A million children abused by Italian priests, and it barely makes the news

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

February 20, 2022

By Matthew Syed

We must now accept that such evil is not an aberration but part of a duality central to institutional religion

The most dangerous moment in any scandal is when anger shades into indifference, when revelations that once had the power to shock become so normalised that they scarcely register. I wonder if we have reached such a tipping point in one of the most disturbing stories of our age: the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.

If so, this should trouble us all.

On Wednesday a Vatican insider estimated that up to a million Italian children had been abused over seven decades. We do not know the true number because the clergy enjoy various immunities in Italy and the nation has never confronted, let alone fully investigated, the evil that has taken place within its borders. This should have led the news worldwide but scarcely merited a mention on any bulletin, in the UK or elsewhere.

This isn’t merely a betrayal of the victims of the past but of the children suffering at the hands of priests in the here and now. Worse, it is a betrayal of our own conscience and capacity for moral action. This is why now isn’t the time to close our eyes to this scandal, but to look deeper. For this isn’t merely a story of evil hidden in plain sight within a global institution, but a glimpse into the nature of theological criminality.

Perhaps, like me, you remember where you were when this story (of which there had been rumbles before) was exposed by The Boston Globe. Perhaps you remember how you felt on hearing that John Joseph Geoghan, a priest with a “cherubic face”, abused 130 boys in a 34-year reign of terror.

Perhaps you remember too how Bernard Francis Law, the Archbishop of Boston at the time, covered it up, rotating Geoghan and other child-molesting priests between parishes so they could escape allegations, and abuse more children.

This was a story not merely of individual evil but of institutional complicity: not only the cardinal but also hundreds of others who didn’t want the story to leak; legal departments that sought to block journalistic inquiry into rape allegations; legions of clergy who regarded the pristine reputation of the church as more important than the welfare of the innocents they were supposed to protect.

Soon after the Boston exposé, the story gained momentum. A commission in Ireland noted “endemic” abuse in Catholic institutions, saying that leaders failed to “stop beatings, rapes and humiliation”; a 2012 police report in Australia found that at least 40 suicides were directly related to Catholic clergy in the state of Victoria alone; a commission in France found that 216,000 children had been abused. Italy will perhaps prove to be the most disturbing tale of all — demonstrating, once again, that when we fail to confront abuse, it compounds.

Yet let us look not merely at what happened but, more importantly, why. We sometimes forget the surrealism of Catholic theology and how deep it reaches into the mental furniture of its adherents. We forget about how the ex cathedra infallibility of the Pope is taught to children as literal truth, about how cardinals are proclaimed to be conduits to the Almighty, about how priests have power to conduct the sacrament. Under the divine authority of these frocked men, bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ, a transubstantiation that must seem as miraculous as it is marvellous for children looking on.

And this is why I was not at all surprised to hear that priests cunningly used the confessional itself, the sacred chamber of their power of absolution, to rape and abuse children. I was even less surprised to hear that many more had attacked the young at the very moment they were hailing Mary or during solemn prayer. What better ruse to generate compliance than to insinuate that the evil taking place was in God’s divine plan, a terrible conflation that goes to the heart of the psychological trauma that is still unfolding around the world?

And doesn’t this show that this isn’t merely about the crimes of priests, or even the Catholic Church? It is, I would suggest, the inevitable consequence of placing divine authority in holy men and manuscripts. When the human mind has been groomed to accept the existence of a supernatural creator who is both benevolent and omnipotent, the moral capacity to gainsay evil from those who are held up to be His representatives is not merely reduced but, very often, liquidated.

Isn’t this how criminals masquerading as priests were able to compel silence at such astonishing scale? Isn’t it how fundamentalist imams are able to inspire youngsters to commit mass murder in suicide missions, assuring them that these acts are not evil but the highest form of virtue? Isn’t this — to widen the perspective — the way that religious institutions have perpetrated crimes throughout history, a story that must be understood not as an aberration but as an essential feature of any kind of fundamentalism?

It is not coincidental that sacred rituals were the vehicle by which Geoghan violated children, something that occurred with such frequency that it became common knowledge in the church. Frank Leary was 13 when he was invited to the rectory, walking past a nun and another priest on the way to Geoghan’s private room, where he was instructed to pray as he was molested.

“I couldn’t move. I was frozen,” Leary would later say. “I was trying to hold back the tears and keep saying my prayers and keep my eyes closed. He was saying prayers too.”

Joseph Ratzinger knew of all this too, although he shamefully denied it. A German inquiry found that the man who became Pope Benedict XVI failed to act in four child abuse cases when Archbishop of Munich, enabling the perpetrators to remain active in pastoral care — a sure indication of how high the criminality travelled. And how many dozens, perhaps hundreds, knew of the evils perpetrated at schools for deaf children in Verona and Mendoza, Argentina, children who often literally lacked the voice to cry for help? Could there be a more chilling metaphor for what happened, and still happens?

I should say, loud and clear, that the Catholic Church does many good things; there are many good priests and many upstanding members of the flock. It is also worth noting that the abuse is not limited to Catholic institutions. But perhaps I might also say, just as loudly, that this doesn’t excuse a single crime perpetrated under the auspices of the church; nor should it blind us to the breadth of culpability within its hierarchy.

Indeed, I would suggest that there is a deep symmetry between these two facets of the church, the good providing cover for the bad, the theology of beneficence offering the pretext for the perpetration of evil. This is the duality that always has been central to institutional religion, and will remain so. And this is why it is misguided to argue over whether the Catholic Church is a benign organisation or a criminal racket, for the truth has always been more subtle. It is both.