Holding the Pope to Account

Every time I think we’ve seen the worst of what the Roman Catholic church and this pope are capable of, they come up with a way to sink lower still. Back in January, when Benedict reinstated a misogynist, Holocaust-denying bishop, I could never have imagined that that would be the least offensive and disgusting thing they’d have done this year – yet it seems like that may very well be the case.

The newest evidence of this comes via this story from the AP. I previously detailed a case where the current pope, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, assigned a known child molester to therapy and then washed his hands of the matter; and another case where Ratzinger ignored urgent letters from an archbishop requesting an ecclesiastical trial for a priest known to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But this story is the most direct evidence yet of Ratzinger’s culpable neglect and stonewalling over cases of child rape.

Back in 1981, the diocese of Oakland wrote to Ratzinger, who was then head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, urging him to begin proceedings to defrock Rev. Stephen Kiesle, another confessed priestly pedophile. Kiesle had previously pleaded no contest to tying up and molesting two children in a church rectory, and the diocese wrote to Rome asking that he be defrocked (in fact, Kiesle himself requested to be defrocked). Ratzinger ignored multiple letters for four years. Finally, in 1985, he wrote back – but said that the case needed still more time, and that proceedings had to be slow and deliberate in order to safeguard “the good of the universal church” (!)

This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favor of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner, and it is also unable to make light of the detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner. (source)

The young age of the petitioner – that is, the pedophile priest! Incredibly, Ratzinger was more concerned about the harm defrocking a child molester would do to the Church’s public image than he was about the harm that the molester had already done and might still do to vulnerable children. As multiple commenters have pointed out, the young age of the molester (he was 38 at the time) might well have been a factor also. Ratzinger must be aware of the aging and dwindling priesthood and the paucity of new recruits; it’s likely that he wanted to hang on to every ordained man as long as possible, regardless of the price.

Andrew Sullivan, himself a conservative Catholic, calls this outrageous letter “the third strike” for this pope:

It is a document designed to prevent dismissing a priest as young as 38. Perhaps the fast-aging priesthood was a concern and dismissing such a young priest was to be avoided. But it’s clear that the age of the priest is of far more importance to Ratzinger than the age of the minors he raped. All the sympathy and concern is with the rapist, not the raped. This is a document about protecting the powerful even when they rape the powerless.

So far, the typical Vatican apologist defense has been to claim that Ratzinger was an ivory-tower type, so concerned with ponderous matters of theology that he couldn’t stoop to deal with such mundane trivia as a man in his employ raping and molesting children. But in 2006, when an archbishop openly defied the Vatican’s rule on celibacy by ordaining married men as priests, Pope Benedict excommunicated him six days later. Again, this is the same man who took four years even to respond to a letter pleading with him to do something about an active pedophile.

All of this has led to this announcement, by a British human-rights lawyer seeking to have the Pope put on trial for crimes against humanity the next time he visits the U.K. It’s a good idea, although I’m not yet convinced that the Pope’s culpability rises to the level of the criminal. Despicable as they were, it seems that his sins were of omission rather than commission – failing to do anything about pedophiles preying on children, rather than actively assisting them in doing so – though given the steady trickle of new details, I may have to retract that statement in the near future. And in any case, I’m sure the U.K. government would do everything in its power to preempt any criminal investigation (conservative Catholics are still an influential voting bloc). However, I think a civil lawsuit is a very real possibility and a legal avenue that should be explored.

Lastly, and in case there was any doubt in your mind remaining about the Catholic church’s intentions, there’s this story from Connecticut. The state legislature has proposed a bill that would lift the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases, and the bishops ordered a letter to be read during Mass urging their parishioners to lobby against it. This shows, more clearly than anything else possibly could, that the Catholic church is still concerned first and foremost with protecting itself, rather than seeing that justice is done. If they truly wanted to be sure that no molesters were left in their ranks, they’d welcome this bill – and the fact that they oppose it can only mean that they know of more cases of molestation that haven’t yet come to light.

But if I had to pick one quote to sum up the depths of wickedness and hypocrisy displayed by this church, it’d be this one from the columnist Libby Purves, a former Catholic turned deist. She beautifully turns their own words against them by quoting the Penny Catechism she learned as a child:

Numbers 328 and 329 refer, making it clear that we are “answerable for the sins of others” when we share the guilt “by counsel, command, consent, provocation, by concealment, by silence…”

Forget the lordly authoritarianism which speaks of the “good of the Universal Church”: that Church itself plainly states that concealing crime by silence is wrong, and that it is worse still to counsel and command others to commit the same sin of silence and concealment. Yet this crime, this sin, was being regularly urged on children, parents and parishioners by men in authority: the solemn clerical authority which purports to draw its privilege direct from the eternal Truth and to see into the depths of the heart. It is an all-male authority, too, in which the greenest young priest outranks an experienced nun or devout mother. It has been the perfect screen for wickedness.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BJ Marshall

    I’ve read blog reports and seen videos of Dawkins and Hitchens wanting to arrest the Pope when he visits Britain in September 2010. What can the atheist community do to rally our support of this action?

