The Catholic Church Embraces Reform?

Since I’ve written a fair amount lately about the child-rape scandal engulfing the Catholic church, it would be unfair of me to overlook any steps they’ve taken toward reform. Well, you all know I’m nothing if not fair, so I have to report on this tiny, hesitant step:

Last week, the Vatican for the first time issued guidelines telling bishops they should report cases of abusive priests to police where civil laws require it.

Marvelous! At long last, the Vatican has bravely decided that its employees should report criminals to the police to prevent them from committing more crimes. How stirring! How inspiring! Give them a medal for heroism!

Seriously, while it’s good that they’ve done this, it’s not an accomplishment worth praising them for; it’s literally the bare minimum. Let’s be very clear that a step as astoundingly obvious as this – as announcing that Roman Catholic bishops will henceforth actually obey the law, rather than aiding and abetting child molesters – wasn’t official church policy until April 2010. Yes, yes, the Vatican has insisted that this was its unwritten policy all along. That perfunctory assertion is hard to believe in view of the fact that there was apparently unanimous agreement among the bishops to keep these cases covered up. I’m not aware of a single case from the last five or six decades where a bishop who was informed of a predator priest went to the police. Instead, for the most part, they dealt with it by shuffling problem priests around so that they could abuse more children in new parishes.

And that’s the real reason I’m not satisfied here. Yes, fine, the church has generously agreed to start turning in child molesters (as if they could have said anything else). What they notably haven’t done is institute any kind of accountability or punishment for the bishops and cardinals who protected, aided and abetted those child molesters. That’s no surprise, really, since the current pope is one of them.

But that’s the real scandal here – not the relatively small percentage of predator priests, but the huge percentage of bishops who helped cover up their crimes and enabled them to continue abusing children. And it’s clear that the church authorities haven’t come to terms with their own culpability in this. One Irish bishop has resigned after being cited in an Irish government report on abuse in Catholic schools, and a Belgian bishop resigned after admitting that he himself abused a child (!), but nothing has been done about the many others, like the despicable Cardinal Bernard Law, who haven’t stepped down voluntarily.

And if you want more evidence that the church has learned nothing, take this case in New Jersey. The church higher-ups are still fighting tooth and nail against statute-of-limitations reform and other legal measures that would let the victims have their day in court. (Read the link, it’s quite astonishing – the church filed an amicus brief in a case it wasn’t even directly involved in, arguing that non-profit organizations should be immune from liability even if their employees acted criminally to protect child molesters.)

Efforts like this show that the church’s reforms are, at best, cosmetic. When faced with a tidal wave of bad publicity for actions no sane person would defend, they’ll condescend to apologize – but only on their own way and in their own terms, and with the proviso that there be no punishment for anyone who did anything. Just as in the earlier child-abuse cases, they’re more concerned with protecting their own assets and reputation than making any meaningful effort to repair the damage they’ve caused. And why should they do otherwise? Whatever hits their reputation has suffered, the scandal hasn’t hurt their finances, according to this article:

After hundreds of incidents of priests sexually abusing their parishioners were disclosed in 2002 in the U.S., fundraising by bishops and parishes went up, said Harris, the author of “The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools,” published in 1996 by Sheed & Ward.

…”Parish giving wasn’t affected by the earlier scandal and I expect the same pattern to hold here,” said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of real reform is that there are still millions of Catholic loyalists who support the church financially, regardless of what crimes it commits. They may even give slightly more in times of crisis, due to a circle-the-wagons mentality. As long as the church is being sustained by this steady stream of cash, it has no incentive to change its ways, and probably won’t.

However, I’m not as pessimistic as that article would imply. As is usually true with religion, I think change comes about generationally. Younger people who aren’t as set in their ways are seeing the crimes of the church and are turning away from it. This may not have a large immediate impact, but the biggest effect of this scandal isn’t going to be in the present; it’s going to be some years down the line, as elderly Catholic faithful die off and aren’t replaced. We already know the church is fading, and this crisis can only accelerate its decline.

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About Adam Lee

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


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