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‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

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