As I'm sure you knew, yesterday was Good Friday. It was also the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II — and, by a quirk of history, it also happens to be a time when allegations of pedophilia on the part of a now–deceased American priest have been dogging the Vatican, largely because John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI (who was born Joseph Ratzinger), did not act forcefully when the matter was brought to his attention as a cardinal.
I really regret that this casts such an ominous shadow on an anniversary that should serve as an opportunity to pause and reflect on the life and works of John Paul, but that's how history is sometimes.
And, while I would prefer to be writing about John Paul's positive contributions to the church and the world, it is more important, I think, to address the issue that plagues his church today — or, more to the point, the way that issue has been addressed recently by others.
That is easier said than done. There have been times when all sides have left me speechless — literally. Yesterday was one of those times. In fact, yesterday may have been the topper. So far. But stay tuned. This story definitely has legs.
It started with Peggy Noonan praising the Vatican for facing the scandal — mostly because the press compelled it to do so. She exonerated the pope in the process and lamented the "victims" — not just the children who were abused and carry the emotional scars (and who, in my opinion, were the real victims) but also the clergy (who get tarred with the same brush as the perpetrator) and the rank–and–file Catholics in the pews.
I think I'm a fair–minded person. I don't want to see anyone suffer because of the misdeeds of others. It was primarily for that reason that, when I was younger, I opposed the death penalty (I have modified my position since the development of the methodology for processing DNA evidence). When I was young, I wanted to avoid punishing the innocent. When DNA evidence is available, I'm not concerned about that now.
In the case facing the Catholic church today, the only ones who are truly innocent are those who were children when they were abused (to make things worse — if such a thing is possible — most, if not all, of them were handicapped).
I'm not Catholic, but I have friends who are, and I sympathize with them. I also sympathize with the priests and the nuns who strive to serve their parishioners' needs. Whenever a priest has been accused (rightly or wrongly) of this kind of thing, it seems to have a ripple effect, staining the reputations of good and decent Catholic clergy in the process.
So the clergy suffer and their congregations suffer, too. And that certainly isn't right. But I don't think they are "victims" — at least not to the same extent as those who suffered the abuse all those years ago.
Then, not long after reading Noonan's column, I read the latest from Rome.
According to Daniel Wakin and Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, a Good Friday service became something of a pro–Vatican rally when a senior Vatican priest "compared the world's outrage ... to the persecution of the Jews."
I'm not really sure what to make of the logic of that. I gather that the priest, like Noonan, sees Catholic clergy as victims, guilty by association. Thus, the innocent are being persecuted along with the guilty.
But, as I see it, that analogy falls apart. For it to work, isn't it necessary for at least one of the persecuted Jews to be guilty of something? Because, as I see it, the priest who was responsible for all this abuse clearly was guilty of something.
And what could any Jew have done to justify the murders of 6 million during World War II? Nothing, for, in fact, the Jews who were killed during that dark period in history were slain not because of anything they did but because of what they were. Individually, they may have been guilty of transgressions, as most mortals are, but those transgressions had nothing to do with the unspeakable tragedy that was — and continues to be — the Holocaust.
I have known a few survivors of the Holocaust in my life, and I have known some of their descendants. The pain they have lived with is beyond the comprehension of non–Jews. Their gaping wound is never allowed to heal because virtually any group that believes itself to be wronged in some way compares its suffering (nearly always without justification) to that time because it is the most notorious example that history provides.
Thus, the priest from the Vatican compares the Catholics to the Jews during the Holocaust, even though most Catholics have not suffered the pain that those who were abused suffered.
And right–wing leaders equate the imposition of health care reform on them to the pain that was imposed — not just on the Jews but on the world in general — by the Nazis.
But if there is a Holocaust–based comparison to be found, I don't think it calls for presenting the church as a victim. The more apt comparison, I believe, may be to the Germans who stood by and did nothing while truly terrible things were being done by others.
(It seems pointless, to me, to carry that analogy any farther, though. While it might be possible to prove that there were some Germans who genuinely knew nothing about what was being done — a suggestion that is patently ridiculous, given the long existence of the anti–Semitic Nuremberg Laws and the unchecked attack on Jewish property that was carried out on Kristallnacht ["Night of Broken Glass"] — that number would be relatively small, I'm sure. I'm equally certain that, since there are more than 1 billion Catholics in the world, most are sure to be ignorant of what happens in a single parish.
(On the other hand, though, for the comparison to be accurate, the designation would have to apply to knowledge of the charges of child sexual abuse that have originated around the globe, especially after the Holy See acknowledged last year that "in the last 50 years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases." That's between 1.5% and 5% of the "world's" Catholic clergy, not the clergy of any particular nation. Fewer Catholics could plausibly claim to be unaware of that.)
Actually, it seems to me that, if we are invited to compare the child sexual abuse scandal to something from history, it is the Watergate scandal, not the Holocaust, that makes the most sense. In fact, a Watergate–era phrase keeps popping into my head with some regularity now, the more I read and hear about this case — "Stonewall it."
I guess that's why I was both intrigued and amused by a post from one of my favorite bloggers, John McIntyre, a former newspaper editor who writes the You Don't Say blog. He suggested some things the Vatican could learn from the Nixon/Watergate experience.
One of his lessons for the Vatican was the futility of trying to cover up. "Cover–ups magnify and spread the initial crime," he writes. And he is correct.
It's either ironic or appropriate — or both — that he should make his observation a few days after the death of Gerald Ford's first press secretary, who was so incensed when Ford granted a pardon to Nixon that he resigned. His resignation was hailed — and rightfully so — as an act of conscience.
The Catholic church would benefit from having more of that sort of conscience — rather than wrapping itself in the cloak of the victim.