Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Don't Pity the Pope

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on April 17, 2010
It is generally unwise to write an opinion column on religion. So I won’t. But I am going to offer an opinion on the recent political and legal actions – or inactions – of the Catholic Church.

It has been a rough few weeks for the Church worldwide. The difficult and emotional issue of child abuse allegedly perpetrated by priests and ignored or covered up by Church officials has once again raised its ugly head. But this time accusations of a cover-up have not only reached the Vatican, but extended to the religious leader and Vatican head of state – His Holiness Pope Benedict.

Files recently made public as a result of a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee show Vatican officials were made aware of alleged abuse committed by a priest at a school for deaf children in Wisconsin. The case in question was handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981-2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict.

The priest in question, the late Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, was never dismissed by the church. Nor was he ever prosecuted by civilian legal authorities. He was transferred by church officials to a diocese in northern Wisconsin where he served his final 24 years of life working freely with children and parishioners.

Vatican and church officials have quickly rallied to defend Pope Benedict, strongly denying he ever had personal knowledge of the abuse situation. Many have denounced the accusations against the then-Cardinal as an attack on the Catholic Church, with one high-ranking official comparing it to anti-Semitism. Lawyers for the Vatican have also indicated the Pope has status as a secular Head-of-State, and therefore would have immunity from being forced to testify in any legal proceedings.

It is unfair and wrong to associate these horrible acts by criminal clerics with the core beliefs and faith of the Catholic Church. If that is indeed what some critics are doing, they should be ashamed of themselves.

But the actions of individual men and women – even in the name of religion – are indeed open to not only criticisms but legal action. You cannot and should not be allowed to abuse children nor hide the actions of any abuser without becoming liable for the consequences.

Thus far it appears the Catholic Church hierarchy is utilizing the “They’re Picking On Us” defense in battling the most current scandal. They are circling the wagons and attempting to portray those critical of them as anti-Catholic. And indeed, it is likely some of them actually are.

But it is not the faith or beliefs of the Catholic Church that are being questioned and tested here. Rather, it is how the flesh-and-blood people who run the multi-billion dollar entity that is the business end of the Church have conducted themselves and that business.

That should not be cloaked in religious terms. Just as the accusers should not indict an entire religion for these alleged horrific acts, the church organization itself should not seek to deflect attention from its own mistakes by questioning the integrity of victims and others unfairly.

Catholics in this area are many and devout. In Norton, a new St. Mary’s Church will open this month with a joyous celebration involving the entire community at a time when some churches are closing or consolidating. Throughout the area, Catholics remain firm in their faith and secure in their beliefs.

But it is hard to imagine they do not question the actions of some Catholic officials. It is hard to believe they approve of Cardinal Law remaining protected in Rome rather than facing investigation here. It is certain they are appalled by a priest who allegedly molested deaf children being transferred rather than disciplined by the Church or prosecuted with the Church’s help.

Can we clearly differentiate between the faith of a religion and the system created by the human beings who run it? I believe we can, I believe we should, and I believe we must.

This is dangerous ground, and those who believe their church leaders to be the infallible continuation of God on Earth will no doubt take issue. But on the list of those being treated unfairly right now, the Catholic Church doesn’t even make the top 10.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist who can be reached at aninsidelook@aol.com.

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