Cardinal Needs a Reality Check

By Rosemary McLeod
March 11, 2009

OPINION It's about time someone took a few nine-year-old girls to the Vatican and introduced them to the old men there for a reality check.

They should take with them their Barbie dolls, and whatever the current equivalent is of My Little Pony, and the old chaps should be forced to watch a few hours of children's television with them, just to get them up to speed.

Yes, this is what children are like. They are small, trusting, innocent, and in no way adult.

Parents know this. Stepfathers do, too. That's why we protect them, and why breaching their trust is so serious and wrong.

The cardinals and bishops who hang about the Vatican might learn much from conversation with little girls about how a child sees the world.

They might usefully check out their physical size, and compare them with adults in both their intellectual understanding and physical maturity. And then I doubt very much that they could insist they bear children. Only a brute could.

After that enlightening visit, a meeting with experts on child sex abuse would come in handy. That might impress on the old gents, who are unable to marry or have children of their own, just what it means for a stepfather to rape a little girl, and the effect it's likely to have on her. I'd have thought that, with all the scandals in the church in recent years, there'd have been a degree of awareness of that at the Vatican, with its regret at the way sexual abuse of children within the church had been swept under the carpet.

But perhaps Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re has been out of circulation for a very, very long time in some dusty dungeon. Otherwise I can't imagine how he could claim that a raped nine- year-old Brazilian, pregnant with twins, should have been forced to carry them to term in her child's body, at the risk of her life.

This matter has sparked fierce debate in Brazil, and around the world, in the aftermath of the abortion performed on her. And this is for good reason - we're either serious about protecting children, or we're not.

Cardinal Re is an important man. He heads the Pontifical Commission for South America, and the Catholic Church's Congregation of Bishops. When he speaks, he commands respect.

He says the twins conceived in this way had a right to live, though it is unclear whether he believes the child, their mother, has an equal one.

The archbishop of the area in which the girl lives has excommunicated her mother for authorising the abortion, and also the doctors who carried it out for fear that the girl would not survive carrying the foetuses to term.

BUT HERE'S the astonishing part - the bishop will not excommunicate the rapist. Although the man allegedly committed "a heinous crime, the abortion - the elimination of an innocent life - was more serious," is his reason.

I guess I needn't be affronted at the church's position, since it doesn't affect me, and the church is unlikely to be interested in my views anyway. But that's hardly the point. In an era of new awareness about child sex abuse and the harm it does, the idea that a raped girl should be looked on in this way - as a compulsory vessel, living a nightmare - undermines all girls and women as human beings; and when it comes from a man of such standing in the Catholic Church, it is disturbing.

There is a good debate to be had about the ethics of abortion on demand, and we're right to question why there's been such a rise in the number of abortions carried out each year in this country. But in cases of rape, child sex abuse, and endangering the life of the mother, how could anyone with any compassion accept the church's position?

One doctor involved in the abortion says he'll keep going to mass, whatever the bishop says, on the grounds that, "the people want a church full of forgiveness, love and mercy". Is he wrong?

There is a steady worldwide decline in the number of people attending church. Half the world's population is women. There is a link. Churches need to affirm us and our human rights or risk irrelevance.


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