It is difficult to pinpoint quite where Pope Benedict is focusing his mind when he issues a statement such as that contained in his traditional, end-of-the-year speech to Vatican cardinals and bishops, publicly released yesterday. He claimed that, as recently as the 1970s, ‘paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children’. He went on to state, as the context for this quite extraordinary interpretation of how paedophilia has been considered, that ‘there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a ‘better than’ and a ‘worse than.’ Nothing is good or bad in itself.’
He could not have chosen a worse moment to have issued such a message on the great crime of the third millennium, nor to have framed it in such confused terms and with so many examples of passing the blame to society and current moral standards.
Paedophilia – since he used the term – is an obsessive sexual deviation in which adult males lust after pre-pubescent children. They cannot easily control nor suppress their sexual urges and they are responsible for criminal acts against young children that form part – but only part – of child sex abuse.
A greater part of the sexual abuse that was committed by brothers and priest of the Roman Catholic Church against children imprisoned in Ireland’s industrial school network came under a broader category as did the abuse by priests of young people
The distinction is important since it helps to define the kinds of treatments and punishments that should be applied. It also helps to explain how the obsessive and uncontrollable nature of paedophilia, and the child-state of potential victims has bred into existence on a growing scale paedophile rings, which by their nature are highly dangerous to children and extremely difficult for the police to fight.
This latter difficulty has been greatly enlarged in Ireland because of political pusillanimity towards the Church, allowing priests and bishops to intimidate the gardai and other public servants against interfering with Church control, or lack of control, of the sexual urges of its members.
That said, the nonsensical claim made by the Pope in his end-of-year message to the world – something that cannot but spread further confusion – contains the idea that somehow paedophilia was ‘normal’ until quite recently.
Paedophilia has not been ‘normal’, in the modern era, save in an entirely theoretical sense of examining, as Kinsey or Freud might examine, sexual deviation. That apart, a paedophile who turns his desires for sexual congress with a pre-pubescent child is almost certain, in a very short space of time, to cross the boundary of criminality and will soon commit serious, indictable offences.
In normal societies this has resulted in prison sentences for sexual assault, including buggery. And this legal constraint against a wide range of sexual offences has a substantial body of law backing it up. Ireland, in these circumstances, cannot be regarded as a ‘normal’ society. If it were, the forces of law and order would have prevented a large number of the criminal acts now being brought to the courts, and having been brought to the courts in recent years, ever happening. It is clear, notably and most recently, from the evidence in the Murphy Report, that the Church ran nothing less than a protection racket, stopping the law being properly implemented. This made us abnormal.
The abnormality is by no means confined to Ireland. Each society in the world has to come to terms with the power of the Church, its domestic remit and the strongly conservative voice of the Vatican laying down, or often not laying down, directives that make sense.
What the world needs to hear is a clear statement about the importance of civil law in all societies, as opposed to Canon Law. This has been at the root of a great deal of evil in respect of child sexual abuse. It has legitimised the concealment of offenders by senior prelates not themselves necessarily involved in abuse. It has given strength to the passive acceptance of clerical privilege even when this is a total assault on principles of lawful behaviour.
Pope Benedict, in his statement, chose to confuse rather than clarify. We do not need to see the matter ‘in a broader social context, in which child pornography is seemingly considered normal by society and drug use and sexual tourism are on the rise’. These are separate issues. Terrible as child pornography is, a priest or member of a religious community buggering a pre-pubescent child is much worse. It is also not necessary for the Pope to take us, yet again, through the matter of the Church’s “humiliation” nor the need for “renewal”.
If one is to accept the logic of the Pope’s message, it is that it took ‘an avalanche of cases of paedophile priests’ to bring about a change in the Church’s view of how criminality is to be dealt with when the criminals are priests.
It is particularly sad that this traditional Christmas speech to Vatican cardinals and bishops, an eagerly anticipated address that Benedict uses to focus the church hierarchy on key issues, should have delivered us with a message of such confusion.
It lacks the focus it needed. It lacks the response millions of people wished for. It lacks precision of thought and clarity about blame for a known disease that has resided in the Church, because the Church has offered easy occasion for access to those in its membership who are paedophiles. It lack realism in bringing the Church up to date.