Thursday, August 07, 2003

FOUND: the Vatican’s “smoking gun” on clerical paedophilia

Clerical paedophilia, particularly in the Catholic Church, has been a significant public scandal, more or less continually, since the early 1980s. It is reasonable to suppose that the actual incidence of this crime has also significantly decreased since about the early 1980s (although I say this with a caveat – the long lead time, akin to mesothelioma’s incubation period, for many of the current batch of claims, may be a sui generis aspect to the reporting of the crime, rather than a year-of-crime-irrespective reportage “clustering” phenomenon).

The importance of charting a peak in the incidence of clerical paedophilia is double-sided. More obviously and understandably, it contains the crime (“contains” here in an innocent sense) – by the acts being mostly in the past, the present can be more effectively devoted to making reparations (aka “Towards Healing”), while not, of course, admitting that the passage of time has dulled the affect of the crime on its victims. A high level of present suspicion, in contrast, would be incredibly toxic – for the conduct of the “healing” process, and much more importantly, for the very survival of the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world.

An early 1980s peak can alternatively be invoked to deflect the crime of clerical paedophilia, by blaming it on the supposed exceptionalism of social mores between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Even accepting the existence as fact of social liberalism as an infectious, noxious agent in the post-Vatican II weakened Church, I (and I would assume, many others) cannot rationally comprehend how such a force could have undermined ordinary individual standards of moral autonomy. Still less could I (until I read this today) understand how the institutional Catholic Church could even broach such an ostensible link.

In case it is not clear what such a link means at the morality coalface, I'll spell it out now – paedophiles are as much victims of the liberal society as much as anyone else. A pretty sick argument, indeed – but a point nonetheless made by Archbishop George Pell, albeit in an oblique way, I should note. For a direct, bulls-eye invocation of the same argument by a senior political figure, see this.

With today’s revelations that a 1962 Vatican policy – apparently in force until quite recently – instructed total secrecy in cases of sex abuse by priests, the “out there” arguments of the Pells of this world now make considerably more sense. Clerical paedophilia was not long hidden/deflected because it was thought trivial, nor (probably) because it went to the Church’s highest levels, so giving blackmailers’ general immunity to its foot-soldier practitioners. Rather, Church paedophilia was caught in a loop of anachronistic secrecy.

The 1962 policy did not start out as a licence for paedophile clerics – although clearly, by the 1970s, it had become one. As a product of its time, the 1962 policy was mostly unexceptional – the prejudice that blanket secrecy would impose on victims of abuse is shocking by today’s standards, but not completely out of whack with mid-20th century haute paternalism. Presumably, the policy’s secrecy, even as to its existence, was also justified by the anticipated rarity of its invocation – like the rite of exorcism, some things clerical may well be best left as medieval-esque last resorts for the otherwise inexplicable (and unforgivable).

It was the 1962 policy’s secrecy, however, that was to quickly overwhelm its original intents. Never mind the admittedly changing social mores on the outside of the clerical ramparts; the licence had come from within. All that the sexual revolution et al did was to postpone the Church’s day of reckoning. Like a Bill passed in the last hours of a government about to lose office, the 1962 policy was soon to reek of Bad Law. Not that the Catholic Church had planned as much, at least in a precise, Machiavellian way. More likely, it was something simply overlooked, amid all the Vatican II optimism and momentum. It was thus left to the mealiest of senior Church mouths, like Archbishop George Pell, to take their revenge on Church modernisation by clinging on to a policy that had long since become evil (in any ordinary use of the word) – and then even to slyly half-confess their complicity, by the tried-and-true technique of blaming the Other.

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