Mea Maxima Culpa

Geoffrey Robertson: How To Stop Paedophile Priests

The next pope bears the responsibility of preventing sexual abuse in the church. Geoffrey Robertson on the one reform needed to protect vulnerable children.

As the world awaits the white smoke, it is time to ask how the next Supreme Leader of the Catholic Church can meet its most urgent challenge: stopping its priests from sexually molesting boys. There have been, on a realistic estimate, more than 100,000 such victims since 1981 when Joseph Ratzinger became head of the Vatican office that declined to defrock pedophiles and instead approved their removal to other parishes and other countries.

These widespread and systematic sexual assaults can collectively be described as a crime against humanity. The church cannot atone just by paying compensation. Unless the new pope installs a policy that minimizes danger to children, he—like Benedict—will become complicit in ongoing but avoidable abuse.

First, and most obviously, there must be zero tolerance for pedophile priests. They must be automatically defrocked as soon as their bishop learns of their crime. There must be no delay, and certainly no appeal to the Vatican—it was there that Ratzinger’s preference for avoiding scandal permitted so many pedophiles to be forgiven, and then to reoffend. There is ample evidence now, from Ireland, America, and Europe, that the Vatican has conspired to thwart prosecutors and protect clerical criminals.

The pope is the source of canon law, which directs that allegations of child molestation be investigated in utter secrecy, by a “trial” loaded in favor of clerics who, if found guilty, are “punished” for the most part by orders for prayer and penitence. This must be changed, by recognition that child molestation is a serious offence that cannot be dealt with in a secret ecclesiastical procedure. Allegations must be reported to the police. The Vatican pretends that it made this change in 2011, when new guidelines were issued reminding bishops to cooperate with law-enforcement authorities, but only when local law requires it (and many countries still do not have laws compelling the reporting of child abuse). These guidelines are not incorporated into canon law: bishops are not told to hand evidence over to the police and priests are not required to inform on brothers whom they know (often through confession) to be molesting children. There is no duty to suspend a suspected priest.

Even in countries where local bishops have bowed to political pressure and announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex-abuse allegations, there is always a qualification: “only if the victim consents.” It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counseled that the victim’s best interests lie in allowing the church to deal with the matter “in its own way” without involving the police. So priests escape prosecution because officials, in order to protect the reputation of their church, pressure and persuade families to have complaints dealt with in secret under canon-law processes.

Abolishing the role of the Vatican and of canon law in covering up for pedophile priests will take some papal courage, but will be relatively easy beside the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse from happening in the first place. The reform most often suggested is to abandon celibacy. This would not be doctrinally difficult—Christ’s disciples appear to have been married, and the rule was a dogma introduced in the 11th century and almost abolished by 16th-century reformers. But marriage does not “cure” pedophilia. Moreover, many abusive priests are not pedophiles: their disordered personality can often be ascribed to conditions that would prevent them from forming satisfactory heterosexual relationships. Essentially, abuse happens because they are too weak or emotionally immature to resist the temptation.

That temptation arises because the church indoctrinates children at their earliest rational age—usually at 7—that the priest is the agent of God. Communion is an awesome miracle performed by the God-priest, and then the impressionable and nervous child is made to confess his sins and seek forgiveness from God, represented again by the priest. Father Tom Doyle explains the phenomenon of childrens’ unflinching obedience to priests’ sexual requests as induced by “reverential fear”—the victims have such emotional and psychological dependence on the abuser that they unquestioningly obey—and do not tell for many years afterward.

It follows that the only reform that would tackle the evil of clerical sexual abuse at its source would be to raise the age, from 7 to (say) 13, at which children are first given communion and confession, which inculcates their reverence for the priesthood. Other churches (and the Jewish faith) leave indoctrination and spiritual commitment rituals until teenage-hood: by this stage, young people are much more capable of resisting sexual advances, and have more courage to report them.

Could a pope ever contemplate this reform? The Jesuits say, “Give me the boy at 7”, and now we know what that has meant for so many boys. The Vatican newspaper, worried that indoctrination at 7 is not producing sufficient lifetime allegiance, has been arguing that the age of first communions and confession be reduced to 5. If the new pope cannot bring himself to deliver small children from the spiritual hold of the priest, then Parliaments may have to step in to protect children of tender age from immersion in religious rituals.