Some Holy Week this is

Some Holy Week this is turning out to be.

This is the most sacred week in the Christian calendar, traditionally the week of palms and hosannas and preparation for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Well, there were palms this past Sunday, but instead of hosannas, the members of the church of St. Peter were distracted by yet more heinous news on top of heinous news. Not only was Europe rocked by yet another scandal involving Roman Catholic priests sexually abusing young children, but then came the double-whammy last week from the pages of The New York Times (much of the legwork in the States by Laurie Goodstein and in Rome by Rachel Donadio):

  • Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, was aware in 1980 that a known pedophile priest in his diocese was being returned to pastoral duties; he was eventually convicted of molesting more boys in another parish. The Vatican still affirms that Ratzinger had no knowledge of the transfer.
  • Documents (provided to The Times by Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has pursued the Vatican for years) showing that Ratzinger, as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — essentially the Vatican’s top moral watchdog — decided not to defrock a priest who allegedly molested more than 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf for a quarter-century. Ratzinger, to coin a cliche, turned a deaf ear on his victims and instead listened to the plea of the now-dead priest for leniency because he was old and ill.
  • News this week that popes decades ago knew about these horrible acts. The newly elected Paul VI in 1963 was told about pedophile priests in America by a New Mexico priest who treated them. Also, canon law criminalizing sexual abuse goes back to 1917; Vatican procedures for treating such abuses was outlined in 1922 and updated in 1962.

And “God’s Rotweiler” — so known for his tenacity as John Paul II’s bad cop, ensuring the clergy toed his predecessor’s right-wing party line — responded to this crisis by turning into God’s weasel.

And is the church, as an entity, rotted beyond repair? The true holiness this Holy Week is the sight of the gaping holes and fissures that have opened in the rock upon which Peter built God’s church. And from these openings have unleashed a stench that won’t clear for years, if not generations.

The Times revelations followed an apology read from pulpits across Ireland the previous Sunday for decades of physical and sexual abuse of thousands of children by Catholic in that country. What Ratzinger didn’t do was punish the clergy complicit in the cover-up.

And through his bishops and priests this past Sunday, and again Tuesday, and yet his response was to pursue the scoundrel’s first line of defense: Blame the press. Followed by blame the gays. Followed on Good Friday by the cherry on top: the pope’s own preacher comparing critics to anti-Semites. Maureen Dowd’s excellent Times column Tuesday, about the spin-doctoring that’s been coming from Rome instead of penance, says it more cleverly and cuttingly than I can conjure.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised on some fundamental levels. The Roman Catholic corporation is, if anything, a political machine – the oldest of the old-boy networks, shrouded in the deepest of secrecy and labyrinthe layers of bureaucracy, steeped in scandal and horrific behavior at several points in its history, more Machiavellian than Machiavelli (and around a lot longer), with more crack lawyers than all the white-shoe firms in America. (Well, at least until the past decade; the hundreds of millions in settlements paid out to victims by the archdioceses of Boston and Los Angeles are testament to how well they’re doing in the legal arena.)

But in the middle of all this scandal and all this lawyering and spinning and squirming and weaseling and posturing – on this holiest of weeks, at that – one question remains unanswered, ignored:

What about the children?

There’s no commandment saying “Thou shalt not molest children,” so I guess, in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy, that’s OK. Nor one saying “Thou must not cover thy ass.” (Of course, there’s no commandment against homosexuality, either, but that’s considered very bad in church dogma.)

And now we hear this. That Ratzinger – by doing nothing in his role of the big bad enforcer – gave his tacit approval to the status quo. And, as such, he said it was OK for children to continue to be abused by clergymen.

You know, had we known back then why Sinead O’Connor ripped up John Paul II’s photo on “Saturday Night Live,” she wouldn’t have come in for such a holy-hell firestorm. But in 1992, while the decades of abuse to children in Irish Catholic workhouses was just becoming public knowledge over there, it wasn’t a story in the States. The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning expose of the horrific abuse in the Boston archdiocese, which blew open the scandal worldwide, was about a decade away.

