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Unholy week

Terry Joseph
March 27, 2002

Normally a time for Christians to reinforce their conviction as they reflect upon the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Holy Week has this year given Roman Catholics another version of treachery to weigh; one with potential to alienate en masse even the most devout.

It must have been the most testing seven-day period for senior Roman Catholics. As Holy Week began, a cascade of execrable sex scandals involving RC hierarchy has forced the very Pope to publicly acknowledge the problem of long-standing criminals hiding depraved desires under the cloth, most despicably the conversion of young boys to a fate the ancient church cannot possibly have contemplated.

At last Thursday’s ritual handing over of a letter to be read tomorrow around the world, leader of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics, Pope John Paul II broke his silence on the sexual abuse scandals rocking his flock, saying pederasty by priests represents a betrayal.

A classic euphemism, perhaps, but one that signals at base admission of spectacularly inadequate recruitment practices in the rush to fill crucial vacancies on the altar where, incidentally, celibacy and trust are fundamental requirements of the task. Even worse is the still unravelling discovery that repulsive results are routinely covered.

With the Vatican purse stretched by an inordinate number of settled and pending lawsuits, Easter’s collection plates have little choice but to volunteer as funding sources for defence of criminals within the fold.

Already this year, US$31 million has been paid to plaintiffs in sex abuse cases brought against the RC Church. In more than a few cases, churches and school buildings have been vulgarly bartered to pay for the crimes of child molesters wearing blessed clerical collars.

Last Friday, just 24 hours after Pope John Paul II’s admission at St Peter’s, the RC Church officially apologised to former child migrants molested while in the care of Australian Catholic institutions. Up to 10,000 child migrants were brought to Australia under a government-backed scheme mainly during and after World War II.

More than 50 compensation claims are currently before the courts and in an astonishing display of arrogance, the RC Church actually asked the Australian Government for help in meeting expected costs. Verily, the senior clergy wanted taxpayers—not merely those of their congregation —to pay for the degenerate pleasures of their brothers.

The cover-ups are equally astounding. In January, The Boston Globe disclosed America’s pre-eminent prelate, Cardinal Bernard Law, had done nothing more than shift from parish to parish Reverend John Geoghan Jr, 66, after he was regularly accused of molesting children.

Church documents showed that Law and his top aides were aware of Geoghan’s aberration since the mid-1980s but did little to protect children in any congregation he touched. Geoghan’s final tally revealed more than 130 child victims over 30 years. There are 194 Catholic dioceses in the US alone.

And it is not just your neighbourhood parish priest who is due for confession, penance and civil punishment. Last week in Vienna, in the wake of multiple allegations of sex crimes, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was relieved of all duties by Pope John Paul II.

On March 5, Bishop O’Connell of Palm Beach, Florida announced his resignation after admitting he sexually abused a seminary student more than 25 years ago. Archbishop John Favalora issued a statement saying he was “profoundly saddened” by the news.

Interestingly, the same Palm Beach diocese faced a similar scandal in 1998, when Bishop J. Keith Symons resigned after admitting he sexually molested five boys nearly 40 years earlier. O’Connell was appointed by Favalora to fill Symons’ position.

Nor is the scandal confined to lay people. Published in Rome, the National Catholic Review last week revealed yet another document on the sexual abuse of religious sisters by priests in the Catholic Church, the sixth such appeal in four years triggered by widespread rape of nuns in a number of countries, above all in Africa.

Written by superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr Ellen Gielty and presented at a meeting of Vatican officials, the sixth document screams for resolution of the predicament, a petition acknowledged in a March 20 statement by papal spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls after it hit mainstream media.

A USA Today survey of 1,507 Roman Catholics, conducted between March 12 and 16 (in association with pollster John Zogby), published results last Thursday showing more than 80 per cent of interviewees were likely to believe accusations of child sexual abuse levelled against priests. One in five said priests in their diocese have been publicly accused of abuse and most said the church has done a poor job handling this issue.

Pressed by journalists for a comment, Vatican spokesman for His Holiness Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos said there are no solid statistics yet on whether sexual abuse of minors is more prevalent in the priesthood than other professions.

But comparisons are not likely to soothe anyone, certainly not the victims. It is clear the Vatican needs to be far more forthcoming on initiatives designed to stem the problem, in keeping with its dedicated purpose of making truth readily available.

His impending Easter message therefore offers what must be the best window yet for Pope John Paul II to salvage Holy Week and by the same opportunity attempt restoration of Catholicism’s tainted image.

Indeed, he cannot help but remember that responsibility when speaking about the kind of injustices wreaked upon the Son of God, for other fathers will also be listening to what the Vatican thinks of their sons and daughters who, trusting the sanctuary of the church, discovered hell instead.

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