By Kevin Devine
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Turmoil in the Catholic church

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Recent months have seen the row over the abuse of children by Catholic priests intensify, with the pope himself directly implicated in the cover-up. Kevin Devine analyses the social role of the Catholic church, and the circumstances which enabled these crimes to continue for so many years
Issue 347

“A scandal crying out to heaven.” This is how dissident theologian Hans Küng described the widespread revelations of the physical and sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests, nuns and brothers in the US, Germany, Ireland and other countries. That someone who remains a Catholic, despite repeated clashes with the authorities, can portray the situation facing the church like this gives an idea of the scale of the issue.

Many of us might have preferred him to use the more alliterative and accurate “crime”, but the tenor of his criticism is clear. As a result of the revelations, and the role of leading church institutions in attempting to cover up the abuse, Catholicism is going through one of the greatest crises in its 2,000-year history.

Trust in the church’s leadership, already shaky in many of these countries, has effectively collapsed as a result of the failure of bishops and cardinals to deal with the abusers. And now the scandal has prompted an unprecedented leadership crisis, with the pope himself under scrutiny. For the current pope, Benedict XVI, used to be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who between 1982 and 2005 was prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Formerly known as the Inquisition, this organisation is supposed to discipline priests who violate the church’s moral or theological doctrines.

But far from disciplining those accused of abusing children, Ratzinger appears to have been at the forefront of a concerted effort to conceal his priests’ crimes. In an open letter to the Catholic bishops, Küng accuses the pope, in his previous role as head of the Inquisition, of presiding over a universal cover-up of clerical abuse. Küng writes, “There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger.”

He continues, “During the reign of Pope John Paul II, that Congregation had already taken charge of all such cases under oath of strictest silence. Ratzinger himself, on 18 May 2001, sent a solemn document to all the bishops dealing with severe crimes, in which cases of abuse were sealed under the secretum pontificium, the violation of which could entail grave ecclesiastical penalties.”

Prior to his elevation to cardinal, Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. Numerous claims of clerical abuse in Bavaria date from this period, but although Ratzinger was responsible for disciplining his priests, he never reported the claims to the civil authorities. He wasn’t alone. Ratzinger was one of many bishops, archbishops and cardinals across the Catholic world who acted to prevent allegations of maltreatment by priests from being aired in public.

In Ireland the leader of the Catholic church, Cardinal Sean Brady, has admitted that in 1975 he forced two boys, aged 14 and 15, to swear an oath of secrecy and not reveal what a paedophile priest had done to them. Most legal systems acknowledge that children cannot be taken into custody and intimidated into making statements or swearing oaths. But apparently not the Catholic church.


The recent Murphy report (2009) outlines the role of the Irish church in covering up child abuse. It summarised the church’s motives as follows: “The maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities.”

This could be pretty well applied to Ratzinger, who as pope now sits on untold wealth in the Vatican. But what were the cases with which Ratzinger and his fellow bishops and cardinals were linked? They included that of Monsignor Bernard Prince, who was sentenced in 2008 by a court in Ontario to four years in jail for abusing 13 boys between 1964 and 1984. In 1991, although allegations had been brought to the attention of his bishop, he was appointed to a post in Rome. This happened on Ratzinger’s watch.

The year 1985 saw the case of Californian priest Stephen Kiesle, a self-confessed child abuser. The bishop of Oakland wrote to Ratzinger for approval to defrock him. Ratzinger replied that although the reasons for the bishop’s actions were clearly of “great importance”, the bishop also needed to consider the welfare of the priest and the church. Two years later he was indeed “reduced to lay status”, but in the intervening two years he worked as a volunteer on a project in the Bay Area where he was once again accused of abuse.

Facilitating abuse

But the church didn’t simply cover up the abuse. It failed to protect the victims in the first place. And its frequent response to allegations was simply to move the perpetrator to another job. This often had the effect of facilitating further abuse, since the priest in question could simply take up where he left off, safe in the knowledge that his punishment wouldn’t amount to much more than this. In countries like Ireland, where the church and state were closely intertwined, to describe this simply as a “scandal” is to let all those involved off the hook. A criminal conspiracy might be a better description of what took place.

Because it wasn’t just ordained priests who carried out the abuse. Religious “congregations” like the Christian Brothers were deeply implicated in claims of physical and sexual maltreatment, especially in Ireland where some 18 of these congregations were either in charge of children in education or in residential care (the Brothers of Charity and the Sisters of Charity). In Ireland, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (known as the Ryan Commission after its chair) found that 80 percent of males whose claims of abuse were investigated were in the care of the Christian Brothers, in primary and secondary schools and in the infamous “industrial schools”, which the order was paid by the state to run.

The Ryan Commission report is worth reading, if you have the stomach for it. This commission was established in 1999 to hear evidence of abuse from people who allege they suffered abuse in institutions. These included the industrial schools of Artane and Letterfrack, in which the children were little better than slave labour; boarding schools and orphanages run by congregations like the misnamed “Sisters of Mercy”; and of course the infamous “Magdalene laundries”, where women who’d had the temerity to become pregnant outside of marriage were forced to live out their days in drudgery.

