Dimanno: Impunity at the Top of the Church

By Rosie Dimanno
Toronto Star
February 16, 2012

The pope can’t be dislodged for reasons of poor health, psychological trauma or colossally bad judgment in ministering to the world’s nearly 2 billion faithful.

Dictators, who tend not to die peacefully in their beds, are among the few on this planet who can claim a job for life.

And then there's the pope.

No challenge to his authority, no Catholic Spring, no curia putsch allowed there; can't be dislodged for reasons of poor health, psychological trauma or colossally bad judgment in ministering to the world's nearly 2 billion faithful.

Pontiffs are sitting pretty once elected by conclave. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, a strategic maneuver to end the battle for the papacy (three vying) that was known as the Western schism. The Code of Canon Law contains no apparatus for yanking a Bishop of Rome who's botched it.

While popes are not technically "infallible" — a misconception of nuance; they're only "error-free" when performing in their official capacity to promulgate dogma on faith and morals — they can't be given the sack for getting it spectacularly wrong because, in those matters that most directly affect us, they're unimpeachably right. Got it?

Understanding arcane intricacies of canon law is as challenging as that whole Father-Son-Holy Ghost trinity thing, which is why most Catholics simply take it on faith. Faith, however, has never in modern memory been so fragile, so at risk, as under Benedict XVI, with alarming numbers abandoning the Church, at least in the West.

Benedict may be indubitably pious and unmatched as a scholar-pope but, on his watch, the Catholic Church has sunk into a morass of unprecedented scandal. The latest crisis — explosive documents obtained by an Italian investigative TV show in what's been dubbed "Vatileaks" — arises from a three-way private correspondence, which included the pope, with an archbishop who blew the whistle on what he saw as a web of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the Vatican, an alert that got the poor man transferred, from deputy governor of Vatican City to Vatican ambassador in Washington. The rippling accusations encompass everything from awarding of tenders for work to inside-connected contractors at ridiculously inflated prices to yet more questions being asked about the Vatican bank, 30 years after its predecessor (Banco Ambrosiano) collapsed amidst lurid allegations about money-laundering, freemasons, the Mafia and the mysterious death of its chairman — "God's banker," Roberto Calvi.

At its most suspect core, however, the Vatican has been unable to contain or adequately address the ever-expanding grotesquerie of predator priests and lay practitioners sexually abusing children.

To be fair, most of the tawdry abuse that has come to light in recent years occurred during the papacy of Pope John Paul II. For all his charisma and political courage, John Paul never confronted the pedophilia rot among his clergy, the Church more concerned with protecting its reputation than protecting children. But, in his quarter-century as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — disciplinarian-in-chief — Benedict, or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as he then was — was directly responsible for dealing with priests who violated their oaths. Instead, known perpetrators were quietly moved around parishes and, on too many occasions, continued to commit sordid crimes.

The most notorious sexual abuse scandals erupted in the U.S. — Kansas City (lawsuits with 47 plaintiffs settled to the tune of $10 million), Philadelphia (a grand jury in 2005 found credible accusations of abuse by 63 priests whose activities had been covered up by the church), Boston (Cardinal Bernard Law forced to resign after a judge-ordered release of diocesan documents revealed a priest accused of molesting more than 130 boys over 30 years had been transferred among half a dozen parishes) – Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands and, most damaging to the current pontiff, his native Germany.

As Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Ratzinger approved the transfer of a priest, Rev. Peter Hullerman, who'd sexually abused boys. Hullerman received psychiatric treatment, returned quickly to pastoral work with children and continued ministering to youth even after being convicted of molesting boys in 1982. Not until 2010, after new accusations of sexual abuse emerged, was Hullerman suspended from his priestly duties.

Pope Benedict's hands are dirty. And it doesn't count for much that, belatedly, he issued an apology to all victims of abuse by priests, or that, in 2010, the Vatican posted guidelines on its website directing officials to follow civil laws compelling the reporting of crimes to authorities if required by local laws.

Grand juries, district attorneys and government commissions (as in Ireland) have done all the heavy lifting for the Church, with some national associations of bishops (the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Australia and others) unilaterally adopting strong anti-abuse policies. Left to its own devices, the Vatican would probably have dithered for, oh, another couple of centuries.

The Vatican has formulated "guidelines" for the reporting of abuse by clerics, noting that the phenomenon is not only an offence punishable by church law but also "a crime prosecuted by civil law." Procedures described as "clear and coordinated," entailing coordination with law enforcement authorities, are to be released later this year.

Last week, the Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome hosted a landmark international symposium on clerical sex abuse, with attendance by representatives of 110 bishops' conferences and 30 religious orders. Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's office for bishops, presided over a vigil service of repentance in which he and several other bishops pleaded for forgiveness for what Ouellet called the "evil" in the church.

That "evil" has reportedly cost the church $2 billion in lawsuit settlements.

At the conference, "Toward Healing and Renewal," the Vatican's top sex abuse investigator — Monsignor Charles Scicluna, promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — said in his formal address: "The Catholic Church knows well that whenever one of its ministers, whether bishop, priest or deacon, or lay pastoral agent, sexually abuses a minor, a tragic wound is inflicted on the community; subordinated as it is by the indescribably repugnant damage done to a child."

Stunningly, Scicluna warned against the culture of "omerta" — the Italian word for the Mafia's code of silence — in handling sexual abuse claims of minors by clergy.

"Other enemies of the truth are the deliberate denial of known facts and the misplaced concern that the good name of the institution should somehow enjoy absolute priority to the detriment of disclosure."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Scicluna added: "It is a crime in canon law to show malicious or fraudulent negligence in the exercise of one's duty."

But canon law has not been changed to reflect the scourge of abuse by clergy, and there's no indication it will be.

And only one actual victim was invited to speak at the symposium. Little wonder victims' groups dismissed the symposium as window dressing. They've demanded genuine accountability, want the Vatican to release the names and open up the files on all known molesters. One group last September even filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, urging it to investigate and prosecute Pope Benedict, as well as three top Vatican officials, for crimes against humanity — abetting and covering up the sexual assault of children by priests. There's zero chance of the Court taking up that cause.

I'll say it again: Benedict's hands are dirty.

Can't even slide him out of the picture gracefully as a pope emeritus, no matter how doddering he gets, no matter how complicit he might be proven to have been in the concealing of predator priests.

Benedict turns 85 in April. He'll die a pope. But, for many of us, he will have been predeceased by his church.


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