And now, after all these years, she doesn’t seem so crazy, does she?

And O’Connor, a devout Catholic, brings another question to mind: What about all the good Catholics out there?

The rot of the scandal taints the whole barrel by association. But the clergy members embroiled in scandals make up just a small percentage of the people who have devoted their lives to God. There are millions of priests, nuns, brothers and laypeople who do the right thing, who aren’t pedophiles. They work silently, in hospitals and clinics, in schools and orphanages. Some work for social justice. Decent people who are in their vocation for all the right reasons and go about doing God’s work without publicity, and without wanting it. People who don’t let their right hands know what their left hands do.

And let’s not forget everyday Catholics who volunteer time to charitable work, or who donate to worthy causes, who look out for their brothers and sisters, some of whom also work for social justice in God’s name.

It’s easy to forget them at the moment. The scandals unfairly paint all these millions of good people with the same broad brush of scarlet that runs across the few monsters out there harming children – and their higher-ups who have let them do so for ages.

What justice is there, first and foremost, for the children? And what justice is there for the good Catholics whose reputations are harmed by association?

And what happens to Catholicism from here?

For a pontiff (age 82) who was only supposed to be a stopgap leader between John Paul II and the next pope, Ratzinger has done a lot of damage. But maybe, in the long run, this will be a good thing. Emphasis on long run.

The simplest solution – throw the bums out – would be the hardest to execute. After all, who gets to throw them out when the top man in the whole organization is one of the chief bums? And, as members of the church hierarchy have been known to tell worshipers who push for women priests and gay clergy, the church is not a democracy. True, it isn’t. Nor should it be. But it should be a hell of a lot more transparent. The church leaders must be accountable somehow. But how? And how does one replace a corrupt pope these days?

The scandal brings to question just what is the soverign status of the Vatican, and can the pope and others be prosecuted criminally? Among the myriad evildoings that George W. Bush committed during his eight years of hell was to intervene in a 2005 Texas lawsuit against the pope, claiming soverign immunity – that Ratzinger was the head of a foreign state. A United Nations judge, Geoffrey Robertson, made a strong argument today in The Daily Beast that the Vatican is not a soverign state and the pontiff could, indeed, be tried criminally.

So say the pope and the people responsible for the cover-up leave their positions one way or another. What’s to say this doesn’t happen again? The bureaucracy is so deep and twisted, the system so firmly entrenched, that there’s hardly a guarantee that the next bunch of leaders will be better than this group. (And also remember that whoever assumes the throne from Ratzinger might be just as ideologically right-wing as him, if not more so; John Paul II packed the College of Cardinals with dozens of right-leaning clerics from Africa and Asia.)

And maybe this fissure in the rock is a permanent one. Maybe this is the last straw that brings about another schism in the Catholic church. It would be no surprise to see a huge number of faithful, tired of the years of hard right-wing, old-boy dogma, and emboldened by the scandal, to walk away and establish a liberal-to-moderate church that hews more closely to Jesus’ teachings – and to good deeds and social justice – than the Vatican.

As an estranged Catholic,* it gives me no joy, no I-told-you-so smugness, to see this horrific blight. It enrages me. These people are supposed to be the caretakers of the beliefs that helped mold me. The beliefs in the actions and words of a wise, kind and subversive Jesus who, if he returned today, probably would be shunned, even killed, by some of the people who claim to worship and praise him the most. The beliefs that my elderly parents and their friends hold onto tightly in their late years for comfort and strength. The beliefs my young nieces are now learning.

The words of Jesus are a beautiful and powerful thing. And people need to somehow reclaim them from the rotten few who, by systemically harming the most vulnerable of us – or at least tacitly condoning it – have abandoned the very beliefs they’re supposed to be guarding.

On the good side, I guess, at least Ratzinger isn’t claiming papal infallibility. Yet.