For a small country (with a population of 4 million) the statistics contained in the report are shocking. Between 1914 and 1991 some 170,000 Irish children passed through some 261 institutions run by religious congregations like the Christian Brothers. Of these children, some 35,000 alleged maltreatment, with 1,700 giving evidence of abuse. Over half of these involved sexual abuse. Some 800 religious figures were directly implicated. But, aided and abetted by right wing politicians, the congregations have mostly managed to evade compensation claims from the victims, and so far have only paid out a fraction of their liabilities.

Why was the sexual abuse of children by clerics and others so widespread in both church institutions and in its so-called “pastoral” work? Certainly, the church’s role in education and social welfare, especially in Ireland, but in other countries as well, placed its priests in day-to-day contact with children. But this doesn’t explain why their crimes were so prevalent. The explanation is complex but involves a historical examination of the relationship of the hierarchy to ordinary Catholics – a relationship which increasingly demanded obedience and subservience – and the changing views of the church on human and sexual relations. All of these combined to produce a toxic cocktail that is finally being challenged.

Catholicism might have started out as the religion of the poor, but by the Middle Ages the church had accumulated enormous wealth. To preserve this wealth, the Catholic church introduced rules of celibacy. This had nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. The rationale was that if priests could not marry and have children, the wealth would remain concentrated in the church’s hands.

The growing distance of the church’s leaders from their followers, and its changing material circumstances, had an effect on its ideas. Increasingly, humanity was viewed as inherently sinful and in need of “spiritual guidance”. The most positive qualities of human beings – the power to create and the ability to love – were transferred to god. And the more powerful god grew, the more humanity itself was demeaned as sinful and base.

In what became a neat justification for the rule of celibacy, human sexuality was decried. The reality of two adults enjoying each other’s bodies was seen as subverting god’s power, on the basis that passion and conjugal love detracted from the humility required to “devote oneself to Christ”. As a result, the clergy made a virtue of their own celibacy and spiritually elevated themselves over the rest of humanity – simply because they claimed not to have sex. This was always a lie, of course, but it was the product of a set of ideas in which sexuality was seen as sinful and demeaning.

The distortion and repression inherent in this ideology had a terrible impact on the most vulnerable people in the church’s care – children. The notion that sex was “an occasion for sin” contributed to an atmosphere of repression within the church. The furtive secrecy this engendered meant that abusing priests tended to target those who were most vulnerable. Young people were particularly at risk because they could be silenced. And moreover, even though only a minority of priests raped children, those who did knew that they would be protected by vows of secrecy designed to protect both reputations and assets.

All of this means that the hierarchy’s silence on clerical child abuse was not because of a few “rotten apples”. It was a conspiracy by an institution that has consolidated its power through the ages by demeaning real human feelings, while at the same time accumulating wealth by the most hypocritical means.

As a result, we know that clerical child abuse has a long history. But in the modern age the alliance of the church and state in many countries resulted in a burgeoning of the power of the church which added to the impulse to dominate and abuse, physically if not sexually. The role of the church as an agent of social control meant that maltreatment of the people in its care became a weapon, a means of exerting power.

Nowhere was this more true than in Ireland, where the church already played a central role in education. This pre-dated independence, going back to the 19th century and the divide and rule policies of the British. But once the Irish state was established, the church’s power and prestige were further enhanced. The nationalist movement which ousted the British was steeped in Catholicism. The policy of the party which came to dominate the new state, Fianna Fáil, was that there should be a “Catholic state for a Catholic people”.

In part this reflected the class position of both the leaders of Fianna Fáil and the Catholic hierarchy – they shared an interest in ensuring the working class of the new state was obedient, both before the pulpit and before the institutions of the new state. It’s also reflected the fact that anti-Catholic prejudices and practices were a central aspect of colonial policy in Ireland, so to an extent the ending of British rule represented the beginning of a new freedom for Catholicism, and the hierarchy took advantage of this.

Arm of the state

But the boost to the power of the church represented by its domination of education and health in Ireland was also owed to the fact of the relative underdevelopment of the country and the refusal of its elite to fund decent welfare services. As a result, what should have been a voluntary organisation was transformed into an arm of the state. The extent of shared confessional values at the top of society hastened this process and provided a key role for the church in acting as an arm of the state to control and police the poor.

And this was crucial. For the state, the church played a vital role in ensuring the obedience of children, both in “normal” education and in the industrial schools. And for most of Ireland’s history, the bulk of the children in both these categories were poor. A child could end up being placed in an industrial school simply for playing truant.

The Christian Brothers who ran these institutions despised their charges. “What are they but illegitimates and pure dirt?” one Christian Brother remembered being told by his superior. The children were constantly told that their families were “scum”, “tramps” and “from the gutter”. These were the circumstances in which abuse was effectively legitimised.

