Why we must make the Vatican face up to its misdeeds

By Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director, National Secular Society

Speech to Protest the Pope public meeting. Richmond, 12 August 2010.

A prominent blogger has predicted that, here tonight “the Pope, and the Catholic Church in general, will be accused of all sorts of evils, and followers of that faith will almost certainly be insulted as wicked, ignorant or deluded”.

Let me say at the outset that I am not attacking any followers, and I pay tribute to the work of Catholic relief agencies, albeit their good work is often despite, rather than because of, the Vatican.

A key objective of secularists is to challenge religious privilege. What better example of that could there be but religious leaders with the ability to yield immense power, such as that to excommunicate, undermining democracy and the rule of law?

I refer to the Pope and cardinals requiring Catholics in public life, such as politicians or doctors, on pain of excommunication, to impose Catholic doctrine onto the way they conduct themselves in public life, and enforce it though regulations and legislation. This obligation or threat is clearly intended to override the public servant’s conscience as to what in the best interests of those they are obliged to serve, which will include non-Catholics.

And it is not even as if the majority of Catholics agree with the Vatican dogma on many important matters. A YouGov poll conducted by Catholics for Choice, in Britain gives the game away. The official stance on abortion law was only supported by a seventh of the population, and crucially, only a quarter of Catholics. And it would be far less than a quarter if the issue were homosexuality, and minuscule if it were contraception. And such poorly supported policies involving such issues are being pushed with immense force, in the UN (by virtue of being this quasi state) and in the European Commission (behind closed doors). That is the very antithesis of secularism.

And, paradoxically, while the effectiveness of that undue influence increases, I am convinced that on many important dogmas that already low percentage of support for the Vatican hard line is dwindling rapidly. Not only are the followers, in common with society, becoming less dogmatic, but under new management, the Vatican’s hard line becomes ever more intransigent. In the UK, mass attendance halved in the last generation. Official estimates already suggest a further halving in 16 years – shocking enough. But I expect it to be sooner, as this forecast was made before it became clear just how determined Benedict is to return to near mediaeval values.

Another objective of secularism is preventing religions from evading the checks and balances to which other mortals are subjected, and there should be no exclusion for child abuse. By any standard, the prevalence of child abuse within the Church is staggering. The compensation bill running to several billions of both Euros and US dollars is just the tip of the iceberg. With each month that passes, more countries are discovering they have or had a major problem. And often the finger can be pointed at the most senior clerics.

I accept that in past decades there was less awareness of and sensitivity to child abuse. But how can the Church use this as an excuse while claiming to be an ultimate moral authority?

I can prove the Church knew about it at the very highest level in the 1960s. The then Pope granted an audience to the head of the Servants of the Paraclete, whose purpose was to treat dysfunctional priests, safely out of the public eye in New Mexico. The “thank you” letter for the audience reiterates the near impossibility of any cure for priests sexually abusing the young in their care. And this issue comes to a cinema near us, still in the mid 1960s. The very same Servants of the Paraclete opened a treatment centre for priests with such behavioural problems in Brownshill, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Unsurprisingly, it was euphemistically referred to by various bland descriptions. All this fits rather badly with the then Bishop Murphy O’Connor’s claim over his disastrous decision to leave Michael Hill as chaplain to Gatwick Airport. He maintains that “there was a genuine ignorance among bishops, priests, and society at large about the compulsive nature of child abuse”, and that “the decisions he made at that time were not irresponsible”.

While what happened in Britain is presumably on a smaller scale than many countries elsewhere, it is too obvious to say that the actions and inaction of the Church authorities themselves have fostered reoffending. This has been the direct result of secrecy, failure to report to criminal authorities and moving priest child-rapers to unsuspecting parishes without any controls.

Victims have been further abused by being told they are liars and/or watching the perpetrators being aided to evade justice. Such abuse would be wrong if the victim were an unwilling adult, it is worse if it is a child, worse still if the perpetrator is in authority, such as a teacher. And how much worse could it be if the perpetrator has – as so many priests did - absolute power over the child in this world, and claim to have it in the next through threats of eternal damnation.

