What The Pope Knew

Well may the pope defy "the petty gossip of dominant opinion". But the Holy See can no longer ignore international law, which now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity. The anomalous claim of the Vatican to be a state – and of the pope to be a head of state and hence immune from legal action – cannot stand up to scrutiny – Geoffrey Robertson.

Panorama is well identified in the public mind as a standard bearer of British investigative journalism. Serviced by the front line veteran of many hotspots across the globe, Fergal Keane, it clearly has the wherewithal to pull away the facades behind which good documentaries can be put together. So I was hardly reluctant to sit down last week and watch a Panorama investigation into clerical child abuse fronted by this most competent of Irish journalists, titled What The Pope Knew. At the end I was not so sure it had been as decisive or as conclusive as it could have been. Perhaps the clinching evidence, which is too effervescent not to exist, remained inaccessible to Keane and his BBC colleagues, or could not be crystallised sufficiently to get past the corporation’s libel lawyers.

Certainly Panorama fell short of the expectation of the denizens on Richard Dawkins’ website where some hoped the pope would emerge no different from Gary Glitter. Dawkins alone seemed to be the dissenting voice against his followers, in expressing satisfaction at what he had watched.

Whatever about the debate on its merits, without the booster of sensationalism the documentary did enough to raise awkward questions for Joseph Ratzinger, the current boss of world Catholicism, in relation to how he, as a powerful figure at the centre of the Vatican power grid since 1981, handled child abuse cases stretching back over the decades. As Geoffrey Robertson, who has just completed a book on the role of Ratzinger, makes clear, during the time when the German cleric was in charge of enforcing discipline within the Church:

tens of thousands of children were bewitched, buggered and bewildered by Catholic priests whilst attention was fixated on 'evil' homosexuals, sinful divorcees, deviate liberation theologians, planners of families and wearers of condoms.

And he is the person who insists on the ‘corrective supplied by religion.’ Why should society allow him or his followers any input into shaping its ethical standards? On the contrary it should be protecting citizens from him and his ideas.

Panorama went live a few days before Ratzinger landed in Scotland to begin the opening leg of his British tour, the first papal visit in 28 years. There will be a view that it was mischievously timed to cause maximum discomfort to the Vatican. The counter opinion is that the iron was hot so it was time to strike and draw major attention to what are serious issues which any democratic society would want to see addressed sooner rather than later.

Panorama in its examination of three separate sample cases of serious child abuse by clerics in both the US and Germany has shown that no satisfactory explanations have been forthcoming from the Vatican regarding the role of Ratzinger in adjudicating on the clerics involved. Unable to deny widespread abuse all it had to offer in defence of Ratzinger, was that he had done ‘nothing to hide any crime’ and had acted ‘absolutely correctly.’ Well, of course he operated absolutely correctly. The infallible are immune from acting any other way. For that reason they set themselves the task of correcting the rest of us so that we may be just like them.

The Vatican is faced by a global conflagration, made more intense by suggestions that the cover up was fanned by none other than the boss. Country after country produces accounts of sordid clerical activity, bishops fall, cardinals’ graves are dug up by police in search of evidence and payouts to the targets of abuse have soared. Despite the protestations made in defence of Ratzinger on Panorama by Catholic Voices activist Austen Ivereigh that ‘he, more than anybody in Rome, really got it’ the suspicion remains that Ratzinger got clever rather than got just. Summarising one of the arguments made by Geoffrey Robertson in his book, Terry Eagleton said:

Those who imagine that the Vatican has recently agreed to cooperate with the police, he points out, have simply fallen for one of its cynical public relations exercises. In the so-called "New Norms" published by Pope Benedict this year, there is still no instruction to report suspected offenders to the civil authorities, and attempting to ordain a woman is deemed to be as serious an offence as sodomising a child.

Whatever it is the pope ‘got’ the rest of us should hope to avoid. As for what he knew, more, seemingly, than he is prepared to divulge. A case of the Holy See that did not see.


  1. i believe that a lot of people went to greet the pope in scotland last week because of the way the media was anti-reporting the visit,
    panorama was left embarrassed by the crowds who wanted to see the pope the head of the catholic faith on this earth, hundreds of school children were also there with small vatican flags do not think that this was a good idea,

    i agree that this pope as well as the last few knew what was going on and tried to contain it, but it was to big to keep quiet and a lot more is still to be made public,
    the sex sins were crimes against the worlds children,
    i do not see what is wrong with women priests or married priests
    indeed the first pope was married but then he left his wife to carry
    out gods work, what message does this send out to family life- now the just men policy does not work.

  2. Unless they import priests from Nigeria & India (as the few Anglican crossovers won't do much considering their own decline), Catholic institutions soon will have nearly no clerics anyway. The typical parish that my family attended staffed by four regularly over the decades now has one, with another on call. The P.P. hopes married deacons and lay ministers can step up, as the few priests will be reduced to sacerdotal functions and rotate between parishes. The situation for vocations is so dire that scandals may wind down by sheer attrition. There may not be enough bad priests around to sin anymore.

    As MH says, Rome will have to give in to married and women priests. It's a staffing need and a ritual function that the sacraments need. If Eastern-rite Catholic priests can marry, and Anglicans can switch to Rome as married priests, precedents old and new are here.

    What happened in Britain is now happening in Ireland. As societies prosper and secularise, they rely on human imports (yet again) from Third World markets where vocations are the ticket out of poverty, or they sell sanctuaries for garages or lofts. Or sell them to evangelicals, another problem.

  3. FionnchĂș,

    I think it is inevitable that clerics are on the decline. I guess they don't relish the thought of toughing it out as throwbacks.


    although you are a believer you don't seem to think much of organised religion.

  4. Michaelhenry,

    I doubt if you will be on the Pope's Christmas card list

  5. Saintmaryhedgehog,

    if you are still watching I am sure you found the Mary MacKillop business interesting. Once ex-communicated she ends up canonised.

  6. The Case of the Pope by Geoffrey Robertson is one worth the reading. He deals with these issues forensically and in a very readable fashion