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 marvelous 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.
(This article first appeared in thetimes.co.uk on February 20, 2022 under the title “A million children abused by Italian priests, and it barely makes the news” and has been reproduced here in full)
This sort of sexual abuse and cover-up at very top levels of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) is widespread in Bharat too. Robin Vaddakumchiryil, Joseph Jeypaul, Jose Varkey Palimattom, Father Arockiaraj are some pedophile pastors/priests who at least got reported and named by our pro-Church mainstream media. Each of these sex abusers got protection from their respective Church at some stage or the other. Then, we have Bishop Franco Mulakkal whom our police and judiciary failed to convict, despite a long and valiant struggle by the nun he allegedly raped and other nuns who defied the Church hierarchy in her support.
All Churches are wooed by India’s ‘secular’ parties as they control a captive votebank and also exercise great influence in academia, media and activist circles.
The author of this article is right in saying that other religious institutions and holy men claiming divine authority have also abused their position. Bharat too has witnessed self-styled holy men like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Nirmal Baba, Rampal and others who have developed delusions of grandeur and duped and/or abused their followers. All of them had to face the law of the land.
But there is a crucial difference Hindu Dharma and institutionalized religions like Christianity and Islam. Dharma is decentralized and treats different spiritual paths within the Dharmic umbrella as equally valid. The Rig Veda’s verse ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti (‘Truth’ – ultimate, unchanging reality – is one, the rshis, the wise speak of it in many ways) exemplifies this outlook. This mutual respect or respect for differences amongst diverse Dharmic sampradayas (sect/denomination) means that Hindus are naturally wary of anyone who claims exclusive access to truth or God.
While Hindus, like all humans, seek shared rituals and religious experience with other community members, they are always reminded of the fact that ultimately they are responsible for their own moksha (liberation). So mere belief or surrendering to a Guru will not suffice, Dharmic values should truly reflect in their character and actions.
Hindus are told to pursue the 4 purusharthas (goals of human life) – Artha, Kama, Dharma, Moksha – to lead a balanced and Dharmic life. So even if a Hindu falls victim to a cult, he/she lives in a society where asking questions about religion and spirituality is encouraged, not frowned upon. If someone finds that rituals or practices that deliver solace to others are not working for him/her, they are encouraged to enquire within and seek the inner Self, preferably under guidance of a realized Guru.
As for the Catholic Church, while it is indeed true that it does carry out charity work and run schools and hospitals across the word, the underlying motivation is always to ‘save souls’, i.e. one driven by the supremacist belief that non-Christians worship false Gods and are destined for hell. There is no respect for the native religion and cultures of the country these Christian charities operate in. In fact, a country like Bharat which give special rights to minorities is demonized as anti-Christian, compared to the respect the Pope reserves for Islamic nations which ban Christian groups.
Hence, the Catholic Church, and all evangelical Protestant Churches too, are by no means ‘benign’. They are responsible for the ongoing cultural and religious genocide of thousands of indigenous religions and belief systems, apart from the suffering these hierarchical and powerful institutions have inflicted on their own followers.