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‘Rendering unto God that which is Caesar’s’: the fatal flaw at the heart of the Vatican

Thoughts prompted by The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse, by Geoffrey Robertson QC

In March of this year expectations were rising. After years of denial, silence, inaction and apparent incomprehension of the anger felt by decent people around the world, Pope Benedict XVI was due to write a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland in which he would – at last – confront the issue of the child sex abuse scandal head-on. Would we finally hear him acknowledge, without excuses, the extent of the crimes committed? Would he finally insist that all credible accusations of child sex abuse must from now on be immediately reported to civil law enforcement agencies, rather than dealt with under the secretive and inadequate processes of Canon Law?

The answer, of course, is that we wouldn’t, and he didn’t.

The letter, when it came, certainly expressed sorrow and regret for the suffering of children at the hands of priests. When I first read the opening sentences of the section addressed to the victims of abuse, I found them quite touching in their simple and humble expression of sorrow. How many politicians or corporations have been able to bring themselves to say, ‘You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry’? I was impressed. (On reflection, perhaps more impressed than I should have been, given that statements of contrition trip lightly off the tongues of those who repeat them daily in Mass or in the Confessional, and are told that repentance is all that is required to release them from guilt.)

Yet this was offset by what followed, a bewildering ramble blaming the problem on the growing secularisation of Irish society and the resulting failure of Catholics to observe practices such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats. It tried to suggest that the sense of betrayal should be directed towards the church authorities in Ireland – creating the entirely misleading impression that those authorities had somehow acted off their own bat and had not simply been following instructions from the Vatican itself. It emphasized the importance of a ‘clear-sighted diagnosis’ of the causes of the ‘present crisis’, but the offered list of contributing factors nowhere included the Vatican’s insistence that all matters relating to child sex abuse by priests must be dealt with under pontifical secrecy, on pain of excommunication. And ultimately, in what must be a leading contender for understatement of the decade, it described child sexual abuse in the church as a ‘disturbing problem’, then went on to describe the nature of that problem, not as consisting in the fact that thousands of children had been abused and debased and torn and raped and had their young lives almost destroyed by men they had been taught to trust; but that it had ‘contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings’. [My emphasis.]

Geoffrey Robertson does not dwell on the Pope’s letter to Irish Catholics; but reading his book has suddenly made that and all the other pieces of this strange and distressing puzzle fall into place for me. Like many others, I had struggled to understand the indifference of the church towards its victims; its active obstruction of criminal investigations into child rape allegations; its failure to impose anything remotely resembling proportionate punishment on the rapists; its determination to harbour them and its willingness to inflict them on new, unsuspecting parishes where they were free to abuse again. How could the church possibly justify such (lack of) responses, even to itself? How could it possibly think this was the appropriate, decent or just way to respond to crimes of such an appalling nature, and on such a huge scale?

The answer, it turns out, is simple. The Vatican is not interested in crime. The Vatican is only interested in sin.

Sin is an offence against God: the victims are God, the church, and the soul of the sinner. The necessary restitution consists of confession and penance, and once these have taken place, the sin is forgiven and the sinner is washed ‘whiter than snow’.

Crime is an offence in earthly terms: it has earthly victims (tens of thousands of them, in the case of child sex abuse by priests), and the necessary restitution consists of prosecution and, in the event of a guilty verdict, normally imprisonment. But the church is simply not interested in such mundane matters. What is a crime against a mere child compared with a crime against God? And what is more important: putting a rapist right with his earthly victim and with outraged society as a whole, or putting him right with God? Robertson quotes the leading commentary on canon law:

‘The place of law is in the Church of Christ where the drama of our redemption is enacted; the code of law is to assist the people in the reception of God’s saving mysteries.’

As soon as we understand that canon law deals only with sin and ‘the drama of redemption’, and that its foremost preoccupation when it comes to child sex abuse is the soul of the abuser, closely followed by the perceived need to protect other souls which might fall away if the church were brought into scandal and disrepute, everything about the shameful non-response of the Vatican falls into place and becomes clear.

Suddenly we understand why the Pope thinks that prayer and penitence, rather than prosecution and imprisonment, are the solutions to the problem. We understand the insistence on utmost secrecy, and why priests were sent on retreats, or temporarily forbidden to conduct Mass, before being simply moved on, again and again and again, only to rape again, do penance again, and be forgiven again – for God’s forgiveness wipes the slate clean, and to hold the sin against the sinner once God has forgiven him would be a form of heresy.

Moreover, when we understand that the Vatican sees itself, its dogmas and its rituals as inherently holy, as part of God’s kingdom on Earth, the now-notorious 1962 Crimen Solicitationis also falls into place. Crimen was the document outlining the Vatican’s instructions for dealing with sex abuse allegations; a document which, though now modified in places, for many years established the core principles for the Vatican’s handling of child sex abuse cases. The ‘solicitation’ which is the subject of Crimen is not ‘improper and indecent conversations or interactions’ per se, but ‘improper and indecent conversations or interactions as part of the act of sacramental confession’ [my emphasis]. For the Vatican the abuse of a child (a mere earthly thing) pales into insignificance beside the abuse of the confessional (part of the ‘drama of redemption’). Even in the most recent instructions relating to the most serious crimes under canon law, issued by Pope Benedict in July 2010, sex with a minor is only sixth on a list of offences which must be dealt with solely by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, set on a par with misuse of consecrated wafers, breaking the seal of the confessional, and attempts to ordain a woman. (Actually, this is not quite true, for the utmost penalties that are applicable in each case show that they are not really considered equally grave: under Vatican rules you can be excommunicated for attempting to ordain a woman; and if you are a victim of child-rape you can be excommunicated for breathing a word of your suffering outside clerical walls; but you cannot be excommunicated for raping children, even if you do it by the dozen. If you are a priestly child-rapist the most extreme penalty that awaits you – and, only then, if you have raped many times over – is that you will be stripped of your priesthood and suffer the disgrace of being returned to the laity.)

