The Case of the Pope

The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse, by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Penguin Special RRP£6.99, 228 pages

When Pope Benedict XVI begins his state visit to Britain on September 16, he will be met with protests. These are likely to be extensive, deriving from the ever-widening divergence between an increasingly conservative church and a world which, at least in the west, is more legally, socially, culturally liberal than it has ever been. Joseph Ratzinger, who lacks the popular appeal – and the record of defying both Nazis and Stalinists – of his Polish (and equally conservative) predecessor Pope John Paul II, stands naked before the blast of secular charges that now assails him with mounting force.

The present pope has used both his quasi-divine authority and the Vatican’s statehood to push his church into more active hostility towards homosexuality, and above all homosexual marriage and adoption by homosexual couples; abortion, under any circumstances whatsoever; in vitro fertilisation; divorce; condoms, even where these are shown to reduce Aids; the ordination of women and the marriage of priests.

In his book The Case of the Pope – a Penguin Special edition (the first since the once-familiar rubric was discontinued in 1989) – human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC refers to these hostilities, but his quarry is another. The fact that thousands of Catholic priests are sternly forbidden on pain of defrocking or excommunication, to release sexual tension, even by masturbation, has resulted, argues Robertson, in abuse of children, many directly under their care. This, thinks Robertson, is the church’s great crime and sin – one with which, up to the present, Benedict as its leader has failed to grapple and for which he prescribes, indeed insists on, remedies of the church’s own choosing.

Robertson does not believe that Benedict is evil, nor does he deny the courage and self-denying charity shown by the Catholic church time after time, in country after country. But, as a veteran of human rights cases he believes that as many as 100,000 children – perhaps twice that – have recently suffered some sort of molestation from Catholic priests. He thinks that as many as 9 per cent of priests may have been or still are molesters – that is to say, much more than the one per cent the Vatican has reluctantly conceded may be the case.

On his reading of the now quite voluminous evidence, much of it amassed over the past decade – journalistic inquiry, commissions of investigation, even research by elements within the Church itself – Robertson thinks that the Church, John Paul II and above all Ratzinger (when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF] between 1981 and 2005), protected the guilty abusers and largely ignored the victims, allowing those who abused them to frighten them into silence. When the first accounts appeared in the US press in the early 2000s, John Paul II described it as “an American problem”; later, senior clerics blamed it on Jewish journalists working on the New York Times – “natural enemies” of Catholics (according to the retired Bishop Babini); or on homosexuality in general (according to Cardinal Bertone, the Holy See’s present secretary of state).

Benedict’s recourse, both before the abuse became generally known and after, has been to insist that all cases were referred to the CDF on conditions of the utmost secrecy; and that canon law, the church’s own legal process, should deal with the offender. On no account, under pain of excommunication, should the matter be referred to the police or other secular authorities. Indeed, in 2001, Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux was congratulated by Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, with the approval of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, for not informing the police about a paedophile priest, and for moving him to other parish work, away from temptation.

In a lapidary account of canon law, first codified in 1917 and revised in 1983, Robertson shows the system to be passive, slow and conducted wholly by priests and bishops who do not cross-examine or use forensic techniques: a “sodality that closes ranks to protect them ... from the consequences of their own actions”. He quotes the leading commentary on canon law as arguing that “a non-penal pastoral approach may lead an offender to a fuller life in Christ more effectively than penalties”. The rationale of the law is to avoid both the judgment of national courts and the punishment that is normally handed out to child abusers in civilised countries. Because all sex is banned to priests, abuse of minors is lumped in with – and is apparently seen as less serious than – “living in concubinage”. The stress on salvation means that “punishment” is a matter of prayers, fasting, a retreat or community service: typically, offending priests are moved to other parishes – but rarely to posts where contact with children is unlikely. The result, very often, is more molesting.

The burden of the charge Robertson makes is contained in the first three chapters, and in a coda of “Reflections”. The middle sections of the book widen the scope and are useful demolitions of the statehood, and UN membership, claimed by the Vatican through the 1929 Lateran Treaty drawn up between Benito Mussolini and the Church. Robertson sees this as largely fraudulent, if bowed to by most nations, and condemns the use of that statehood by the Vatican to press its moral/spiritual agenda in as many forums and conventions as it can. Chapters speculating on whether or not the Vatican has committed crimes against humanity, or whether the Pope can be sued – whether as a head of state, or as chief executive of a non-governmental organisation – are less to the point, because, though Robertson indulges his legal pyrotechnicality to show that arguments can be made for these, he implicitly consigns them to a never-never land.

Robertson has not become a successful lawyer by muddling his arguments and distorting his facts: we can expect the second to be right and I find the first convincing, if largely silent on the move – outside of Rome and especially in areas such as North America and parts of Europe where widespread abuse has been found – away from a reliance on a canon law that has proved no defence and towards a recognition that the police must be informed. He writes clearly, at times passionately, as counsel for the prosecution. It works: I had not previously thought of joining the protesters this coming week, but maybe now I will.

He concludes with a call, moderately if insistently pressed, for Benedict to end his one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to the issue by incorporating the principles of the 1989 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child into canon law (to which the Vatican “state” is a signatory). This would mean that the needs and safety of the child takes precedence over all else – together with a commitment to report all abuse to the secular authorities. But Robertson does not think he will, for “Benedict’s fatal flaw is his attraction to power, to the pomp and circumstances of statehood, to the queues of world leaders who come to bend at his knee and kiss the fisherman’s ring”. That power, which this Pope conflates with his sacred duty to promote the faith, will never allow him to see abuse for what it is, never force him to judge the crime as open to anything but a secretive shuffling of the bad apples into another barrel, while turning a face of bland sanctity to the world. It is that face that Britain will see this month: but it may be disturbed by the signs and cries of protesters who will be the tip of an iceberg of doubt and disgust that now touches believers and non-believers alike.

John Lloyd’s column: Serious intentions and steamy intrigues

FT Magazine: John Cornwell on the hijacking of Cardinal Newman

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