The Roman Catholic Church calls itself “the universal sacrament of salvation for the human race” and “the one true religion”. It also says that its teachings on faith and morals are incapable of being wrong. It’s totally ridiculous that an institution making such claims would enable and cover up the sexual abuse of children. Ridiculous… and true.
The Catholic Church is the largest Christian church and one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. Funnily enough, for all its sanctimonious claims about its infallibility and having a direct line to God, it’s been in hot water before. In the 16th century, its extravagant wealth, corrupt popes, warmongering and sale of indulgences (i.e. church leaders extorting money from people, claiming it could reduce their punishment for sins) is what sparked the Reformation. The Reformation was basically huge swathes of people telling the Catholic Church to sod off and forming their own churches.
The Catholic Church would say it’s come a long way since then. The recent worldwide sexual abuse scandal proves that it flagrantly hasn’t.
Allegations came to light in the late 1980s involving priests who’d been abusing underage parishioners for decades. However, the revelation of a global horde of paedophile priests (estimated in 2002 to be around 6% of all priests) is one thing. The fact that church leaders were deliberately covering up this abuse and protecting these priests is something else entirely.
Instead of expelling them and handing them over to the authorities, bishops and archbishops were moving abusive priests from parish to parish and destroying evidence of their wrongdoing. In some cases, they were quietly settling cases with victims to avoid police involvement. And in many cases, moving the priests to different churches allowed them to continue abusing children for decades.
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is an actual proven conspiracy at the highest levels of the most powerful and influential religious organisation in the world.
One of the most important investigations to shine a light of this conspiracy was conducted by the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe in 2001. This formed the plot of the critically acclaimed 2015 movie Spotlight and revealed how deep the corruption went.
The movie, based on the accounts of the real Spotlight journalists, shows us how the Catholic Church cooked official documents so that abusive priests sent to paedophile “treatment centres” were said to be on “sick leave”. It reveals how the Church avoided police involvement and quietly swept abuse cases under the carpet by paying off the victims in civil settlements. It tells us about the legal opposition—and threats—faced by one lawyer who wasn’t willing to settle. And if all that wasn’t sinister enough, it reveals how public court documents relating to the abuse cases were, with the complicity of judges, removed from public files.
One of the most infamous cover-ups in all this, which takes centre stage in Spotlight, involved Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts. The Spotlight team discovered documents showing that Law had extensive knowledge of the sexual abuse of children by dozens of priests in his archdiocese.
One of those priests was John Geoghan, who was accused of raping and molesting more than 130 boys over the course of 30 years in six parishes. Geoghan was finally defrocked by the pope in 1998 and convicted in 2002. Legal technicalities got in the way of prosecuting Geoghan for most of the allegations, so he was ultimately convicted of a single count of molesting a 10-year-old boy. When sentencing, Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin took into account sexual assaults he’d admitted to fellow priests years ago. Calling him a “serious threat”, she handed down the maximum sentence of 9 to 10 years (all she could give him legally for the one count). She also ordered that he remain on probation for life and have no contact with anyone under 14.
Despite being convicted and having been diagnosed as a paedophile four times, Geoghan showed no remorse and continued to deny the allegations (including his previous confessions). He also said he’d be “terribly offended” if asked to participate in sex offender treatment, and smiled as he was led away in handcuffs.
As a former lawyer who has represented paedophiles, I don’t find his denials particularly surprising. Many of them can’t deal with the fact that they’re out-and-out monsters. But given that he was eligible for parole after six years, it’s probably a blessing to us all that he was murdered in prison a year later by a fellow inmate.
What’s so disturbing about the actions of Cardinal Law is that he had direct knowledge that Geoghan was raping and molesting children. Not only did Law allow Geoghan to continue working, but he and other local officials repeatedly moved him from parish to parish instead of reporting him to the police. In every church he went to, Geoghan had daily contact with scores of children and was able to continue abusing them. In effect, Cardinal Law and his associates allowed three decades of abuse to occur.
And what the Spotlight team discovered was that Geoghan was just the tip of the iceberg. Reporter and editor Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton in the movie, said:
“There were many, many other priests, we thought perhaps 15 or 20 at the time, who had done the same thing, yet the Archdiocese had covered up their crimes by making secret settlements. In the end, it turned out to be almost 250 priests in Boston who had molested children over several decades.”
Catholic priest abuse cases are not confined to the USA. Major scandals in Canada and Ireland, as well as hundreds of cities worldwide, have revealed the covering up of child abuse by church officials and even governments because of the scale and power of the church.
Of those responsible, some—but certainly not all—have now been brought to justice. You would hope that Cardinal Law would be among those languishing in jail.
Er—no. Technically, the cardinal didn’t break any laws. Disturbingly, the law requiring abuse to be reported did not actually include priests until 2002 when all this madness was finally exposed.
However, Law’s actions were, at the very least, contrary to every possible standard of human decency. And what did the Catholic Church do to this odious man? Promoted him. To the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the biggest churches in the world.
Remember me saying that the Church calls its teachings on morals infallible?
What a load of drivel.
Next week: were dragons real?