17 April 2010
scapegoat, shame on you
i'm not catholic. i wasn't raised catholic, i've never considered converting to catholicism. i live with a catholic and have friends who grew up in catholic. i've attended one catholic service (midnight mass at the notre dame basilica, and i recommend the experience to anyone). my exposure to catholicism has been enough to convince me that i'm very glad my paternal great-grandmother took it upon herself to convert her entire family to protestantism while her husband was off sailing tall ships around the world and couldn't argue with her. in short, catholicism scares me.
as if the constant bludgeoning of churchgoers with guilt and sin wasn't enough to cause permanent damage to those raised in the faith, the last decades have added a new layer of horror: it turns out that a lot of the men who were in charge of doling out the lessons on the wages of sin were sinning pretty massively and pretty flagrantly themselves. that has to be tremendously disillusioning for the majority of catholics, who aren't child molesters and who aren't trying to cover for those who are. and, despite their years of avoidance, it has to be getting fires-of-hell uncomfortable for the catholic church, who are seeing their congregation plummet as more revelations about child abuse and about how much people in the upper echelons of the church knew about what was going on.
this story has been trailing the church for years. in fact, one of the first examples to receive a lot of media attention (and to be made into a surprisingly good television film) happened in newfoundland, adjacent to my home province and home to a fiercely loyal catholic population. in the 1980s, a series of allegations, which grew uglier and uglier, was made against the christian brothers running the mount cashel orphanage. despite a grotesque attempt to block the story by the church, the government and the police, the truth came out and eventually hundreds of former orphanage residents came forward with horrific tales of abuse at the hands of those who were charged with protecting them.
the reaction of the church in that case is telling. people who have nothing to hide generally don't go to great lengths to cover their tracks. that the church in newfoundland attempted to hide or diminish the emerging case against them indicates that either they had been grossly negligent and had failed to notice what was going on (and were trying to save themselves some embarrassment), or that they had actively tried to hide the facts and protect the perpetrators to begin with. and the more cases emerge all over the world, it's clear that powerful people in the church were all too eager to give their ordained sinners a slap on the wrist and shuffle them out of sight until the whole thing kind of blew over.
and, despite the growing clamour, this approach worked for quite a while. with a popular pope occupying the vatican, there was a limit to how far the accusers were willing to carry their arguments. no one wanted to be the one within the church who demanded accountability from a man who was seen by many, even non-catholics, as a hero and, literally, a candidate for sainthood. but with the passing of john paul ii, the stalemate ended. of all the candidates whose names were bandied around in the brief period between popes, none had anything like the stature and public trust to fend off the incoming tsunami. everyone knew it was going to get worse, a lot worse, before it got better.
so with the allegations flowing in and money hemorrhaging out, with investigations running deeper and implicating individuals higher and higher up, the church pondered its next move. whoever came to the papacy at that moment might face any number of challenges, but the single, unavoidable crisis he would have to meet head on would be the sex abuse scandal.
fully cognizant of this, the church turned to cardinal joseph ratzinger, now benedict xvi, who was about as far as one could imagine from his predecessor. a lifelong academic and guardian of catholic doctrine, ratzinger had the popular appeal of a viper. even when people were trying to like him, it seemed forced, as forced as his attempts at enjoying his time in the public eye. then things got worse when it came out that he'd been in the hitler youth as a boy. this should not have tarnished him- he was conscripted like all boys and there is no evidence he ever showed the least interest in the organisation. it just really didn't sound good, at a time when the catholic church was looking for better p.r. to have people tossing around the fact that their leader had been part of the hitler youth.
things have not gotten better. benedict xvi's chief talent seems to be finding new and interesting ways to piss off large groups of people, like he has some big list and wakes up every morning thinking "who haven't i gone off on recently?". it amazed me for a long time that the catholic church, a pretty sophisticated organization at a very fragile point in its existence, would allow this guy to continue to make these statements and not just lock him up in his offices and roll him out for special occasions. more recently it's occurred to me that they don't want to and that he is actually performing in exactly the manner they want him to.
at the time he became pope, ratzinger was already 78 years old. everyone knew that he was basically a temporary stand-in while the church readied itself to take the logical next step in its evolution- the election of a non-white, non-european pope for the first time in history. but lately, i've started to think that his role is not merely that of a placeholder, but that of a scapegoat. the church's response to decades of hideous revelations has been to produce a figure who's easy to dislike, who is tied (increasingly closely) to the scandal, who can end up taking the blame for all of the failures that have lead them to this point. it's a ballsy plan and one that i suspect might work.
there is nothing, nothing that is going to give people a sense of justice and satisfaction about the church's sex scandal. the church is never going to be able to undo its years of malfeasance. but when something as huge and distasteful as this emerges, the braying crowd does tend to be sated by the feeling of success that comes from dislodging a leader. and while it doesn't right past wrongs, if the church is able to shift the locus of blame to one individual, forcing that individual out makes them look like they are finally showing some accountability.
i know next to nothing about the current pope. he's evidently a very intelligent man. he loves mozart and cats, which are things i take to be good signs. but these very human elements are lost under the mire of misstatements and unapologetic hauteur that the public at large sees. i don't know if he's aware of it, but benedict is a patsy. the media would have us believe that, having covered up large-scale sex scandals for decades, the catholic church is suddenly unable to control the voice of one man. don't believe it. the church is as tight and controlled with their public image as any presidential candidate and if stories that paint his holiness in an unflattering light continue to surface, it's because they are allowed to surface.
i suspect that a lot of the people who wept at the death of john paul ii will be unmoved by the death of his successor. and i suspect that history, in the short term, is going to be very unkind to the man. if my musings are correct (and they may well not be), he is likely to be linked forever with the painful memories of the sex abuse scandal, the one who was brought low by it, whose departure signaled the church's rebirth under someone new and different. but i do hope that there will be a diligent few who remember that the scope of the abuse almost beggars belief and that it points to a kind of rot lodged deep in the systems of the church itself- its paranoid secrecy, its barbaric insistence (with tenuous biblical backing) on celibacy in its clergy- which is a profoundly difficult problem to cure. one man did not cause this plague of molestation and bringing one man down, however cathartic and momentarily satisfying it may be, will not fix it.