Spotlight

Evil is never so potent as when it masquerades as virtue. - my own



I recently saw the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. It is based on the true story of how investigative reporters at the Boston Globe uncovered the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston area. One priest alone was revealed to have raped or molested 130 children for decades, while Cardinal Law and other local officials moved him from parish to parish, where he had daily contact with many defenceless children. Law did not report him to the authorities. Instead, he orchestrated secret settlements for abuse claims made against at least seventy of his priests, in which families were paid to stay silent about the molestation and rape of their children.

How are we to understand the psychology of someone like Cardinal Law, who indeed, was typical of the Catholic clergy? To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic official has ever turned a pedophile priest in to the authorities. Yet sexual abuse of children by the clergy is a widespread and world-wide phenomenon. It is estimated that 6% of all priests have been abusers of children. Rather than being an isolated case, Cardinal Law was representative of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. Indeed, after the scandal blew over and Law resigned in 2002, Pope Paul II made him the archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most important churches in Rome.

The Cardinal and his colleagues believed the Church to be the source of moral authority, and that secular justice was at most, a derivative system that should be subordinate to religious authority. In effect, Law believed that the Church was above the law. The prestige and power of the Church, as well as his own authority and status, were his over-riding concern. His primary loyalty was to the Church, not to the people it is meant to serve, so he felt he had to protect his fellow clergy.

Another factor is the supposed infallibility of the Catholic Church. How can the Church be seen as the font of love and truth if sexual abuse runs through its ranks? Perhaps the secrecy of the confessional is another contributing factor, as it sets a precedent for not turning in the guilty.

There is a parallel between the clergy turning a blind eye to abuse within the Church and the behaviour of ordinary Germans during Nazi times, who after the War, claimed to have been unaware of the systematic campaign to murder all Jews. Certain things are too uncomfortable to think about, and we manage to avert our gaze.

Let us try to enter into the mind of the Cardinal. This is a man who has spent 55 years within the Church and has risen almost to its highest position. The Church and religion are the main focus of his life. By contrast, the secular world seems unimportant. Yet how did Law square his own behaviour with his conscience? Sex outside marriage, and in particular the sexual abuse of young children are not regarded as acceptable behaviour within the Church. By re-assigning the predatory priests he effectively granted them licence to commit more crimes. He probably did not see another way to handle the problem. Did Law sleep well at night? I suspect that he did, and still does. Perhaps he had a niggling sensation that something was not quite right, but it probably only surfaced at odd moments and then was forgotten.

It is reminiscent of the way that meat-eaters (me included) occasionally have pangs of conscience when they see a cute lamb or piglet. Or the way we feel uncomfortable about Third World hunger and other major social problems while we live a life of relative comfort.

Did Cardinal Law believe that sexual molestation of children was a minor matter, a small (if uncomfortable) detail within the vast picture of the Church and its mission on earth? Perhaps these actions, which are regarded as major crimes by other people, seemed of small consequence to him. Certainly, his own actions support such a view. Indeed, it was reported that Law believed he had been badly done by, and other cardinals saw him as a victim rather than a guilty party.

It seems to me that it is not a case of a few bad apples in the barrel. It is more as if the barrel itself is rotten and causes good people to putrefy. In my view, the toxic culture of impunity within the Church corrupted its high officials, whether or not they were men of good will. The root cause of the sexual abuse is, of course, the unnatural (and scripturally unjustified) injunction of celibacy. It is estimated that 50% of the Catholic clergy flout the rule. Imagine how much guilt and distress that must produce. As for the cause of the systematic cover-up of the abuse, this is due to the culture of impunity within the Church, of believing that it is above the law and not accountable. The rottenness is due to the authoritarian and rigid culture of the Church, a culture that makes it extremely difficult to own up to abuses such as these.

In the wider picture, I think that Law and others of his ilk, should not be seen as villains, but rather as examples of what a "normal" person does within a toxic culture. Most of us will conform and even prosper in whatever culture we happen to live within. Only very rare individuals speak out against what is accepted within a restrictive society or organisation. Nor do they last long. Depending on the society, they are ostracised and vilified or even killed. In our own society, whistle-blowers usually lose their jobs and end up in a bad way. Julian Assange is a prominent example.

What is the remedy? It's unlikely that the Church will reform itself in the forseeable future. It is up to the civil authorities to vigorously pursue the criminals and their accomplices. It's only when individuals like Cardinal Law and our own Cardinal Pell spend some years behind bars that the Church will realise it must change.

Tad Boniecki
March 2016

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