The strength of the links between church and state in Ireland is testified to by the fact that as late as 1996 church control over primary schools was guaranteed by the Dáil (parliament) in a bill brought, ironically enough, by a Labour minister for education, Niamh Bhreathnach. And this was at a time when extensive revelations about clerical child abuse had already begun to emerge. In other words, the church’s role in education was seen as such a given that even the social democratic left didn’t dare challenge it.

But the erosion of the church’s authority, from the 1980s onwards, allowed revelations of abuse to accumulate and eventually come to the surface. Ironically, this erosion of authority was in part a result of the resurgence of the Catholic right in Ireland in the 1980s. They won a key referendum, on abortion, and successive plebiscites on the introduction of a limited form of divorce resulted in defeats for the liberals and the left. But these victories for reaction prompted a backlash that at first was subterranean. It was also muted by the extent of emigration during these years, as many left, prompted mainly by economic considerations, but also by disgust at the outcome of the various referenda.

It’s difficult to be certain, but the campaigns around abortion, contraception and divorce – especially since they centred on matters related to sexuality and human freedom – probably encouraged survivors to feel they could begin to come forward. Greater awareness of individual rights may also have helped. And the decline in vocations to the priesthood also weakened the church. But whatever the initial reasons, the church was soon faced with a crisis in one of the countries where its position had seemed unassailable.

Shared stories

It’s not that Irish people never knew anything about what went on in the schools, orphanages and laundries. They did, and they talked to one another about it. Every family has its own stories. I was schooled by the Christian Brothers, and on more than one occasion watched as they lost control of themselves and lashed out at a fellow pupil for some minor misdemeanour.

My mother went to the now infamous Goldenbridge Convent, run by the Sisters of Mercy. When we were children, she used to terrify us with stories about the nuns’ treatment of the girls, and especially the orphans, who of course were entirely within these women’s power. The main theme of these stories was cruelty and, while much of it was petty, there was often a sexual element as well. The worst aspects weren’t mentioned, merely hinted at. In part at least, my mother was trying to make the point that however badly we thought we were treated at school (this was the 1970s), her experiences in the 1950s were far worse.

Of course, for much of Ireland’s history people’s attachment to the Catholic church and its rituals wasn’t simply based on fear. The poverty of the country, and the hardships faced by large numbers of working class people, meant that for many the church provided comfort and solace. In addition, the influence of the church over so many different spheres of life ensured there was little practical opposition to the often-expressed credo that “outside the Catholic church there is no redemption”.

And this was the problem. Most people thought there was nothing you could do, and no one thought of telling anyone that might be able to do something about it, because they didn’t believe they could, or would. That’s not necessarily the situation today. But the church and its allies are fighting back.

In a throwback to the era before widespread revelations emerged, they have attempted to dismiss the allegations (and thereby the evidence) of abuse as “gossip”. Unbelievably, they have also tried to equate the sexual abuse of children with homosexuality, claiming that the abuse was restricted to a small number of gay priests.

Their strategy has involved a number of other themes as well. One of these is to invoke charges of anti-Catholicism and try and portray themselves as the victims. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, an aide to the pope, set the tone, telling reporters, “This is a pretext for attacking the church… There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.”

The church’s other strategy is to identify liberalism and secularism as the problem, rather than the criminal practices of abusive priests and those who have protected them. According to this view, the priests involved may be guilty of sin, but liberals and secularists are guilty for encouraging freedom and discussion about sexuality, which confused these poor celibates and led to the unfortunate incidences of abuse. This stance conveniently ignores the fact that sexual abuse by clerics predates the post-Vatican II era, though conveniently enough for the church relatively few of these cases will come to light.


All of this means that the outcome of the debate is not a foregone conclusion. But bitterness at the abuse runs deep. Catholics were led to believe that they could trust their priests and religious figures, and the abuse of that trust – in every sense – has seriously undermined the church. The problem for them is that every new set of revelations about the failure of the hierarchy to act, and the involvement of the Vatican, stokes the bitterness. Survivors’ protests have been a potent symbol of this, with many holding aloft children’s shoes as poignant symbols of the vulnerability of the victims they and others like them once were. These protests are a constant reminder of the church’s iniquity and a threat to its power.

But there have been more significant repercussions as well. In Ireland the teaching unions have been polling their members on church control of schools. One such poll, conducted by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, showed that over 80 percent of primary teachers believe the Catholic church should relinquish control of some or all of its schools. The poll came as the department of education drafted an initial list of ten to 12 urban areas where it believes the Catholic church could divest itself of some schools.

This list will be sent to the Catholic bishops next month. A move to end ecclesiastical control over education would be a serious blow to the church in Ireland, and one that every socialist would welcome.

The pope himself is unlikely to get off lightly. He has attempted to head off allegations of abuse in Malta by visiting the island, whose population is one of the most devoutly Catholic in the world. From his point of view at least, the visit seems to have been a success. But it is unlikely that his reception in Britain when he arrives here in September will be anything like as warm. There have even been calls for his arrest.

Whatever happens, his reception is certainly not going to be anything like that afforded the previous pope, who visited Britain in 1982, well before the current crisis began to break. For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, that must feel like a long, long time ago.

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