UPDATE 4/3: More good news. The Associated Press reports that Ratzinger ignored the bishop of Tucson’s requests to have not one, but two Tucson priests defrocked in recent years. The hits just keep on coming …

* A little disclosure is in order. I’m an estranged Catholic. I grew up in a devout household, was an altar boy for eight years (my first experience with dresses — they were ugly and shapeless and hot in the summer) and went to a Catholic high school, back in the liberal post-Vatican II decade. And I was never molested, abused or otherwise mistreated by any clergy member.

My problem isn’t with the belief — the belief in a Jesus who threw out most of the misguided orthodox dogma of the Old Testament, who loved children, who healed the sick, who blessed the peacemakers and other good souls, who sat to talk and eat with the lowest elements of society, who told us not to judge others, who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, who told us to love one another as he loved us.  My problem is with the corporation, and that’s just what the Vatican is — a multi-billion-dollar organization.

My estrangement with the corporation developed in the mid-’80s; I was tired of the Vatican hitting the poor and middle class for money when it was sitting on countless billions in art and treasures and not using a cent of it to help the poor. The disconnect widened the farther right I saw Karol Wojtyla — John Paul II — steer the church. The news of the sexual abuse scandals pretty much made my estrangement permanent, barring some miracle. In short: I love the belief — it’s the corporation I can’t stand. Or as my mom put it years ago, respect the cloth, but you don’t have to respect the man wearing it.

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4 Responses to “Some Holy Week this is”

  1. samantha stevens Says:

    all religions are corporations…all religions bring power coruption..war ..death ….control…and then some…youdon’t need religion to have a faith in jesus…god…mother earth..father sky..spirit…higher power…whatever name you want to give it…

    this is no new news….this is old news…like a black head that has finally popped …..church and all it’s doctrines are a humbug!!!

    jesus wasn’t a catholic nor a christian..but a man…who was persecuted for having …seeing knowing ..connecting to a higher power…

    for being a rebel in the face of dogma….

    let priests and nuns have relationships…and maybe the bulk of this would stop….

    the beauty of god is in everything we see around us…trees …the sky..the moon…etc…unfortunately ugly creatures abound…

    it was obvious wht sinead had the balls to do what she did…the only problem was she decided to become a priest later in life…

    yes their are people of all faiths and walks of life who do good..just as there are politicians..and lawyers etc etc etc..teachers…who do wonderful things for humanity..and there are those that fuck it up for them…

    dog spelled backward is god……

  2. Colleen Says:

    Franny,
    I walked away when my archdiocese was lobbying against gay civil unions. Couldn’t stand my $ in the collection plate going for an effort AGAINST civil rights. It’s a continuing source of sadness to me, as I loved the sacraments. I feel like my Church has been hijacked by power hungry old men who are making something wonderful less Christian by the minute.
    I seriously think about starting my own “church,” just people who loved being Catholic but can’t stomach the Ratzinger empire.

  3. Blake Says:

    “The words of Jesus are a beautiful and powerful thing. And people need to somehow reclaim them from the rotten few who, by systemically harming the most vulnerable of us”

    Hello Fran! I’m glad that I’ve finally popped over and I hope to be a regular visitor. You’re not only good at plunking out the words; you have some thoughtful things to say.

    “The words of Jesus are a beautiful and powerful thing. And people need to somehow reclaim them from the rotten few who, by systemically harming the most vulnerable of us”

    The hopeful thing for me is: no reclamation needed….no one owns those words or any truth behind them…any ownership we’ve relegated is just that…something we’ve relegated….to just realize their ours, not ‘theirs’ whoever ‘they’ may be—maybe that’s the reclaimation necessary.

  4. Blake Says:

    my first visit, and I mess up with a cut n’ paste mistake….didn’t mean to paste twice…but I was distracted cuz on the radio was Rick STeve’s travel and they were talking about a holy relic of Christ’s foreskin…..yeeesh. People!

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