Is the Roman Catholic Church above the law?
That is a question which will surely be asked often in the coming days as news of a decades old sexual abuse scandal in Germany also sheds light on a growing litany of more recent cases of abuse of minors in that country by Roman Catholic clergy, and just as surely the question will be answered in the negative by all impartial observers.
The old sexual abuse scandal, which dates back to the 1950s and concerns a cathedral choir of schoolboys in Regensburg, is making news now principally because the Pope's brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, has been canvassed as possible a witness as German authorities conduct their own investigations 50 years after the events occurred - the now adult victims having gone public. Georg Ratzinger was director of the choir for 30 years from c. 1964. There are certainly no charges levelled against him personally, but he will possibly be interviewed by the authorities in regard to what he knew of these matters, as it seems that his predecessor was removed from the position in connection with the Vatican investigation of the matters at the time. To date Ratzinger has denied knowledge of these matters.
Which brings us to our question, is or should the Roman Catholic Church be considered above the law of the lands in which it functions? Does it have a right to regard itself as the only body qualified to investigate its own when criminal acts are alleged to have been committed? Most reasonable people would surely answer "No!". But that is precisely the official position the Vatican has held since 1962 (and unofficially before then). Even if such internal investigations actually uncovered the truth in these matters, there is a principle at stake here which we cannot allow to be subverted, no matter what divine prerogatives are claimed, and that is that the state has jurisdiction over criminal offences, and a refusal to notify the proper state authorities of accusations in this area, or a refusal to co-operate with their investigators when such charges are levelled, amounts to obstruction of justice in anyone's language. If Catholic apologists insist that the church has reformed its approach to these matters since 1962, one is entitle to then ask why the present German Government has accused the Vatican of suppressing the truth. On Monday Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German Justice Minister, said that a "wall of silence" was imposed on Catholic-run schools by a 2001 Vatican directive which declared abuse cases "subject to papal confidentiality". This directive can only have come from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope, who was then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which, under Roman canon law, has jursidiction over investigations into sexual abuse cases (a jurisdiction imposed even over the heads of local bishops).
When one is given to understand that the punishment imposed by the church on those who pleaded guilty but were contrite was merely transfer to another position, and that this practice has continued at least up until the 1990s, any confidence one may have had in the Roman church's internal justice system evaporates completely. It is no longer difficult to understand just how the sexual abuse of minors in the RCC could continue for decades even in relatively secularised countries like the US, Germany and Australia, not to mention Ireland, where the church held a much more powerful sway over consciences and allegiances.
We can at least be thankful for the voice of German Cardinal Walter Kasper when he said on Saturday that the RCC needs to be 'seriously cleaned up'. Regrettably for the victims whose lives have been devastated, including those who have committed suicide, it is too little, too late. "Sin is bound to come, but woe to that person through whom it comes..."