This fixation on matters ‘spiritual’, this obsession with religious dogma and ‘sin’ rather than suffering and crime, and with ‘penance’ and ‘redemption’ rather than justice and concern for the victims, is deeply, inherently immoral. For how can there be morality without empathy? How can there be justice without redress for the victim? Under canon law, the law of the Vatican, which the Pope still insists is the only law that may be applied to his child-rapists, the perceived abuse of a wafer counts for more than the actual abuse of real, human, flesh and blood.

The utter obliviousness to the human victims of priestly sex abuse is made manifest in Robertson’s book, in the form of the official transcript of a US bishop’s deposition in a court case brought against the church in Los Angeles for negligent supervision of paedophile priests. Under questioning, the bishop was forced to admit that not only did he make no attempt to find the children who had been sexually abused by a priest in his diocese, no attempt to offer them support or counselling, no attempt to ensure their parents were informed – he had not so much as attempted to find out who they were. Reading the transcript, it is clear that the thought had never even crossed his mind: the children were, quite simply, irrelevant.

This is what happens when people surrender themselves to the pernicious idea that ‘spiritual’ matters should take precedence over earthly ones.

Of course, the Vatican is no slouch when it comes to promoting its earthly interests too, as Robertson’s fascinating and illuminating account of the history of its claims to statehood demonstrates. This is not merely a matter of academic interest, for on the question of whether or not the Holy See is genuinely a state rests the whole issue of diplomatic immunity for Joseph Ratzinger, the man who for decades has been a leading figure in the cover-up of the biggest child sex abuse scandal in history.

The arguments are detailed and the situation is not, perhaps, as clear-cut as either side would like, but Robertson contends convincingly that the case for rejecting the statehood of the Holy See is strong enough to make it worth asking a court to adjudicate on the matter.

Starting with the Lateran Treaty – the Faustian pact between Mussolini and the Vatican which handed over 1.2 square miles of Italy in exchange for church support for Mussolini’s policies (though who can say, in such a case, which of the parties was Faust, and which the devil?) – Robertson sets out the whole squalid background to the Holy See’s claims to statehood: its far-from-universal acceptance at the United Nations, its gatecrashing of various committees and conferences, and its ruthless and unscrupulous attempts to hijack UN policies on human rights in order to subvert attempts to control population growth or secure equal rights for women and homosexuals. We might mention here, too, the Holy See’s cynical behaviour in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: first ratifying it, complete with its requirement that all cases of child sex abuse be reported to the police; then, the only time it actually met its obligation to report on its compliance with the Convention, arguing – and who can be in any doubt as to why? - that this clause should apply only in cases of child sex abuse occurring within the family.

Robertson shows how the Holy See has shamelessly exploited its rights and privileges as a ‘state’ (claiming diplomatic immunity from prosecution, for instance and, in a breathtaking display of cynical arrogance, refusing to provide the information requested by the Murphy Commission as part of its official enquiry into the church’s handling of sex abuse allegations in Ireland, on the grounds that the request had been made direct, rather than through diplomatic channels, thus violating the dignity of its statehood); whilst repeatedly failing to meet the obligations of a state in the matter of filing reports on its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment - to name two particularly pertinent examples. Furthermore, by threatening Catholic politicians in several countries with excommunication if they voted in favour of policies opposed by the Vatican, it has breached the obligation not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states; and by refusing to co-operate with national law enforcement authorities, it has subverted the legal procedures of other states too. Perhaps most significantly of all, Robertson argues that the Holy See fails to meet the independent and objective criteria of statehood laid down in the Montevideo Convention of 1933 and that, on these grounds alone, its claims to statehood should no longer be recognised.

So where does this leave us? Where does it leave the Pope, and where does it leave the children who suffered as a result of the policies he implemented and oversaw?

So long as the Holy See’s apparently tenuous claim to statehood remains unchallenged, it seems unlikely that the Vatican will face justice or that the tens of thousands of abused children will receive it. But there is hope. There are countries whose law gives them universal jurisdiction to try crimes against humanity (and Robertson explains why sex abuse on this scale could be considered such a crime). If the Pope were to be arrested in one of these countries, the question of the Holy See’s statehood would arise very early in the proceedings and would need to be settled in court, quite possibly the European Court of Human Rights. If its statehood were overturned, its immunity from prosecution would be overturned also: prosecutors could demand access to the Vatican’s records and the truth – the full truth – about the extent of its complicity in these sickening crimes would come out at last.

As it happens, England is one of the countries whose law would permit it to proceed in this way; but the UK government is particularly fawning when it comes to the Vatican and has made it clear that it accepts without reservation the Holy See’s claim to statehood. Joseph Ratzinger will not be arrested during his forthcoming visit to the UK. But there are signs that other countries may not be so supine: the Pope might be wise not to visit Belgium, for instance, which also has the necessary universal jurisdiction and has shown commendable determination to apply its own legal procedures in cases of alleged child sex abuse by priests, heedless of the Vatican’s squawks of protest.

Robertson writes coolly and is at pains to stress that he is hostile to neither religion in general nor Catholicism in particular; nevertheless, what emerges from his book is a shocking picture of a vast organisation which is steeped in mysticism and has pretensions of holiness, yet is ultimately self-serving, secretive, repressed and indifferent to suffering, and does not scruple to distort, conceal, threaten and exploit in order to cement its earthly power and influence. Pity the young innocents who found themselves in its clutches and will bear the scars for life. They deserve justice. This short but important book might just help them get it.



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