Abusing children from as far back as 153 AD, the Catholic Church has persistently covered up the crimes of its own. While some conservatives are inclined to attribute a supposed upsurge in attacks on children to the more progressive atmosphere ushered in by Vatican II, this overlooks a history which shows cardinals and bishops ignoring the pleas from a priest, Gerald Fitzgerald prior to the Second Vatican Council, to halt the policy of permitting paedophile priests to remain ‘on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese.’
And so it continued to the point where a paedophile priest could appear in a US documentary telling how he had been moved to five parishes, raping children as he went. It is far from an isolated case. The range of countries where the Church has been raping and covering up is staggering. There was ‘intensive trafficking of child molesting priests from Germany, Italy, Ireland and the US to Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique and the Congo.’ We may wonder if Church rules kicked in and the Christian gentlemen were forbidden from taking condoms with them. How the men of god in the Vatican lied and deceived in defence of their paedophile priests defies moral imagination. Cardinal Groer of Austria abused an estimated 2000 boys in his Church career. He was hidden in a nunnery by the Vatican and never brought to trial.
Since Pope Pius VI in 1791, on the false basis of divine revelation, flared his nostrils and renounced the ‘abominable philosophy of human rights’ the Catholic Church has been an entrenched bulwark against many improvements in the global human rights regime. That it should ignite the adversarial interest of Geoffrey Robertson, head of Doughty Street Chambers, reportedly the UK’s largest human rights practice, is thus not entirely unexpected. Robertson takes the view that the Vatican is not in favour of human rights at all given that it has not signed all the human rights treaties and has grossly and repeatedly violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child. ‘The Vatican tried to have drug trafficking made an international crime but was noticeably silent about paedophile trafficking.’ In his brisk, quick fire, but densely detailed The Case Of The Pope he makes a compelling argument against Joseph Ratzinger. It is nothing less than a no-holds barred devastating presentation of the case for the prosecution.
This book serves as a useful backdrop to events like Cloyne. It provides a deeper understanding of the anger expressed by the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny when he stood in the Dail and delivered his J’accuse broadside at The Vatican.
Much of Roberston’s critique is based on Ratzinger’s leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly The Inquisition, from 1981 until 2005. It was a period in which:
tens of thousands of children were bewitched, buggered and bewildered by Catholic priests whilst his attention was fixated on ‘evil’ homosexuals, sinful divorcees, deviant liberation theologians, planners of families and wearers of condoms.
The author is unrelenting in the pursuit of his prey. He has little choice with a quarry as cunning and devious as this one, willing to employ a range of ruses to evade responsibility for corporate actions which have left countless children bereft of rights and security.
A main strand in this work is the interrogation of the concept of canon law which it argues has so long underpinned the Church as it moved to subvert civil law and protect abusers in its midst. Robertson focuses on an official report to the UN in which the Holy See argued that the church was governed by an autonomous legal system which gave it certain inherent rights ‘independent from any civil authority’ that permitted it to deal with abusive priests by urging them to lead authentic Christian lives, whatever that might be.
Under Canon Law, the process of Crimen stipulates that the CDF, although not the civil authorities, be informed immediately about child abuse. This makes it impossible to maintain that Ratzinger was unaware of the scale of the problem throughout his CDF tenure. The change of emphasis by Ratzinger which led to him speaking out against the ‘filth’ in the Church, pointed to by many of his defenders as evidence of his good intent, Robertson explains as Rome trying to mount damage limitation. Using the case of ‘monster priest’ Father Maciel, Robertson persuasively argues that Ratzinger only moved when he had to and then followed his instinct by doing as little as possible.
The Church’s traditional rebuttal is that Canon Law is too theologically complex for mere mortals such as judges to understand. The men of god alone come equipped with the requisite spiritual wisdom to comprehend. Robertson ridicules the secret procedures of canon law known as Crimen Sollicitationis, arguing that it is only suitable for a private club and not as a substitute for civil law. The Vatican has long defended canon law on the grounds that nothing in it prevents reporting to police. Robertson shows this as a cynical PR ploy. The real emphasis of Canon law is on maintaining secrecy and punishing those in breach of it.
The second major theme of this book is the dubious claim to statehood by the Holy See.
The Vatican claims that the pope is a head of state and as such cannot be prosecuted or sued. The Holy See has non member state status at the UN which it uses to prosecute a range of reactionary practices against the human rights of gays, women and AIDS sufferers. And it makes common cause with theocracies when it needs to push its reactionary agenda. But Robertson cites Professor Gillian Triggs who claimed ‘the Vatican does not meet the criteria for statehood.’ The head of the Holy See’s permanent division at the UN has underlined this view: ‘it struggles to be counted as a “real” state.’
Robertson subsequently takes the view that the Holy See is a ‘Santa Claus state’ in that no matter how many believe it to be a state it does not in fact exist as one. Its passports should have no more relevance than those from Disneyland.
Robertson wants the pope hauled before an international court on a charge of crimes against humanity given the pervasiveness of sexual abuse by priests and the extent of the cover up by Church authorities. Canon Law ensures the pope is the absolute commander of his bishops and priests and as such must bear responsibility for the rape cartel that operated within his sphere of influence.
It is difficult to set this book down thinking that the Catholic Church has any claim to be a moral body. It is a power structure like so many other institutions whose first instinct is self preservation not justice.
The Case Of The Pope by Geoffrey Robertson QC. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-24195384-6. Price £6.99.