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Slings and Arrows: Confessions of an Atheist

It’s a rough time to be a Catholic priest. Everywhere you go, people are doing unreasonable things like expecting you to obey the law, take responsibility for crimes you’ve committed or helped to conceal, and respect those who don’t believe in organised religion or a god. Truly, the church has been “rocked by the barbs of a secular culture”. It’s gotten so bad, that we may never see another papal visit. Oh, and I suppose there might have been some small indiscretions by a small minority of priests too, but let us focus on the real problem: atheists.

The Raphoe report, the result of an investigation by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church into allegations of clerical child sex abuse made to the diocese from 1975 up t0 2011, is expected to be published later this month. This report will add to the growing scandal fuelled by the Ryan and Murphy reports, the Cloyne report, and other articles and allegations made against the Church which appear to make the aforementioned national board a necessity. These abuses, and the depth to which they were covered up, have rocked the Church to its foundations, and since the publication of the first report, public opinion has turned against the Church in a way that we have not previously seen. People may still believe in god, but such is the volume of people leaving the Church that they’ve even taken away the ability to defect. I can’t help but wonder if there will come a point when priests such as Bishop Boyce and Pastor Stahl realise that the decay they see has come from within, and stop looking to place the blame for this loss of popularity squarely at the feet of atheists and secular society.

Pastor Stahl wants to protect his community from the atheists who are on a par with all sorts of unsavoury characters. The full text of Pastor Stahl’s blog has been reproduced on the Pharyngula site, and though I can provide you with a link to Stahl’s blog, I can’t promise that you’ll be able to read it, as that is a privilege afforded only to invited guests. To summarise, Stahl wants a registry of “known athiests” so that a good and god-fearing christian can look up atheists in their home town and make sure that they aren’t influenced untowardly by the close association that atheists have with satan. The irony of proposing a connection between atheists and satan is obviously lost on Stahl, but perhaps more worryingly than the comparison with an imaginary being is the comparison and implied link between atheism and paedophiles and sex offenders.

Brothers and Sisters , I have been seriously considering forming a ( Christian ) grassroots type of organization to be named “The Christian National Registry of Atheists” or something similar . I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..

<snip>

Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask “Why do this , what’s the purpose ?” Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net – to INFORM the public !

<snip>

Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh’s , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOTto patronize them as we would only be “feeding” Satan .

Frankly , I don’t see why anyone would oppose this idea – including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they’re actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the ‘closet.’ ) .

Oh dear. This implied connection is not just irritating and, frankly, offensive, but it’s also a laughable example of someone who cannot see the speck in his brother’s eye because of the plank in his own. Given the proliferation of allegations of child sexual abuse within the church, it seems foolish to suggest that only atheists might engage in such behaviour, and that only atheists might damage the innocent children. As to opposition of the idea, well, in a society such as the one we live in, it is not always a popular thing to declare that you do not believe in god. While I have no particular problem in doing so myself, I am also aware that employment law in Ireland holds specific provision for an employee to be fired from an educational or medical institution on the basis of their religion. In a country where you cannot be discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, etc., you can still, legally, be discriminated against for your religion, or lack thereof. Until these provisions are removed, I can understand why people would feel it best to not appear, name a photo, on a public registry of people who think that god is nonsense. It would be fair to say that Stahl is an extreme example of clerical overreaction, and as he is unlikely to be able to create such a registry, I feel we have little to fear. As it has been some time since his original post, and the list has yet to materialise, I suspect that it never will. However, while Stahl is an extreme example, there are others, much closer to home, who also seem eager to look outwards and point fingers when examining the declining popularity of the church.

Bishop Boyce, who will soon be publishing his own report into clerical sex abuse, seems equally eager to apportion blame where it is not due. While his comments briefly acknowledged the fact that clerical sex abuse was a problem, he was quick to remind us not to ” worry and fret [as this] makes the anguish fester within us. We do not deny them but rather take them as our share in Christ’s redeeming sufferings.” While those who suffered at the hands of the abusers are still, in some cases, fighting for that abuse to be acknowledged, we may all be relieved to learn that the priests, too, are suffering because the ramifications for covering up the abuse for so many years are akin to the suffering of christ, and while it may seem trivial, it will ultimately bring them closer to christ the redeemer, and the peace and happiness they so richly deserve. Quite.

I suspect that the reason people are turning away from the church is not down to the influence of secular society or demonic atheists, but because they have become tired of hearing about abuse stories, and tired of the cover-up culture that has, sadly, become synonymous with the church in Ireland (and abroad). Even as evidence of more wrong-doing is uncovered, some within the church continue to make excuses – Monsignor O’Callaghan, of the Cloyne diocese, maintains that the abusers should not be held to account because many of them are now old and ill (though, somewhat hilariously, he has been told to shut up and stop helping by his former peers), and at the suggestion that the seal of confession should be broken where the confession concerns child abuse, Cardinal Brady was quick to claim it as a treasured right, and mark the debate as one of religious freedom and not law:

Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society.”

“For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience.”