Excuse me if this all seems very obvious, but it seems to have passed the Church by for many decades. The question is: Ratzinger, the very man coming to be honoured in September, was appointed chief enforcer in 1981. What on earth was he doing in the next quarter century? Child abuse spiralled out of control on his watch. Let me give you some examples:

  • A Church trial of US priest Lawrence Murphy in the 1990s who is thought to have abused some 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin was halted after he wrote to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pleading ill health.
  • Cardinal Ratzinger allowed a case against Arizona priest Michael Teta to languish at the Vatican for more than a decade despite repeated pleas for his removal
  • Cardinal Ratzinger resisted the defrocking of California priest Stephen Kiesle, a convicted offender, saying the "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered
  • Cardinal Law, Archbishop of the largest US archdiocese fled to Vatican after some uncomfortable appearances in court concerning the cover up of child rape on an epic scale and for his troubles was lauded by both former and current popes, even being selected by Ratzinger to officiate at one of the papal funeral masses.
  • Why did the Pope instruct, or at least permit his Nuncio to Ireland to refuse to give evidence to child abuse enquiries and even a Government Commission?
  • Why did the Church continue to support Legionaries of Christ, a powerful Mexican Catholic cult when they knew its founder Maciel was a serial child abuser?

But however dreadful, these are only a small number of symptoms of systemic problems. The Church’s HQ as the Vatican is, literally, a law unto itself, and recognised as a sovereign state. It has its own Canon law which is arguably enforceable all over the world in respect of its followers, but of course Italian law is not enforceable in Vatican City state.

The state was established under a treaty with Mussolini, and is one of the few absolute monarchies left – along with Brunei and Swaziland, about which also the least said the better. As an absolute monarchy the Vatican is unable to join the EU and Council of Europe, and even if it could, would have great difficulty in submitting to their democratic and Human Rights disciplines.

But there is one place where the Church is accountable, to a degree at least: the UN. And I have exploited that opportunity, perhaps the only person to do so, working under the auspices of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

In the last year I have drawn attention at the UN Human Rights Council to the Church’s appalling record on child abuse on two occasions. I accused it of breaking several Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of these is that it is twelve years behind in its mandatory reporting under the Convention. The Vatican’s response to my attack was so duplicitous it caused a wave of headlines around the world. They did, however concede that up to 5% of priests have been involved in child abuse – that’s an awful lot of priest and even more victims.

It responded –

  • In September last year – that the 12 years’ overdue report was “being finalized as we speak”. It has still not appeared.
  • That the cause of the abuse was not paedophilia (I never said it was) but it was homosexuality, seemingly the Pope’s new whipping boy
  • By pointing to the prevalence of child abuse in wider society, mainly by family members of course, and that the protestant churches are worse offenders, an unlikely hypothesis. In both cases, they regard two wrongs as making a right.
  • By regretting that others were not cleaning up their act as the church was doing!

I am not at all convinced that the Vatican, or for that matter the leaders of the Catholic Church in the UK, have accepted the magnitude of the problem and the extent of the Church hierarchy’s complicity. Nor have they, even yet, genuinely taken all reasonable steps to expose all abuse, punish perpetrators in criminal courts and assist rehabilitation of victims. The Church continues to exploit its unique and ambiguous position to maximise its power, while minimising any ability to hold it to account. And it is the victims who suffer. Often well past the abuse itself, the lives of many victims are permanently blighted.

These are just a few more reasons why we should make it very clear that the Pope is not welcome as a Head of State, and that he should never have been invited by our Government.

But even after the Pope is whisked off by Alitalia back to Rome at our expense, I will be continuing the fight to make the Vatican face up to its misdeeds.

Watch the UNHRC interventions

United Nations Human Rights Council, 22 September 2009

United Nations Human Rights Council, 16 March 2010