My favorite moment of the whole child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was when Fr. Klaus Malangre suggested that Peter Hullermann, the redoubtable German pedophile priest, might be sent to work in a girls' school. No boys, no molestation. Or in church language, no occasion of sin. Problem solved! Plus, the good father would spend his life warding off female cooties. Malangre must not have heard about priests : and they do exist : who abused male and female students. Nor had he learned the lesson of Watergate: The cover-up is worse than the crime.
The church has yet to learn that lesson. There is a positively Nixonian smarmy truculence in the response of church hierarchs to the ongoing scandal, which now involves Pope Benedict XVI. On Palm Sunday, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan urged worshippers at St. Patrick's Cathedral to show "love and solidarity for our earthly shepherd now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar as did Jesus." On his blog, Dolan explains that what gets Catholics angry is not just the molestations themselves but also that "the sexual abuse of minors is presented as a tragedy unique to the church alone." Oh, really? Does the name Mary Kay Letourneau mean nothing to him? This man needs to read the tabloids that have for years featured an endless parade of molesting teachers, doctors, dentists, therapists and scout leaders. To go by the news, looking at child pornography on ones office computer is so common, it's a wonder anyone finds the time to abuse real kids.
The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don't happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it's probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his sufferings to Christ'. And nobody would be asking for his views about sex, reproduction, women, homosexuality or health care either.
The moral authority granted the Catholic Church in the secular world is for me the most repellent aspect of the current crisis. The same institution that has dealt so indulgently with its ordained pedophiles had no problem excommunicating a Brazilian mother who sought an abortion for her 9-year-old daughter raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, or pushing for laws in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile banning abortion even to save a mother's life.
Most Catholics take a flexible view of the church's teaching on sexuality. They use birth control : how else could Catholic Italy, Spain and Poland have among the lowest birthrates in the world? They divorce and remarry, use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, undergo in vitro and other banned fertility treatments and even have abortions. Yet there were the bishops holding the whole health care reform bill hostage to their opposition to abortion rights, advising the crafting of language right in the halls of Congress.There isn't much that non-Catholics can do to force the church to abandon its 2,000-year-old misogynistic ways. But certainly the rest of us can demand that the Obama administration, Congress and government generally stop catering to the Vatican.
In February, Bishop Margot Kaessmann, the first woman to head the German Protestant Church and a much-admired figure, was caught running a red light while intoxicated. There was a lot of sympathy for her even in the conservative media that disagreed with her liberal and anti-war views; and she received the support of her church's governing body. Nevertheless, within four days, Kaessmann resigned, saying her moral authority had been so compromised she could no longer do right by her high office. Maybe Pope Benedict XVI and his bishops could learn something from her example.