  • Richard P.

    Well Ebon, your may make your retraction sooner than you think.
    Check out this CBC coverage of what went on in South America.


  • http://fancy-plants.blogspot.com fancyplants

    Apparently, it’s all the fault of homosexuals.

    I don’t often swear, but FUCKING HELL.

  • Katie M

    The Church is disgusting me more and more every day . . . at this point, I’d welcome Ratzinger’s arrest.

  • Valhar2000

    When I told my mother about the legal action they want to bring in Britain against the Pope, she was visibly upset by the idea, even though there is not a Catholic bone in her body. The indoctrination runs deep and spreads wide, it seems.

  • DSimon

    It may not be legal to arrest the Pope in any case; if he visits Britain, it’s in his capacity as the nominal head of a state visiting another state, so he’s protected by diplomatic immunity from that kind of arrest, right?

    Also, there have been some claims that International Criminal Court rules can be used against him, but it seems like the situations where those apply have more to do with rape used deliberately as a terrorist tactic in war rather than the less awful, though still terrible, crime of failing to properly handle molesters within one’s organization.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Andrew Sullivan, himself a conservative Catholic, calls this outrageous letter “the third strike” for this pope

    Yeah, what’s he going to do about it, excommunicate the pope? The Holy Roman Catholic Church is an authoritarian, top-down hierarchy. This is build into their doctrine. The pope is the descendant of the bishop of Rome, and personally charged with being Jesus’ representative on Earth. “What you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven.” Western Catholics need to get it into their heads that their modern notions of democracy have nothing to do with the Catholic church. If Andrew Sullivan really thinks this is strike three, then his best option is to leave the church.

    BTW, historically speaking, this pope is far from the worst. See for example the Saeculum obscurum.

  • Katie M

    Don’t forget the Renaissance Papacy.


  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    But in 2006, when an archbishop openly defied the Vatican’s rule on celibacy by ordaining married men as priests, Pope Benedict excommunicated him six days later. Again, this is the same man who took four years even to respond to a letter pleading with him to do something about an active pedophile.

    Yea, but we didn’t even have the Internet, or email, way, way, way, way back in 1981. They had to dictate the letter, transcribe it on a manual typewriter, find an envelope, and a stamp (international postage), walk it down to the corner mail box, wait for the pony to arrive to pick it up,and deliver it to the slow boat to Rome, sail it all the way around the ocean, have it picked up by the mule in Rome and delivered to the Vatican, then sifted trough the mail handlers at the Vatican before it got to Ratzy. Shit, that alone took 3 years and 11 months. Are we quibbling about a month?

    In 2006, it just took the press of the send key on the keyboard. It’s no wonder excommunications (and canonizations) are so speedy these days.

    You’re probably too young to remember those days, Adam, you whippersnapper. ;)

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    One other thing:

    Doesn’t “Catholic” mean “Universal”?

    So when he says, “consider the good of the Universal Church”, that’s just a nice oblique way of saying “let’s cover the ass of the Catholic Church”.

  • Stephen P

    While theologians don’t often provide recommended reading around here, you may be interested in theologian Hans Küng’s take on this: Pope Benedict has made worse just about everything that is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church.

  • jim coufal

    Forgive me the length of this, It appeared yesterday in our local County weekly.

    The Catholic Church

    I’m assuredly known as an atheist, but by far the majority of my life I was a practicing Catholic. As a boy I went to release time education, I received my first Communion and Confirmation, and I played CYO basketball. As an adult, I received communion almost every week, I was a lector and a member of the Parish Council, and I believed the Catholic church was the foundation of Christendom. I still have a visceral reaction to defend things Catholic, which helps me understand why people have such a difficult time leaving that faith. Thus, it is with reluctance that I write what follows, but with a felt need that it must be said in different forums and brought to the attention of many.

    The Catholic Church is in the midst of scandalous trouble. Before considering what’s currently happening, a brief look at history to indicate the situation changes, but the Church doesn’t. Many historians attest that the combination of church-state (or Pope/King) was the linchpin of the Dark Ages. The Church supported the divine right of kings while the kings supported the church with alms and military protection. Most people served them without freedom. Especially telling during this time was the degradation of women. Geniuses like Galileo and Copernicus were persecuted for proposing the truth, and the advancement of civilization was set back greatly. Some years later Martin Luther led the great Protestant Reformation, with strong criticism of the Church’s selling of “indulgences” to those who could afford to pay. You sin, pay us for an indulgence, and we’ll reduce your sentenced in purgatory, itself a non-Biblical concept but a convenient one for the Church. Sort of a “Get out of jail free” card.