Brady is not alone in this opinion, and several priests and religious people have come out in support of this position, some stating that they would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession. By dressing this up as a religious rights issue, it is easy to avoid the reason for the debate in the first place – no one is saying that religious freedom should be suppressed, but child abuse is not a fundamental part of the catholic religious dogma, and covering it up is not a religious issue, it’s a legal one. The laws of the country are there to be obeyed by everyone, and that means that when a priest confesses to child abuse, more than 1500 times, it is not ok to conceal that fact simply because you said a prayer afterwards, or because he told you while you both sat in a special box.

There are so many examples like this that it would be impossible to link to them or discuss them all. It is all behaviour which speaks to a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and I believe that it is this, and not the mere existence of atheists, which has fundamentally damaged the church and encouraged believers to turn away. For as long as priests continue to make excuses, conceal abuses, and blame problems on external influences, the decaying heart of the church will continue to fester, and people will continue to leave. It should be clear to those involved that people are not interested in hearing the justifications of desperate men and women, and that “it was a long time ago” or “he’s very sick now” are not considered valid excuses. It should be clear that caveat-filled apologies are not sufficient to restore the faith of the abused and their communities. It should be clear that it is time for genuine repentance, and genuine change. It is time to stop focusing on the outside, and look to the problems within. It is time, quite literally, to practice that which you preach.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Matthew 7:5, King James Bible

 

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Current Affairs

Holy Marmite!


After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Pope Benedict (aka Joseph Ratzinger) is essentially the Marmite of public figures at the moment – people either love him, or hate him; overall, there seem to be very few with a moderate opinion of him.

With his planned visit to the UK imminent, tensions between both sides (the lovers and the haters) have reached a fever pitch. There are planned protests alongside planned vigils, as much supportive merchandise as there is anti-Pope merchandise, and more than one person planning to attempt a citizens arrest upon his arrival in the UK. If nothing else, the visit promises to be an interesting one.

One bone of contention is with the organisation of the events. People planning to attend are being told that they must give a donation of £20. This is apparently to cover the costs associated with his visit, and to help cover a shortfall in church funds. They hope to raise £7,000,000 to cover all of the costs associated with the visit, and helpfully break down these planned expenditures on the website. Apparently, they will be spending the money as follows:

In total the expected costs now associated with these events is £5.2m. Direct costs associated with three smaller pastoral events also fall to the Church – these are likely to be £600k in total. Then in addition to that, there are costs involved in planning and preparing for the visit, with our own website and communications work (£650k), and fundraising (£200k) Finally the Bishops are developing a range of catechetical and evangelisation materials to anticipate and follow through on the likely increased interest and attention that the Visit will generate in the Catholic Church. (£350k).

Having performed some basic math, I am left with some questions; as far as I can see, 7 million is rather a lot more than 5.2 million. And indeed, adding up all of the figures presented gives a total of 3.6 million, not 5.2 – so where exactly is all that extra “donation” money going to go? Finally, as stated on the official visit website, the UK government are actually paying most of the associated visit costs themselves, including security costs, which leads me to wonder at what the rest of the 7 million is being allocated for. (And, on a less serious note, I also wonder exactly how many Pope t-shirts are they making, if their merchandising costs are 350,000!). I think that, given the rather mandatory nature of the “donation”, it would not be unreasonable to expect them to explain, even roughly, how this extra money will be put to use, especially considering just how much money it is. Perhaps they could use some of the leftover money to pay compensation to the victims of sexual abuse, whom they were previously too poor to compensate.

This, of course, leads us on to the major sticking point about this visit – the issue of child sex abuse within the church. It is no longer news that, for a long time, children were systematically sexually and physically abused within the church, by priests and carers. The fact has been well established, and proven. Unfortunately, most of this proof has been obtained without the help of the church, or Pope Benedict, due to his continued refusal to cooperate in any way with any investigations into the abuses.

Many say that Pope Benedict is being unfairly targeted as the head of an organisation where abuse was endemic, and that he cannot be blamed for things that happened before he was in a position of leadership. I respectfully disagree. Prior to becoming Pope, Joseph Ratzinger held the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, he was responsible for defending and reaffirming doctrine , and teaching on important topics, such as homosexuality, inter-religious dialogue, etc. In addition to this, however, the Congregation also has jurisdiction over other matters, such as clerical sexual misconduct, serving as a sort of “court” to deal with priests accused of misconduct.

Ratzinger held his position as Prefect of the Congregation from 1981 until 2005, a time during which child sexual abuse was rampant within the church. There is evidence to suggest that details pertaining to a large number of cases were reviewed by Ratzinger, and that they were ignored – the priests moved to a different parish, those involved sworn to secrecy, and no charges brought. For example, as recently as April of this year, a letter was discovered in which it appears that, in 1985, while Prefect, Ratzinger refused to laicize (to de-priest, so to speak) Father Kiesle, a priest accused of molesting several boys in California. Not only was Kiesle not defrocked or laicized, but he was not reported to the police, and no further action was taken, despite admissions by the priest that he had abused the boys.

