Monday, July 14, 2008

Sin and Synchronicity

He called it a co-incidence, but that’s not what he meant.

The Cardinal was interviewed by a journalist on SBS television news last week, the day after the story of his “honest mistake” came to light. And he mentioned, in passing, that he thought it was an “extraordinary coincidence” that the story came to public attention, and media scrutiny, as World Youth Day was preparing for the arrival of Pope Benedict. The journalist didn’t pick up on it, but then her attention was on the details of the mishap, and on waiting for the opportunity to blind-side the Cardinal with a recording of the perp-priest admitting that the act of buggery was non-consensual.

He clearly didn’t mean it. To believe coincidence to be the case would be ridiculously naive, and lacking the most basic awareness of cause, effect and consequence. No. The Cardinal was being coy. He was trailing a purple cape to allow others to publicly infer what he wouldn’t imply. That this was an anti-Catholic agenda by sections of the media, or simple greed and opportunism on the part of the rapee, or merely an attempt to embarrass him personally while he plays host to his most senior supervisor.

It could be seen as a skilful gambit in the rough and tumble of the debate, as a neatly executed parsing of events that cloaks wounded pride in aggrieved innocence, a soft comment that accompanies a meek turning of another cheek. But it isn’t.

It’s disingenuous. It’s the kind of verbal skill that the Catholic Church (alongside many Protestant ones) has displayed with dexterity in deflecting, denying, evading and avoiding every charge of rape, sexual assault and paedophilic abuse that has been brought in the last thirty odd years. It’s the kind of comment that raises the hackles of every outraged victim, advocate and concerned Christian who feels:

A. The Church doesn’t take the issue seriously until it’s proven, against the Church’s determined resistance, to be a massive institutional problem.

B. The Church will close ranks and protect priests at all costs, seeing priests as inherently more valuable than laypeople, particularly children.

C. The Church feels entitled to use any tactic, from private coercion and deliberate misuse of the truth to legal intimidation and public vilification to protect it’s interests, which are not those of it’s lay members.

D. The Church believes it can employ any or all of these means without compromising it’s moral authority, and that the public ‘good-name’ of the Church is more important than it’s actual good faith and good graces.

The mistake made by Cardinal Pell, as he defined it, was in putting in writing that there were no other accusations levelled against the troublesome priest, when what he meant was that there were no other accusations of rape – non-consenting buggery – against said cleric. That there were other accusations he already knew. He signed a letter the same day apologising for an assault on a choirboy. But his nit-picking about the issue of consent was where he erred, apparently. And presumably in signing two letters inconveniently adjacent in time and subject matter, not to mention this having come inconveniently to light, at an inconvenient time. Hence the co-incidence.

It's this kind of hair-splitting that so enrages people. We know and expect priests to be highly literate, capable of verbal subtlety and sophistication of meaning. That’s what’s required if you are going to try and explicate the word of God as part of your daily job-description. But it doesn’t mean we can’t spot casuistry, skilful double-tonguing, and sheer humbug when we see it. Or at least smell a large and less than saintly rat when we can’t always pinpoint the linguistic trickery.

His Holiness Pope Benedict will make a speech this week, apologising for the long, sad history of abuse by priests of those within their pastoral care. There is no reason to believe that the Catholic Church has any more or less of a problem in this regard than many other Christian churches. But the Catholic Church is the biggest, and proclaims it’s universality still, after 2000 years.

What follows this speech will determine the fate of the Church’s good name, and quite possibly the future strength of the Church in the West. After all, there are plenty of other churches, and plenty of lesser organisations willing to take up the issue of contemporary spirituality. If there were any hint of something better to come, now would be the time. And I don’t mean the ‘jam tomorrow’ of heaven.

• A Children’s Crusade that laid out a set of rights for all children.
• An Inquisition to root out the abusers and those who shield them.
• A new Covenant between the Church and it’s members that set power and privilege at the bottom of the pecking order.
• A determination to renew faith in the Church, not just faith in God.
• An honest examination of the doctrine of celibacy, it’s dubious relationship to priesthood and the problems that ensue from that, the possibility of marriage and priesthood, of women priests.

Any of these would be a good start. if the Church wants to do more than epitomise the problems of male, conservative, aging authoritarian social structures who cannot claim a central relevance to people’s lives.

If God is real, and is truly at the heart of all things, then why is it so hard to get that across to people? Why does the Church not epitomise that fact, and speak in ways that connect the majority of people with their God?

Perhaps it’s they who need to examine who and what they truly represent.


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