    This was also the era of the Church sponsored “Holy” Inquisition. People were tortured, burned and killed in many other gruesome ways because they were Jews, witches, or blasphemers whether real or perceived. Their wealth went to the Church.

    In the late 1500’s, the Church led the movement to provide castrati for church choirs. Young boys were castrated to maintain their beautiful tenor voices. The Church largely covered up this action while at the same time having a rule against desecrating a human body. They rationalized it was for the glory of God. About 4,000 boys per year were so mistreated in Italy, and the last known castrati in a Church choir appeared as late as 1902, shortly after the Inquisition was formally closed.

    There were occasional revolts against such actions, but for the most part the people acquiesced under the threat of temporal and eternal punishment, and because they were kept uninformed. The bible wasn’t to be read by laypeople, and the Church even fought against having it printed in the vernacular so as to make it available to lay people who could read. The priests told people what the bible said and what to believe, under the interdiction of the Church. As late as 1906, Pope X said, In a Papal Encyclical, that “The tradition teaches us, and the tradition of the fathers confirms the teaching that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the pastors and doctors—a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging. It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members toward that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.” (Italics added). So much for free will and for free speech—for thinking for oneself.

    During World War II there is much to indicate that Pope Pius X collaborated with the Nazi’s to protect the position and power of the Church, and not a single Nazi was ever excommunicated from the Church for collaboration or active participation.

    Thus, what is happening now is simply a continuation of hypocritical conduct seeking and protecting Church power and riches, especially of old white men. In this country, a few weeks ago a 5-yr. old was expelled from a private Catholic preschool because his parents are lesbians. Who is being punished, the child or the parents? And will the school be expelling all students whose parents are divorced or had an abortion, or would that cost too much? Continued hypocrisy.

    In Washington, DC, the diocese threatened to pull social programs out of the district ending the social services they provide for thousands of people if the city council passed a law recognizing same-sex marriage. The council passed the law and the diocese looks to pull out by starting to terminate the benefits of existing employees. As one critic said, “shame on this despicable, bigoted church that would apparently rather see children go parentless than to have to provide health insurance to gay people.” Is this what Jesus would do?

    Recently, the U.S. Conference of Bishops banned voluntary end-of-life measures; that is, in the more than 600 Catholic hospitals and nursing homes around the country living will’s stating no extraordinary measures be used to keep the person alive will not be honored. Suffering is, after all, a saving grace.

    And now for the big one, the sexual abuse of children scandal. Several years ago, when it first hit the fan publicly, Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law was caught actively lying about the cover-up he promulgated. Once the door was opened to public scrutiny, cases of priestly pedophilia came to the light across the country, with over a thousand cases in Los Angeles alone. Are they real? The cost of settlements, including pay-offs for victims and their families to remain silent, has been in the billions, and guess who pays for them? Now the scandal has reached Pope Benedict, his brother, employees of the Holy See, and nineteen other countries. A government investigation of abuses in Ireland reached the conclusion that the Church’s handling of the situation was nothing short of catastrophic. Concern was strong for silence and cover-up, but nearly non-existent for the children. Then, in one of those all too common moments of almost hilarious hypocrisy, Bishop Brennan of County Wexford asked his parishioners to increase their giving to help for the more than $14 million in settlements. And when the Pope apologized he blamed the priests’ actions on secularization and hardly mentioned the cover-up.

    Throughout its history the Catholic Church has found and held power through the tactics of sexual control, the laying on of guilt, the promise of a better life if you just do what you are told, convenient cover-ups, the evasion of responsibility, and they led their celibate priests into temptation, delivering them and their victims to evil. They did this with a hypocrisy reminiscent of the old saying, “If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one.” Sadly, the only way they have maintained this power for nearly 2,000 years is through the complicity of the laity. In a less educated, less informed time, there may be a sad reason for this, but in this day of widespread literacy and mountains of information, the laity needs to take a stand and either reform or refuse the Catholic Church.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Doesn’t “Catholic” mean “Universal”?

    No, “catholic” means universal. “Catholic” is the name of a particular religious sect.

  • bassmanpete

    Yea, but we didn’t even have the Internet, or email, way, way, way, way back in 1981. They had to dictate the letter, transcribe it on a manual typewriter, find an envelope, and a stamp (international postage), walk it down to the corner mail box, wait for the pony to arrive to pick it up,and deliver it to the slow boat to Rome, sail it all the way around the ocean, have it picked up by the mule in Rome and delivered to the Vatican, then sifted trough the mail handlers at the Vatican before it got to Ratzy. Shit, that alone took 3 years and 11 months. Are we quibbling about a month?

    But even before that, back in the ’50s and even earlier, in the UK at least there used to be two mail pick ups and deliveries each day plus one on Saturdays. It was quite common for a letter postmarked, for example, Glasgow 11pm JUL 1 to be delivered in Birmingham by 9am the following morning.

