No one’s suggesting that child rape is to the Catholic Church hierarchy what the casting couch is to a Hollywood producer – one of the job’s expected side benefits – but it is troubling that the chief reaction to new revelations about the sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests was to rally in defense of Pope Benedict XVI.

If the Vatican truly took the under-age rape charges as seriously as it should – and they have been spilling out now for several decades – there would have been a full-scale investigation and a purging of Church officials who had any role in tolerating or covering up these crimes. In the vernacular, many heads would roll, including those of senior Vatican leaders.

Yet, one of the leaders implicated in the cover-up is Pope Benedict, both when he was German Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger and later when he served as chief of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger was in charge of the German archdiocese when an abusive priest was allowed to get some counseling and quickly resettle in another parish (though the Vatican claims Ratzinger’s subordinate was to blame). The pope also was in charge of Church discipline when an ailing Wisconsin priest who had abused 200 deaf boys was spared defrocking.

In both cases – and in the broader failure to conduct aggressive investigations – Benedict appears to have adopted the same attitude that pervaded many other parts of the Church, one of sympathy for the offending priests and defensiveness toward “attacks” on the Church.

As the outside world has looked on with horror at the endless accounts of child molestation, the main Church response has been to tighten the protective circle around the Vatican and especially Pope Benedict. Despite some words of regret about the rape victims, the Vatican's angrier reactions have been directed against those who would dare question the pope.

This distorted world even led one senior Vatican official to cast Benedict and other prelates in the role of persecuted Jews, even though the Vatican as an institution played a shameful role in the history of European anti-Semitism.

During a Good Friday service at the Vatican, Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, likened the outrage over Catholic priests molesting boys to pogroms against Jews.

“They [Jews] know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms,” Cantalamessa said at St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Benedict sitting silently in attendance.

In other words, according to Cantalamessa’s historical analogy, the people around the world who are outraged over the sexual abuse of children – and the Vatican’s long-term neglect of the scandal – are the Nazis, and Pope Benedict and his Vatican brethren who continue to live in almost unparalleled luxury are the Jews being herded into concentration camps.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, “It’s insulting to liken the tragic death of six million Jews with the appropriate outrage of Catholics at the decades-long cover-up of crimes against children by the very men who were supposed to be their moral guides.”

While Benedict has offered tepid apologies for the scandal, he also has dismissed outrage over the scandal as “petty gossip.” He has shown no sign of reining in his defenders as they shift the blame from the Pope onto his critics.

Beyond the issue of Benedict’s personal responsibility, there are questions about the Vatican itself. Why wasn’t the Church more proactive? Why has it consistently devoted more energy to deflecting the blame than to addressing these serious crimes?

Indeed, until the last two decades of the Twentieth Century when victims finally banded together to expose the crimes, child-rape cases were treated almost exclusively as internal Church matters, deserving of rebukes and penance, but not priest perp walks and prosecution by civil authorities.

Part of the answer may be that the Vatican is the ultimate Old Boys Club, dating back two millennia and renowned for its internal secrecy. Thus, some patterns of behavior, even deviant forms, may have become an unspoken part of the clandestine culture for so many generations that the greater shock for the Vatican would be that this behavior is finally being challenged.

For centuries the Church would not have expected class-action lawsuits by otherwise-powerless boys, who had little choice but to suffer their humiliation in private or to face angry denials if they dared besmirch the reputation of a well-regarded priest.

To this day, the Vatican also resists reexamining the church canon imposing celibacy on Catholic clerics. Indeed, Pope Benedict has been a leading defender of this rule that seeks to suppress a normal part of human life, sexual activity, and thus may encourage its resurfacing in destructive ways.

Though clerical celibacy is now widely regarded as an integral part of the Catholic faith, it never appeared as a mandate from Jesus or from early Christian leaders who were married men. Jesus also grew up in a Jewish tradition in which rabbis were expected to marry, and there is no explicit Biblical claim that Jesus himself was celibate.

