Cardinal Sin

Mail & Guardian [South Africa]
August 11, 2006

It is an obvious truth that paedophile priests are not confined to the Catholic Church. But it is equally obvious from the Mail & Guardian's information that the Catholic Church in South Africa has a significant problem in this explosive area -- and that is failing to confront it.

Whether the perverse policy of priestly celibacy is a factor is a moot point. What is clear is that paedophiles are drawn to hierarchical institutions in which adults enjoy unusual power over children -- reformatories, boarding schools, orphanages and the church. It is in these, typically, that abuse occurs. What makes such abuse particularly heinous is that it involves the exploitation of society's most vulnerable. Because children are ignorant of their rights or afraid to speak up, it sometimes continues unpunished for years.

For this reason, it is imperative that priestly sex crimes are treated with the utmost seriousness when they surface. Yet the first impulse of the Catholic hierarchy seems to be to shield members of the priesthood and protect the church's reputation. How else is one to understand Cardinal Wilfred Napier's statement, in a letter, that it is "not in the interests of Catholics" for allegations to be made public? Why did he tell complainants that they were wrong to record and circulate a priest's confession? Is he seriously suggesting that the media are fanning the embers of a non-existent problem? His cold and legalistic offer of psychological therapy to a victim, on condition that she sign away further claims against the church, strongly suggests a desire to shut her up.

But it is the Catholic Church's response as an institution that is the real worry. Victims complain bitterly that it shows no interest in how they or their families are coping. They dismiss the "protocol" committees set up to investigate abuse as mere platforms for priests to protest their innocence. It is a scandal that a priest charged in court with repeated abuse was earlier cleared by a committee which, without expert knowledge, dismissed his accuser as schizophrenic.

It is evasive and self-defensive behaviour that really damages the church. More than any other institution one would expect the church to understand that honesty is the best policy -- and the need for a vigorous response to victims' demands for justice.


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