by Richard Cottrell
May 30, 2012
As the ship of state veers close to a
deadly reef in the teeth of a violent storm, the captain and all his
crew are suddenly struck blind. This is an apt simile for the uproar
surrounding the extent and gravity of the child abuse scandal eating
at the very fabric of the Roman Catholic Church.
The first reaction of
and his advisors in the circumstances is to adopt a strict policy
of eyes wide shut.
Here in the United States allegations of sexual abuse are swept
under the rug so hastily that
accused priests are actually able to hold supervisor positions
with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Believe it if you will, the conference of Italian bishops has just
issued new guidelines on what to do if abuse cases involving priests
(or for that matter, higher ranks of the church) come to their
The new guidelines were released shortly before the eruption of the
latest Vatican scandal revolving around highly secret and intimate
correspondence apparently filched by his own butler from Benedict’s
The Vatican ministry which looks after discipline in the church, the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had proposed that
every diocesan Bishop should create a standing document that will
set out a strict code of behavior in sexual abuse cases.
What is important here is that the Bishop’s Conference (CEI) reports
directly to Benedict. There seems to be little doubt that the pope
himself, or more probably his closest and most intimate advisers,
overrode other voices within the Vatican calling for sterner and
stricter standards to curb abuse among the priestly ranks and then
unfrock convicted offenders.
To devote a mere five pages to an issue which has placed the church
in the front line of massive compensation claims around the globe,
not to mention the dock at the International Court of Justice in the
Hague, is in any event pure arrogance.
It is dumb criminal neglect.
The original proposal was mean enough, amounting to no more than
office keeping. But at the very least, it proposed some benchmark
upon which more severe standards might be constructed. It was not to
I quote from the circular that eventually emanated from the Bishop’s
“Under Italian law, the bishop,
given that he holds no public office nor is he a public servant,
is not obliged to report illicit facts of the type covered by
this document to the relevant state judicial authorities.”
If the board of directors of any big oil
company responsible for huge pollution catastrophes made the same
claim to blanket immunity for their misdeeds, there would be uproar.
But if you happen by the grace of God to be the divinely
appointed President and Managing Director of Vatican Incorporated,
you can get away with anything, even sadistic and systematic
violation of children and pre-teens supposedly in the care and
affection of the church.
Yet that is only part of this wretched story.
The Roman church is foremost concerned to project itself, wherever
the faith has roots, as an independent sovereign body which
transcends international law.
This is tantamount to extending the boundaries of the Vatican -
which is an independent state - to embrace not only church property
but also the staff - the clergy - wherever they happen to be.
It is an ancient claim of privileges dating back to the Early Middle
Ages, when the church fought and successfully won the right to deal
on its own terms with claims and actions arising against the clergy
solely in church courts.
The boundaries between clerical consistory privilege and secular
justice remain extremely hazy. And that is what the church is
counting on to protect itself from the devastating impact of massive
compensation claims arising in - a short list - the US, Canada,
Belgium, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands.
The pathetic new encyclical is best seen as a blatant exercise in
‘stem the tide.’ In other words, whenever new abuse cases come
before a Bishop’s attention, his first task is to shut off the flow
of oxygen so to speak, by preventing disclosure.
The struggle of secular versus church justice has now reached the
International Court of Justice in the Hague.
A landmark case was presented there last
year under the heading of crimes against humanity, presented by the
US organization called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by
Priests (rather neatly
SNAP, for short).
This is an exceedingly clever device to get around the medieval
boundaries of canonical justice. By delightful irony the church is
now bound by a trap of its own making, namely to fall for the
proposition of the pre-war Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that
allowed the Vatican to become a recognized and fully independent
Any recognized state can be brought before the International Court,
which of course deals in secular justice.
SNAP’s case specifically cites,
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of
the College of Cardinals
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the
Vatican Secretary of State
Cardinal William Levada, Prefect
of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
The senior attorney, Pam Speers,
set out the charges in no uncertain terms:
“The Vatican Officials charged in
this case are responsible for the rape and other sexual violence
and psychological torture of victims and the direct cover up of
crimes. They should be put to trial like any other officials
guilty of crimes against humanity.”
It remains to be seen, however, if the serene judges of the
International Court of Justice are prepared to rank the Holy Father
alongside Bosnian war criminals.
Technically speaking, the matter of jurisdiction is clear. The pope
is a recognized head of state and he disposes of total
responsibility for all his employees, which all said and done, is
what the priests are.
The church is presently doing its level best to lay a “what the
butler saw” comic smokescreen around the affair of the purloined
documents at the heart of
the Vatileaks scandal.
It was all about relatively petty matters of lax fiscal discipline
and petty corruption. The alleged perpetrator, 57-year-old Paolo
Gabriele, was quickly whistled off to the Vatican’s own private
prison, where he was said to be “cooperating” with his inquisitors.
So why all the fuss?
I suspect that Gabriele is being firmly tutored that under no
circumstances must he utter that damming three letter word which is
the running theme of this post, and the Roman Church’s lurch to
chaos. The church has every urgent motive to conceal correspondence
connected with the case deposited at the Hague.
In the sanctity of the papal chambers, these might have seemed safe
from prying eyes.
It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the misappropriated
documents dealt with anything so mundane as money laundering at the
Vatican bank, since that has been a running story for the last 30
His treatment reminds me of another papal affair, that of Mohamed
Ali Agca, who was charged with shooting Pope John Paul II in May
This member of a well known Turkish criminal gang was
instantly transferred to a prison on the opposite side of Italy,
where for the next three months he was carefully tutored by a
procession of visitors from the secret services as to what account
he should give under oath in open court.
The bitter background to the affair is the strange fate of
Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old Vatican citizen, daughter of a
policeman in the miniature state, who stepped across the Tiber on
her way to a music lesson. She was kidnapped, raped and then
ruthlessly murdered nearly 30 years ago, it is widely believed by a
vice ring operating within the sacred precincts.
The recent exhuming of a legendary Roman bandit in the hope of
finding the girl’s bones concealed in his coffin has focused the
spotlight once again on a story of high drama. Hundreds appeared
waving pictures of Emanuele in St. Peter’s Square during last week’s
regular Wednesday pontifical audience.
Her brother Pietro and the Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno,
appeared on the steps of City Hall to appeal for an investigation to
finally settle the mystery.
Benedict once again demonstrated his deaf ear for public feelings by
failing to mention the girl at this sensitive moment in his prayers,
even as the tomb was at Rome’s Basilica di Sant’Apollinare was
prized open. There were jeers and shouts from the crowd, quite an
unheard of reception.
For the Roman Church, I fancy these troubles are merely the