  • Dan

    RE: lengthy commentary above; it was Pope Pius XII (not Pius X) who was the likely Nazi collaborator in WWII. Minor point … but a controversial issue.

  • Katie M

    You mean . . . letters were once written by HAND?!

    That must’ve been a barbaric time . . . :)

  • Thupmalumpacus

    As late as 1906, Pope X said ….

    I like this construct, as the Popes are more-or-less interchangeable anyway.

  • http://brazilbrat.blogspot.com/ James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    Head of state, my eyes. That’s just a fiction promoted by the Catholic church against just this kind of eventuality.

    The FACT is, Ratzinger and others are guilty of being accessories after the fact as well as aiding and abetting. They should be arrested and spend decades in prison.

    If it were anyone else despite these political pandering hypocrites, they would have been convicted long ago and doing hard time right now. So where is the “equal justice under the law”? It seems that some are “more equal than others.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    In breaking news, even Michael Ruse, the notorious faitheist who thinks P.Z. Myers is just terribly mean and unfair for saying that creationists are wrong, now thinks that the Catholic church “is corrupt and should be eradicated“.

    What could have driven Ruse to agree with the likes of Richard Dawkins? This story, about the Canadian pedophile priest Bernard Prince. In a letter written by a Canadian bishop in 1993 and obtained by the Globe & Mail, it’s revealed that the Catholic hierarchy knew full well that Prince had molested at least four or five boys, and knew that this was a crime. As the bishop, J.R. Windle, wrote:

    …the mere passage of time does not ensure that charges will not surface in the future since there is no statute of limitations for such inappropriate activity.

    But there was no desire on their part to report him to the police or punish him in any way. Bishop Windle said that he “would not object to [Prince] being given another chance” – except that, apparently, all the bishops in Canada knew he was a sex predator and none of them wanted to deal with him. (The level of collusion in the Catholic hierarchy in covering up these crimes is truly incredible.) The possibility of sending him to Rome was discussed, except that this would likely entail a promotion of some sort and the bishop knew that would make the victims furious. And that was one thing they wanted to avoid at all costs, because the victims had so far refrained from going to the police and the bishop didn’t want to give them a reason to reconsider. This is his explanation for how the victims were persuaded to stay silent:

    One redeeming factor is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest.

    Just let that sink in. The victims’ “respect for the Church” has persuaded them not to go public or report this crime to the police, and this is a redeeming factor. There’s no better illustration of why we argue that public respect for religion has to diminish – and you can tell just how wicked and corrupt this church is that its actions have gotten even Michael Ruse sounding like one of those zealous, extremist New Atheists in condemning it!

  • Eurekus

    Jim Coufal (comment 12)

    Your comment makes me think this. If it were any other organisation, who’d have put up with it for so long?

    Why are people so hesitant to use their bullshit detector when it comes to this particular or any other religion? Damn, humanity can be completely irrational. Just think, there are over a billion of these Catholic lambs. As monty python said (paraphrased and set in the supposed time of Christ), ‘don’t follow me, you have your own mind, follow yourself instead.’ And look where Christian no brain just follow doctrine has gotten the faithful. Defending an organisation that has covered up debatably the greatest evil in society today. Fuck this shits me!

  • Stephen P

    I don’t think that retraction will be long coming now:
    Priest says he was bullied into taking fall for Pope in abuse scandal.

  • Zietlos

    Ahh… Canada, how beautiful you are, with your high rape rates, bad weather, obsession with protecting cartoons from abuse, banning children from computers, and now yet another pedopriest to add to the ever-growing pile… So bad that we make others disgusted by association.

    My country somewhat sucks, doesn’t it? Ah well, as the aphorism goes, there’s always someone worse off than you.

    I think I should disguise my nonfaith, and become a Cathy priest. That way, it’s like I have diplomatic immunity! I could fatally stab a kid, steal their lunch money, and engage in necrophilia, and probably still get a “by” by the Popester. And I could just say a few hail marys and bam, I’m better again. Atheism, with its “morals” and “being responsible for the things you do” is really difficult, isn’t it? Makes becoming the “devil may (ironically) care” religious type kinda attractive.

    Of course, when I say that, as an athiest, it makes me a horrible person. But if a priest did it, I’m sure you’d find differences in the opinion…

  • jim coufal


    Comment #15. Please re-read what i said.


  • http://fancy-plants.blogspot.com fancyplants

    For UK readers, Radio 4′s The Report program at 8pm tonight (BST) is going to be looking into these incidents and the inaction by the pope over 2 cases in particular. Should make interesting listening.

    Should be available online til 3 may (UK only).

  • 2dogs

    My friend Dan is a lawyer involved in a bit of this. Please read :


    Dan believes that Ratzinger was made pope solely to get him immunity from the law.