Can the Pope Save it? The Catholic Church -- Pillar of European Establishment – Threatened with Collapse of Credibility     Print Email

As revelations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests continue engulfing Western Europe, the Pope – who publicly pledged to revive Christianity in the Continent – finds the church, his papacy and even himself desperately on the defensive. The scandal stems not only from child molestation by priests but also from the church’s apparent decades-long cover-up of the practice and its practitioners in the clergy.

In its broadest context, the Catholic church’s scandal seems likely to reinforce other trends in European society that have weakened trust in official institutions of both church and state. In that sense, the fate of the papacy has geo-political implications – which start with the credibility of the pope himself.

The Pope seems to have settled on a dual line of defense. The first is that he personally was blocked, before he became pope, from reacting more vigorously because of orders from the Vatican. The second is that the abuse scandal is being propagated and escalated by the media as part of a secularist campaign to discredit religion.

As the Vatican went on the offensive with a media blitz in anticipation of Easter Sunday, the church’s counter-offensive in defense of Pope Benedict XIV took aim at accusations that he did a poor job of investigating abuse allegations back when he was a mere cardinal heading up the Vatican disciplinary office. Instead, church leaders say, the then-cardinal, now-pope called for a special investigation into the former archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, for allegedly molesting young monks. According to his successor, Cardinal Schoenborn, that investigation was blocked by aides to Pope John Paul II, who should therefore be blamed for any “cover-up” that might otherwise be laid at the door of the current pope.

Even if that view helps exonerate the incumbent pope, he still faces the challenge of finding some action that can protect the church as a core institution in European and Western societies. At this juncture, the church faces a dire threat of being discredited as a moral force in the world. The crisis – over child molestation and church cover-ups – has been simmering for years after public revelations in the United States, notably in the heavily-Catholic region of Boston. In the U.S., the ecclesiastical authorities managed to contain the crisis by an effort at public disclosure and the payment of more than a billion dollars in damages to victims nationwide.

A more daunting, difficult challenge to the church’s credibility has now emerged in Europe. It started in Ireland, one of Europe’s most devout nations and the first European country to expose episodes of abuse. Now, with that controversy still on the boil, allegations are emerging almost daily from a number of other European countries – Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and the Pope’s native Germany. In all these countries, the Catholic church plays a larger social and institutional role – even in this era of declining church attendance – than it does in the United States as a nation. Around the world, an estimated one billion people profess to consider themselves Catholics.

The church has not helped itself by waffling on this ultra-sensitive issue. Many observers have said that the actual episodes of abuse – many of them dating back for decades – are probably less damaging in themselves than the evidence which is surfacing every day of a consistent, high-level and apparently enduring cover-up by church officials. Instead of punishing errant priests or handing them over to criminal justice, the offenders were often transferred, without any public stigma, to new church positions that left them in contact with young people who were potential victims.

Ireland offers a text book example. The Ryan Report, published in May 2009 (by Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) after a nine-year investigation, exposed decades of abuse in Catholic-run institutions. This 2,600-page report was followed by the Murphy Report which concluded that the archdiocese and other church authorities had engaged in "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets".

The denials, by the Vatican and those which ordinary Catholics told themselves, have shifted a number of times. Initially, when abuse allegations emerged in the 1990s, Rome declared it was just a few “bad apples.” This defense collapsed when the Ryan report exposed so much evidence, involving thousands of children in Ireland; at that point, the church’s defense was that it was a particular Anglophone problem with roots in Ireland's excessively deferential Catholic culture, which had then been exported to the US and Australia.

Now this defense too is falling apart as abuse allegations emerge across Europe, as hundreds of victims have come forward in recent months with accounts of sexual abuse from decades past. In Germany, there has been a torrent of accusations in the last month alone about systematic sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and by teachers at Catholic boarding schools.

This latest development has potentially explosive implications because it could draw in the Pope. There are allegations that when he was Bishop of Munich in the 1980s, the future pope knew of a case in which an offending priest was transferred to Munich even though then Ratzinger was aware of his past – and concurred in the church's decision not to turn the priest over to the police and instead allow him to continue working with children.

The Pope’s long awaited letter of apology about Ireland -- watched closely by Catholics around the world to see whether it would also acknowledge decades of Vatican-approved cover-ups – seems to have backfired because it did not directly address the long history of concealment, nor did it spell out punishment or new guidelines. As one prominent American priest said, “the letter was not enough and shows that the Vatican is still dancing around the fundamental issue.”

Instead, the Vatican has chosen to attack the media over its reporting, alleging that there is an "ignoble attempt" to smear Pope Benedict "at any cost."

So far, there is little evidence that the church in Europe will follow the path taken by the Boston archdiocese in calming the crisis it faced over a similar scandal in 2003. The Boston diocese agreed to pay $85 million to settle more than 500 civil suits accusing priests of sexual abuse and church officials of concealment. The price led the church to (temporary) financial bankruptcy. Beyond that, the church gave a public pledge to take a tougher line on this issue in future. The package seems to have succeeded in reassuring Catholics in America.

But the new wave of disclosures has revived some legal actions against the Pope by American lawyers. (The Pope is reportedly ready to argue that he is immune from prosecution or lawsuits as a head of state ruling the Vatican.)

The Vatican’s latest pronouncement has taken a new tack. Quoted by Spain’s El Mundo newspaper, the papal spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, said this week that the authority of the pope to fight such abuses has actually been strengthened by the spate of disclosures and vehement public outcry.

The wider risks were articulated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- leader of the world's Anglicans – in a BBC interview on Easter weekend in which he said that Christian churches can only survive sex-abuse scandals with honesty and truthfulness. "For an awful lot of Christian institutions until fairly recently the default setting would be to try and hang on to institution's credibility and we've learned that that is damaging, it's wrong, it's dishonest. It requires that very hard recognition which ought to be natural for the Christian Church, based as it is on repentance and honesty, and we had to learn honesty and truthfulness are the only way in which we can survive in any institution."

He added that the issue had proven the need for church institutions to be more open and honest, saying it was a "lesson we've all had to learn the hard way." His comments, which the Vatican complained violated an understanding that churches would not criticize each other, were later amended, with an apology, by the Anglican archbishop.

It remains to be seen how – and whether – Pope Benedict XIV wields his authority to cope with the crisis. For now, however, there is no end in sight to the Catholic church’s emerging global scandals of abuse and cover-up.

By Sarah Geraghty