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July 24, 2007

$660 Million for Vatican Myopia

Roy Meachum

Those inclined to sympathize with Cardinal Roger Mahoney's $660 million pay out to sexual assault victims should look again at what he and his fellow prelates did to the Catholic Church. Their numbers include Baltimore's William Keeler.

In the Vatican's view, charges, even when proven, cannot take precedence over the Curia's voracious need to be justified. Always! Seriously questioning a single comma in a decree prepared by the church's governing body can lead to excommunication. Forty years ago their attempt to exercise muscle in the United States fell flat on its face.

Following the councils of Vatican II, they simply should never have tried. They have always been impervious to the world's opinion. Coming so shortly after John XXIII, they made themselves and their church look stupid, while failing in their attempt to boot a "liberal" theologian.

Too many prelates remained in the College of Cardinals, in 1967, who were appointed by the Blessed John XXIII. Consisting of prelates of all political stripes, this faction still believed in his mission to decentralize church power. The pope wanted priests and people to become co-equals with omnipotent bishops. Diffusion of authority was the chief reason for Vatican II; church conservatives killed it. Dead. They seemingly received God's approval when the widely cherished pope died in the middle of the councils.

Newly empowered, the Vatican Curia set out to extinguish any and all challenges to its rule. When Cardinal Josef Ratzinger moved into what once was called The Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Roman clique tasted sweet victory. Nor did he disappoint.

"Inside man" to the frequently traveling Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger clamped his Germanic fist on all the operations centered on St. Peter's square. With memory of Vatican II's reforms fading fast, he seized the moment to exile dissidents: people and priests who still believed John XXIII right.

This is how priestly abuses of altar boys and their youthful counterparts received a form of absolution: The need to maintain a solid front against dissident critics demanded that bishops line up behind their priests. No one could acknowledge moral wrong in their holy crusade to prove the Roman faith the only true church.

And so, the depravities continued, sanctioned both by the Vatican and the individual bishops. But I might be wrong. Since their organization demands consultations, individual prelates had to know the problem was not theirs alone. In Rome individualism always receives rough treatment. Remember Galileo's punishment for asserting the world was not really flat, as the church then taught.

The predominant rule among Catholics runs on the political premise: To get along, go along. Everyone probably knows an ex-priest. It is usually said that hundreds put aside their Roman collars and disavowed their ordination vows "because they wanted to get married." That was partially true.

A bigger element in their choice was the loss of hope for meaningful change that included marriage. Any abiding notion that Vatican II's promises were alive died on a Saturday night in middle of the 1969 conference of the world's bishops (synod). I was there, for the Washington Star and New Republic magazine.

In St. John's Lateran, his cathedral as the bishop of Rome, Paul VI read the speech prepared by the Curia that put the official seal on the priests' hopelessness. This does not argue the sexual abuse grew out of that particular frustration; it started long before. It still goes on but more quietly. And has little to do with homosexuality.

Since celibacy was affirmed and continues to receive Vatican boosting, heterosexual young men have turned aside from ordination. But the inability to marry is maybe the least of the reasons. Many no longer seek ordination because greater options have been available to recent generations. The decline in respect for the church also figures in.

The priesthood's waning numbers have encouraged the recruiting of homosexuals to fill empty altars. But the highly publicized scandals have strictly to do with pedophilia, the word used to label the sexual attraction toward children. Homosexuality almost never comes into play. Pedophilia and fewer priests are what the current rhubarb is really all about.

By the way, the recently awarded $660 million comes on the top of more than $100 million already paid out by Los Angeles' cardinal. Roger Mahoney has presided over the country's largest archdiocese since 1985 and that makes him directly responsible for much of the church failure to protect its young. He shares with Boston's Bernard Law a similarly long, long history of moving priests around rather than holding them liable for their sins, which also happen to be contrary to the civil law: that is why all that money has been paid out to victims.

Sin is an internal issue; crime violates the community's standards of what's right and wrong, as passed into law. Bellyaching about why America's bishops have been singled out shows ignorance. Irish and Australian Roman Catholic churches have been hit hard for the same reasons. Both ex-colonies shared Ireland's teaching that the clergy could do no wrong.

However, Austria lost its presiding cardinal who was in charge of Vienna's archdiocese. A German prelate met the same fate. No nation has been completely exempt. Countries around the Mediterranean and their former colonies proved more resistant: Catholics in the Hispanic and Italian cultures learn to regard the clergy as human beings, not living deities.

In Baltimore, the "mother" diocese to this country's Roman congregations, Cardinal Keeler was caught red-handed in the act of coddling a criminal priest over his victim. While offering the offending cleric a well-paying and prestigious interfaith post, the cardinal refused to meet his prey, a former altar boy; he changed his mind only when threatened by public outcry.

The Vatican's reluctance to sanction Baltimore's archbishop was shouted out by the Curia's reluctance to accept his resignation letter, mandatory at 75. A new ordinary was named a year later; but he doesn't assume authority over America's oldest archdiocese until fall.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, states his church would be better by the elimination of all those who question his vision and his authority. He could be right. By reinstalling the Latin rite to Mass and turning the celebrant's face away from the people, the pope looks hell-bent to wipe out all Vatican II's reforms.

The pope reforming the reforms promises great confusion for all those who give a damn about their faith. The rest will "go along to get along." Already underway, their withdrawal signals a retreat to the days when nobody questioned what priests say and do.

That was the ambience that permitted the flourishing of pedophilia, in the first place. My poor church.

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