Vatican's Past Imperfect

Amid a new choirboy scandal, social evolution is leaving the Catholic Church behind

Pope Benedict XVI has been beset by matters of the flesh lately, from the growing sexual-abuse scandal in Germany to the revelation that a member of a Vatican choir procured male prostitutes for one of the pope’s ceremonial ushers at 2,000 euros a pop.

A headline in the March 13 issue of The New York Times declared, ”Church Abuse Scandal in Germany Edges Closer to Pope.” This refers to the revelation that 30 years ago in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, when Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict’s former name) was its archbishop, a priest accused of molesting boys was given therapy and returned to pastoral duties, only to commit more abuses.

Some German clergy, such as Rev. Johannes Siebner, director of the College St. Blasien, have called for a thorough investigation of the proliferating cases. There is little choice. Composer Franz Wittenbrink, who lived in the boarding school of a famous Regensburg choir in the 1960s, told Der Spiegel on March 8 that the school had an “elaborate system of sadistic punishments combined with sexual lust,” and that the headmaster “would choose two or three of us boys in the dormitories in the evenings and take them to his flat” for wine-fueled masturbation. “I find it inexplicable that the pope’s brother Georg Ratzinger, who had been cathedral bandmaster since 1964, apparently knew nothing about it.”

While papal representatives have denounced the alleged abuses, Rome has already mounted a counteroffensive. On March 13, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was ”evident that in recent days there are those who have tried, with a certain aggressive tenacity, in Regensburg and in Munich, to find elements to involve the Holy Father personally in issues of abuse.” The Vatican’s chief exorcist, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, blamed the devil.

Church leaders often blame their priests’ transgressions on modern sexual liberties, women’s rights and gay rights. Actually, the sexual-abuse scandals stem neither from devils nor laymen embracing modern freedoms, but from people immersed in an organization that retreats from modernity — the authoritarian, exclusively male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Siebner told Der Spiegel last week, ”The Catholic Church is not a criminal organization. Anyone who claims that is going too far.”

Really? I am prepared to concede that, by its own lights, Holy Mother Church did not set out deliberately to become a criminal organization. It was corrupted by insularity, institutional arrogance, and avoidance of accountability. Betrayal of the children in its charge was the result.

But for all the harm caused by the sexual abuses, the greater problem is an organization that covered them up, facilitated them, showed more concern for itself than for the victims, and continues to resist criticism and change. In clinging to a 16th-century outlook, the church is refusing to minister to the needs of the 21st.

Rome is convinced that allowing its followers to think for themselves would lead to anarchy and chaos. The pope and his bishops believe they are in sole possession of the truth, they are never wrong, and the shepherd does not hold dialogues with his flock. But the flock has other ideas. Most American Catholics simply ignore what they don’t agree with. The 23rd Psalm notwithstanding, we are human, not sheep.

If Rome’s leaders decided to put service ahead of power as Christ did, they could make forward-thinking reforms such as including women in all the ministries of the church, making celibacy optional instead of mandatory, and offering gay people a choice other than lifelong sexual abstinence. These are unthinkable to the Roman Curia, which treats 12th-century policies as if they were handed down from the Apostles. But ignoring problems does not make them disappear. The Catholic Church in the Western world will either reform or continue to dwindle away. In that sense, it’s a self-correcting problem.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at .

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