I left the Roman Catholic church I grew up in some years ago, first for militant atheism and then for a non-denominational evangelical church with a Pentecostal background. As Johnny Cash might have remarked, I’ve been everywhere, man.
Nevertheless, even though I broke with the faith of my youth on a number of theological and practical issues, I must admit I still harbor some wistful admiration for Mother Church.
I also must admit that admiration seems to ebb by the year, and not without reason.
It isn’t just that Pope Francis is the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of pontiffs, although that certainly doesn’t help anything. It’s more that, in an age where every gaffe or offensive statement by every mildly famous personage is reported on with preternatural alacrity — up to and including the fact our most recent Heisman Trophy winner once tweeted some dumb stuff at the ages of 14 and 15, an age at which no child has ever said particularly dumb stuff — the more egregious verbal infelicities of the leader of the world’s largest Christian sect seem to go mostly unnoticed.
An object lesson in this phenomenon can be gleaned from remarks the Pope made in Vatican City on Friday. I probably don’t need to recapitulate the fact that Catholicism has been embroiled in a decades-long pedophilia scandal involving its priests and prelates. Even after that period of time, things aren’t exactly looking up; Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and Archbishop of Washington, resigned from the College of Cardinals earlier this year after a pattern of abuse stretching back decades was revealed.
McCarrick became the highest-profile Catholic official to face such accusations and became the first cardinal in the better part of a century to resign.
Of course, he won’t be spending any time in prison or anything like that. Instead, Pope Francis “sentenced” him to a life of prayer and penance, which seems like the punchline to a bad joke involving confession but is, in fact, a bad joke of a much different and more nauseating sort.
Given that someone of McCarrick’s eminence allegedly abused children sexually and got away with it for years, one can only imagine there are other such cases still to be uncovered. But fret not, dear Catholics. The pontiff has a foolproof method of extirpating this grave threat to the church and to its members, which he outlined at the Holy See on Friday.
“To those who abuse minors I would say this: Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” Pope Francis said in an address to the Vatican’s central administration, according to Reuters.
While the Pope has previously used speeches before the Curia to harangue about mismanagement, this time he decided to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. Upon first glance, this seems to have a lot less to do with morality than expediency, since a major conference of bishops regarding the sexual abuse crisis is set to take place in two months.
“Let it be clear that, faced with these abominations, the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case,” Pope Francis told the Curia.
This all is indeed an interesting take on the matter. “Interesting,” at least in this case, is not synonymous with “good.”
For starters, it’s difficult to establish credibility for a claim that your entity “will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whoever has committed such crimes” when a linchpin of your strategy seems to involve asking those who have committed these crimes to turn themselves in, presumably in the absence of evidence. I must confess to having limited knowledge of the particulars of criminology, but I’m fairly certain the success rate here isn’t terribly high.
As for that last part — the spiel about how the church would never deign to cover up or underplay accusations — let’s consider the case of McCarrick. As early as 2000, the Catholic Church had been informed of claims of improper sexual activity by the priest. According to an Oct. 1 article in The Washington Post, there were at least four complaints against McCarrick, who was eventually suspended for allegations he groped an altar boy. The case also attracted attention because there were plenty of other prelates and Vatican officials who were allegedly willing to cover up for him.
Does this sound like a case in which self-reporting of grievous crimes is going to work?
But now as ever, Reuters subscribes to the Pope Francis mythos — anything he does must be a radical departure from the hidebound traditions of Catholicism and it must be for the good.
Here’s the opening of their story: “Pope Francis on Friday urged predator priests who have sexually abused minors to turn themselves in, making one of his strongest comments ever on the crisis sweeping the Roman Catholic Church.”
I will confess further to not having the best memory in the world, but I can at least take some solace in having better recall than Reuters writer Philip Pullella. After all, as he was typing that part about “one of his strongest comments ever on the crisis sweeping the Roman Catholic Church,” he literally forgot that right before that comma, he reported that Pope Francis’ solution to the crisis was priests self-reporting their own crimes.
Just imagine if this worked outside of the Catholic Church. Sorry, policemen — we can lay off most of you. When someone decides to flee a traffic stop because they have a bloody knife under the passenger’s seat, they would cut off the 120 mph chase once they lost the cop car and drive directly to the police station. There, they would turn himself in — presumably to the only other policeman in town, busy playing FreeCell on the precinct computer because all crime now solves itself — and throw themselves on the mercy of the court.
No need for handcuffs, a jury trial, even a prison. They’d just stand in one place for 10 years until their sentence was finished and then go back out into society.
Aside from a few practical hitches, this sounds great.
Unfortunately, this works about as well outside of the walls of the Vatican as it does inside of them, and judging by the fact that this comment by Francis was the foregrounded takeaway from the Curia address, it seems that now as ever, the Vatican is going to pretend to take this crisis seriously for the 32,044th time while doing less than nothing about it.
Victims and believers deserve better.
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