There have been several documents leaked which purport to show Ratzinger’s involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse within the church. Sadly, the only way these documents can come to light is when they are leaked, because to date, Ratzinger has refused to cooperate with any investigations. No documentation has been provided to investigating authorities, and when Ratzinger was personally accused of covering up the abuse of three Texan boys, rather than take the stand, he demanded (and received) diplomatic immunity, preventing his prosecution.

In short, it would certainly appear that Ratzinger does not want thorough investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse, a position which seems to be supported by the Crimen Sollicitationis document, in which those involved in trials are sworn to secrecy within the church, under threat of excommunication. This document remained in force until 2001 (when it was replaced by new, still inadequate, rules), yet Ratzinger still holds to church secrecy about the abuses.

At this point, I can only refer to the old adage – an honest man has nothing to hide. Surely it is in the best interests of all involved for there to be full disclosure of all documentation, all actions taken or not taken, and all parties involved? And surely, if Ratzinger was not involved, as his supporters claim, then he would have no problem disclosing the information and letting an investigation proceed unhampered? Regardless of their position within the church, no man is above the law of the land, and there is no land in which child sexual abuse is lawful. As such, it is both his legal, and moral duty to disclose the information, and see to it that a proper and thorough investigation is carried out, and that those who were in the wrong are brought to justice.

The issue of child sex abuse within the church is not one that can be ignored, or swept under the carpet. Regardless of how obstructive the church are, the truth will out. I believe, therefore, that it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to simply allow the investigation to proceed, and help where they can. Even if it is not something that they feel morally obliged to do, it is something that they are legally obliged to do.

With all of the above in mind, I’m afraid to say that I cannot, in good conscience, support a visit by the Pope to the UK, or to anywhere. In my opinion, if the church wants to reaffirm the faith of the congregation, it should not be looking to do so by spending money, and begging for money to spend, on organising visits. It should, instead, be focusing on investigating the problems that have emerged, on making amends to those who were wronged, and on proving that they are examples of the truly faithful to which they hope we aspire. The people involved should be honest about their wrongs, ask for forgiveness, and accept their penance, whatever it may be. After all, is that not what they ask of us?

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Resignations rejected?

Some time ago, shortly after the publication of Murphy report, I wrote a blog encouraging people to read both the Murphy and Ryan reports, which dealt with institutional child abuse in Ireland. I did so not because they were particularly easy to read (far from it, in fact, since both reports are long, and describe in detail some truly awful abuse of children), but because I thought it was important that the information held in the reports wasn’t ignored. The children who were abused were systematically failed by every person or group who should have been able to help them, from the teachers, to the Gardaí, and even the state – as such, now that the truth has finally been printed, it’s important that it not be swept under the rug, or ignored any more.

With all of the above in mind, I was more than a little surprised to hear the news that Pope Benedict XVI has refused the resignations of two bishops who were a part of the Dublin Archdiocese during the period investigated in the reports, namely Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field. Both were undeniably involved in the activities discussed in the Murphy report (dealing with complaints, covering up abuses, etc.), as shown by the commission investigating the abuses. Both were fully aware of what they were doing, and the repercussions of it – indeed, Bishop Field was a qualified barrister, and therefore aware of both church and state law regarding abuse. They were subject to considerable public pressure, and eventually compelled to resign in December 2009, in the wake of the publication of the Murphy report, when the extent of the cover-up came to light.

As a result of the decision by Pope Benedict, both men will remain as auxiliary bishops with the Dublin Archdiocese, and will be assigned “revised responsibilities within the diocese”. The fact that they remain auxiliary bishops means that they will be available to administer confirmation in any part of the diocese in the coming year. The notion that men who were involved in the systematic cover up of abuses over a period of decades will be available to help children confirm their role as adults within the Catholic faith is more than a little disturbing – surely men such as these do not provide a good example of what is to be expected of an adult of great faith?

The message sent by this refusal of resignation, and confirmation of their continuing positions within the diocese, is a troubling one. It reaffirms the idea that they did nothing wrong in covering up the abuse, and that, because of an apology that was all but forced out of them, they are fit to continue in their roles. It demonstrates that the Holy See is largely unwilling to take any sort of definitive action against men who are proven to have acted wrongly, and it also begs the question of what exactly one must do to have a resignation accepted?

Now is a time for the members of the church in Ireland, and the Catholic church as a whole, to accept the wrongs that were done, and apologise unreservedly for them. Now is a time where the people who perpetrated the abuses should be removed from their positions, and called to answer for their actions. And now is a time for the Pope to genuinely acknowledge the horrible abuses that children were subjected to, and send a clear message that it will never be allowed to happen again.

Unfortunately, it seems that “now” is not considerably different from 30 years ago, where priests were virtually untouchable in the eyes of the public and the law, where children were branded liars for having the courage to speak out, and where abuse was swept under the carpet and never acknowledged or spoken of.

Caveat-filled apologies and promises of action that never come to bear seem to be all that the Pope and the Church have to offer, and sadly, that’s simply not enough.