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, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone, from the last church, falls on the last priest.”-Emile Zola

  • bubalus

    But it’s also conditional – “where civil laws require it.” Unbelievable!

  • EatenByChutulu

    Ye gods!
    Somehow, they just keep diffing deeper. And I bet you anything that there will be catholics who will point to this and say “see? mother church isn’t so bad afterall!”

  • Danu

    Bubalus beat me to it – What if they civil law DOESN’T require reportage? Then they don’t?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Concerning the RCC’s generational crisis, I can’t see this scandal swelling the ranks of priests.

    I think this is their real crisis.

  • themann1086

    I was gonna say the same thing as bubalus. Great minds, etc.

    So instead, I’ll use a quote similar to Katie M’s: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” -Attributed to Diderot

  • Paul S.

    Is there someplace (outside of Vatican City) where civil law doesn’t require the police to be notified of cases of child abuse? And I mean countries that have a secular rule of law.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I don’t worry so much about what the Catholic Church does, or fails to do. It is simply acting in the manner consistent with all hegemonies: it attempts to protect itself at all costs, and if it happens to step on a few innocents here and there, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. But everyone should understand that by now, so why worry about it?

    The thing that we *should* be concerned about is how many of the church-going faithful still allow their children, and particularly the boys, to be left unattended with priests? That is the thing that is of the most concern: not what the priests are known to have done in the past, but what is as yet undiscovered? Does this paint every priest with the same paintbrush unfairly? Probably, and for that I’m truly sorry because, I believe, the majority of them are decent human beings, and do not deserve the label of Potential Child Molester(tm).

    The trouble is that, because of their unique position of supposedly unassailable moral superiority, if we can’t *trust* all of them not to be child molesters, we have to *suspect* all of them. And that is intolerable, because the Church is supposed to weed them out, the way even the military does, or at least attempts to do.

    The Church, focusing on false sins(gays, pornography, atheism) has utterly failed to recognize true evil: pedophile priests.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    And that is intolerable, because the Church is supposed to weed them out, the way even the military does, or at least attempts to do.

    The military discharges almost everyone convicted of any felony committed while the perpetrator is assigned to active duty.

  • Alex Weaver

    The Catholic Church Embraces Reform

    A moment later, reform gasps and indignantly slaps the church.

  • Leum

    Is there someplace (outside of Vatican City) where civil law doesn’t require the police to be notified of cases of child abuse? And I mean countries that have a secular rule of law.

    Depending on how the Church, in Her infinite wisdom, chooses to interpret that, it could literally mean only reporting in countries that require priests to report abuse. It isn’t an offense not to report a crime in most countries, with child abuse and similar crimes, teachers and therapists are often specially required to report to maintain their licenses.

    If the Church were serious, they would require notification in all countries were child molestation is illegal, and lobby for its criminalization where it isn’t.

  • Erich Vieth

    I can’t understand why Catholic parishoners still give anything at all to the Catholic Church. I wonder whether the Church accurately publishes the proportion of all local giving that goes to pay attorney fees and settlements. I’m assuming that parishoners are generally unaware of the extent of these expenses. This Irish bishop is upfront about the need to pay the fees, drawing scathing reactions. How many other organizations have ever asked its members to “should pay for the crimes of its leaders”? For more starling numbers, check this Wikipedia article: “Roman Catholics spent $615 million on sex abuse cases in 2007.”

  • bbk

    I believe that this is a human rights crisis for children. It’s not just that this church (and others) mistreats children, but that adults let it happen and really don’t seem to care. Sure, we could wait for the church to wither and fade away as the old die off, but that’s not really justice. At this point, they are all guilty by association. There is no such thing as a good priest or a good religious cause when they approve these crimes against children. We can’t let them forget it.

  • Valhar2000

    Yes, BBK is right, and that’s what worries me: people still cart their children off to stand in line to receive a priestly dick in their mouths. I really had never imagined that religion could warp a person’s moral compass to the degree of making them voluntarily hand their children over to a rapist, but there it is.

  • Katie M

    Another good quote, short and sweet-”Man is free at the instant he wants to be.”-Voltaire

  • Ebonmuse

    Is there someplace (outside of Vatican City) where civil law doesn’t require the police to be notified of cases of child abuse? And I mean countries that have a secular rule of law.

    That’s a very good point, Paul – I didn’t think of that. We know the Vatican has, in the past, sent predator priests to remote regions or even to other countries to shelter them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they planned to deal with this problem in the future by sending molesters to poor, heavily Catholic developing countries where there’s technically no law requiring them to report pedophiles to the civil authorities, or where the rule of law is so weak as to be effectively non-existent. Parsed carefully, there’s nothing in their statement that rules this out.

  • bbk

    Valhar2000, in some cultures they used to hand their children off to be sacrificed for the gods. These “modern” religions exploit the same exact mindset of blind faith and superstition that those antiquated religions relied on. They just sugar-coat it and claim to be different and better to make themselves feel better. But the results are there for everyone else to see and be disgusted by.

  • Chris Bracken

    The ongoing problem with discussion of the child abuse issue is it rarely touches on its real source. It is merely a sub-species, if the most heinous kind, of the generalised violence inherent in any religion. As any rape victim will tell, rape is about violent domination; it is not about sex.
    And the source, the original violence, is the ‘ownership of truth’. Own truth and you can do what you like. The most concrete expression of truth is to get a pistol and blow the brains out of anyone who disagrees with you. It is why the military battlefield is, in its very conception, a contestation for truth.
    The only basis for a moral life has to be doubt.