Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Is the Roman Catholic Church Above the Law?

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..."


Matthias said...

Yes pastor it amazes me how abusing priests -as in the USA and here-were transferred to other parishes or out of harms way.
But then the Anglicans in Adelaide and Brisbane were also guilty of this sin .
these issues should have been dealt with well before and it is perhaps a reflection upon the power of institutions even in the late 2oth Century. Protect the Institution at the cost of making the Gospel a joke!!

acroamaticus said...

You're quite right, Wayne.

The difference between the RC and Anglican incidents so far, I think, is that in the RCC the avoidance of the issue was systematic and went right to the top in Rome, since the Vatican insisted on investigating and overseeing all cases involving clergy at least, whereas in the Anglican Church the approach very much depended on the bishop in charge of the diocese.

It is interesting to me in this whole area that it seems that the "lower" a church's polity (how they order oversight: papal, episcopal, presbyerian, congregational, etc), the more likely clergy offenders were to be handed over to the police. This is not an argument against having a "high" church polity per se, but it does suggest that those appointed to be bishops in such churches are very likely to be "company men" who will protect the institution at all costs.
I will be reflecting more on the theological dimensions to this issue and will possibly post my thoughts in the near future.

L P said...

Pr. Mark,

As one who was raised in a country who is so hard core RC I can say, yes they operate above the law and they even influence the law.

BTW. Have you written about the LCA web site's statements. I can write it with you.

acroamaticus said...

Hi Lito,

Yes, I know the face the RCC presents in Catholic majority countries is quite different from the one it presents in countries which are secularised or multi-denominational. Whenever I am tempted by Rome, I just have to think of the corruption that has attened its history throughout the centuries to be brought to my senses!

Does your PS refer to UOJ? I've been doing some exegesis of the key passages just this week, as it happens. But I haven't written anything yet because I am limited for time. Contact me off-list in regard to this.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm here from Sentire Cum Ecclesia and all I'd like to say on this post is an echo of Hilaire Belloc with reference to the abuses of the Church in the 16th C etc. Hardly any Catholic would deny that the Church needed to clean up its act then, as it needs to now, but "just because the Church needed a reformation, doesn't mean it needed The Reformation."

acroamaticus said...

Hi Louise,

Thank you for dropping by!

I'm afraid that, following Belloc as you do, you completely misunderstand the Reformation. As Martin Luther said on more than one occasion, the Reform was not about reforming the life of the medieval church, but reforming its doctrine in accordance with the Gospel and scripture.

But thank you for your comment, I do value any contribution you make herte, even if I think you are mistaken, and do come again to the old manse.

Lenten Blessings!

Anonymous said...

Thankyou, Mark. I will be offline for a while, so I may see you another time.

God bless.