2 Dec 2010

Why should the pope and other church officials get away with violating the rule of law and the rights of children?

Montreal Gazette - April 16, 2010

Pope on the ropes

The church allowed pedophiles unlimited access to children and often covered up their crimes

By JANET BAGNALL | The Gazette

News that two atheists - British author and biologist Richard Dawkins and commentator Christopher Hitchens - have asked lawyers to lay out grounds for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI for complicity in covering up the sexual abuse of children has been greeted as a kind of low-minded folly.

It is anything but. Strip away the religion and you have in the Roman Catholic Church an institution that allowed pedophiles unparalleled access to children and then in too many cases covered up their crimes. When they were uncovered as sexual predators, the church sent them to new parishes where they could strike again.

As this pattern of coverup has come under fire, the church has gone on the offensive, calling the abuse of children the fault of homosexuals, the ignominy heaped on the church the media's doing, and the insistence on justice a personal attack on the pope.

It was only this week that the Vatican issued orders in plain language on the Internet, telling church authorities they are to refer cases of sexual assault or molestation of children to civil authorities.

This change comes after decades of the church trying to keep allegations of child sexual assault within the confines of the institution.

It's a change that comes too late. For too long the church has stood between men and women who were abused as children and their chance to hold their assailants to account and now many will never be able to exercise that right.

In Ireland, thousands of children were abused in Roman Catholic schools and orphanages from the 1930s to the 1990s, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse reported last year. Commission chairperson Judge Sean Ryan said the church responded to evidence of sexual abuse by moving sex offenders elsewhere, the Daily Mail reported.

No prosecutions resulted from the report, the Daily Mail wrote, because the Christian Brothers who for the most part ran the institutions secured a ruling that guaranteed that its members would not be named.

But as the Associated Press reported this week, even priests who were criminally convicted were allowed to continue working with children.

Former Quebecer Denis Vadeboncoeur is one such priest, according to AP. Vadeboncoeur was sentenced in Quebec in 1985 to 20 months after pleading guilty to sodomizing teenage boys.

After he was released, Vadeboncoeur continued in the priesthood, in France. This week, Jacques Gaillot, a former bishop of Evreux in France, said in an interview with Le Parisien that he was sorry he agreed to a request by church officials in Quebec to take in Vadeboncoeur, a request the Quebecers are reported to have denied making.

It's hardly surprising no one wants to take responsibility for Vadeboncoeur: He was sentenced in France in 2005 to 12 years in prison for raping a number of minors between 1989 and 1992.

Last week, the culture of cover-up was brought home to the pope himself. The Associated Press and the New York Times reported that a letter signed in 1985 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the pope was then, shows that Ratzinger urged that the interests of the church be placed above those of two boys who had been tied up and sexually molested by a California priest, Stephen Kiesle.

According to the reports, then Oakland Bishop John Cummins wrote to the Vatican in 1981, urging the church to agree to Kiesle's request for laicization. Ratzinger replied that a decision to defrock Kiesle had to take into account "the good of the Universal Church." Kiesle was left in the priesthood another six years.

The question Richard Dawkins wants answered is why the church has been allowed to "get away with it."

"Suppose," he wrote this week in the Guardian, "the British secretary of state for schools received, from a local education authority, a reliable report of a teacher tying up his pupils and raping them.

"Imagine that, instead of turning the matter over to the police, he had simply moved the offender from school to school, where he repeatedly raped other children."

In a world where the rights of children and the rule of law take precedence over the reputation of an institution, however steeped in other-wordliness, such behaviour is unimaginable, or should be.

If crimes have been committed, there must be an accounting. And if it takes the arrest of Benedict as the head of the church, so be it.

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