stories suggest, the secret is out. The pyramid is crumbling.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.