However, the issue of celibacy soon emerged as a religious concern for the young religion, with some zealots forsaking sex as a sign of their devotion to Christ. In the First Century, Nicolas, one of the early Seven Deacons, then sought to demonstrate his own religious commitment by renouncing conjugal intercourse with his wife, according to the writing of a Fourth Century Church bishop Epiphanius.

Nicolas later decided that celibacy had too many drawbacks, so – while maintaining his vow against sex in marriage – he began partaking in promiscuous sex, including some acts that Epiphanius condemned as unnatural. Though historians have doubts about these ancient accounts, Nicolas is sometimes considered the leader of a sect called “Nicolaitism.”

A millennium after Nicolas, during the Middle Ages, the then wealthy and powerful Roman Catholic Church was facing embarrassing property claims from offspring of Catholic clerics. Thus, the Gregorian Reform targeted the sexual libertinism of “Nicolaitism.” The First Lateran Council in 1123 banned marriage contracts for clerics as well as the use of concubines, a practice that had produced illegitimate children.

“We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage,” the Council ruled.

The Reformation

However, celibacy remained a controversial issue within the Catholic Church and emerged as a major point of contention in the Sixteenth-Century Protestant Reformation, which blamed celibacy for widespread sexual misconduct by clerics.

Protestant reformers cited New Testament scripture stating that clerics should be the husband of a single wife and declaring that early apostles were permitted a Christian wife. After breaking with Rome, Martin Luther and other leading reformers married.

Yet, the Vatican pressed on with its insistence on clerical celibacy, despite the accumulating evidence that the tenet was surrounded by hypocrisy and continued sexual misconduct.

Given this history and the more recent revelations of priests raping altar boys and other children entrusted to their care, another question must arise: Did some Vatican leaders come to tolerate this behavior as a perverse necessity for continuing the rules of celibacy, as an outlet for the sex drive that would not produce offspring and thus claimants on the Church’s property?

The Vatican is after all not only a religious institution, but a vast political and business enterprise, complete with secretive banks and alliances with powerful world leaders. During the Cold War, the Vatican was a key collaborator in discrediting Third World left-leaning movements that sought social justice on behalf of peasants and workers.

In Latin America, the Church hierarchy historically collaborated with the ruling oligarchies to maintain order. The Church urged peasants to look for their reward in the afterlife. At other times, Church leaders worked hand-in-glove with the CIA in anti-communist counterinsurgencies.

During the 1960s, however, the Second Vatican Council pushed the Church toward more modern and liberal ideas, inspiring some idealistic priests and nuns to adopt the thinking of “liberation theology,” i.e. putting the Church politically on the side of the poor.

After the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 – and the ascension of a far more conservative prelate, John Paul II – the Vatican began turning its back on the “liberation theologists” who were increasingly targeted by right-wing security forces for torture, rape and murder.

The Reagan administration rewarded the Vatican for its return to intense anti-communism by granting the Holy See full diplomatic status in 1984.

Meanwhile, as Pope John Paul II was being elevated into an international icon of rectitude, the Church was quietly trying to contain the scandal of priests molesting boys. The scandal emerged first in the United States and Canada, as people grew braver about challenging powerful institutions and as the stigma related to homosexuality declined.

Despite the sickening evidence of these abuses, the Vatican remained disturbingly ambivalent. Instead of reporting the crimes to civil authorities for prosecution, the Church usually offered offending priests some counseling before reassigning them to new parishes.

That pattern of tolerating the intolerable has continued into the latest phase of the scandal as new cases were revealed, from a Wisconsin school for deaf boys to parishes in Germany, Ireland and across Europe.

Again, the Vatican mixed in a few expressions of regret with an aggressive P.R. campaign to tamp down the outrage.

A look-back over the past two millennia, however, might suggest that it is the Vatican that is due for some serious soul-searching.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.  

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