My wife and I watched Frontline's "Secrets of the Vatican" in a stunned silence. There wasn't any single item there that was entirely new to us. Pedophilic priests, corruption in the Vatican Bank, a secretive Curia, the cult-like Legion of Christ, blatantly homosexual priests—all have been reported before. Frontline brought these things together in a way that leaves one feeling the erosion of the moral and spiritual foundation of the Roman church. Its only hope, it seems to me, is deep organizational repentance.
But that's not how some Roman Catholic apologists see it. Bill Donohue of The Catholic League called "Secrets of the Vatican" "contrived," a "hit job" by "Catholic bashers." But it's hard to argue with the central contentions of the piece, all of which are well-documented—and when Donohue tries, he sounds disingenuous. Of sexual abuse, "This problem is practically non-existent in the Catholic community these days, and is rampant in the public schools, as well as in the Orthodox Jewish community."
It is hard to hear bad things about an organization you love. But this is a classic example of the denial one hears frequently from offenders and defenders of offenders, and surprisingly often in a religious context. Examples:
1. It didn't happen. Or it isn't happening anymore. Or it's been greatly exaggerated. Or it's a thing of the past, and anyway, you should mind your own damn business.
2. And if it did happen, others are doing worse things, and you should be accusing them rather than us. Donohue: "None of these people at PBS give a hoot about the sexual abuse of minors, for if they did, they would cover those communities where it is thriving."
3. It isn't what you said, it's how you said it. Donohue complains about cinematography—"ominous dark images; dramatic music; a deep voice-over; bleak hallways; shadowy figures locking doors as a boy enters the room; the words 'Power,' Money,' and 'Sex' flashing about"—as though that minimizes the offenses documented.
4. Even if the accusations are true, we can find a few items in your presentation that are arguable or inaccurate, so that negates the rest of what you say. This blog is a good example.
5. You may be worse for pointing out our sins than we are for having committed them, because you're not forgiving and giving us a chance. I recently read a call to forgive and restore a Protestant clergyman rapist because he is such an effective proponent for a certain conservative point of view. "It was just a momentary lapse [with 8 different women identified so far] and he's beyond it now. As a Christian you have to forgive and forget and let him get on with his important ministry."
6. It's not the organization, it's just individuals in the organization. Never mind what the organization claims to be, or its authority over its people: the organization can't take responsibility for what its employees do. Catholic writer Adam Bowers, who blogs under the nom de plume Quartermaster of the Barque, adds, "This is all bad, evil stuff, but it is unfair to imply that the reasons are institutional rather than individual." My God, Adam—really? If there is nothing institutional contributing to the pedophilia in the church, then why is it so concentrated there? And, if there's no institutional reason for it, then there's nothing the church can do to correct it, either. Children, beware.
7. You just don't like us because of who we are, so our offenses, no matter how egregious, are incidental.
There are bits of truth scampering through all these excuses, but they conspire to minimize and deny horrendous problems. True, there may be less priestly pedophilia right now, with the spotlight focused so intensely on it. Yet this church first denied pedophilia, lied about it, hid it, defended priests they knew were guilty, and drug their feet about preventing it. And yes, of course sexual abuse happens in other communities, too, but that doesn't mean you're off the hook.
As for the organization having no culpability: the Roman Catholic church isn't a loose, informal gathering of like-minded individuals, like, say, Justin Beiber fans, but one of the oldest, wealthiest, most powerful and authoritarian organizations in the world, an employer of millions, and one which claims to have authority over the present behavior and eternal salvation of billions, living and dead.
We all should hate the kind of prejudicial anti-Catholicism that references crimes of centuries ago, or resurrects old myths and lies. But there's no way that current Roman Catholic church leaders can wriggle out of responsibility for terrible things that happened, and are happening, because of their action or inaction.
Bowers adds this disgustingly self-pitying "do what we say, ignore what we do" comment:
"In other words, the Church isn’t despised because of the sexual abuse crisis or any other scandal (this is just delicious opportunity); she is hated because in spite of the sin and hypocrisy of all of her members, she always holds to what is true, even while all of us individual Catholics perpetually fall short."
What puerile nonsense. Your truth is only as good as how you live it. Roman Catholic churchmen have allowed untold suffering because of arrogant and unrepentant ecclesiasticism. It's far too soon for them to claim they've repented enough and can move on to being victims. And to their credit, the wisest among them are taking responsibility for it.
What we saw on Frontline wasn't perfect reportage, but it wasn't anti-Catholicism, either. It was the press holding accountable an organization that hasn't managed to do that for itself.