Pretending involves behavior through which one makes something appear a certain way when in fact it is not. Actors and actresses are good at it when they assume their fictional character roles, and so are many Catholic priests when they assume their role as, well, a Catholic priest. The claims and convictions of sexual abuse that have shadowed the Catholic Church have been rather telling, not because it is surprising, but because it reveals how deeply systemic society’s problems are today. It seems that powerful and influential institutions outside of the traditional corporatocracy club, institutions that are supposedly meant to ascribe to a ‘higher moral standard’, are no more innocent than their corporate counterparts.
Most people who read the news should know about the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, part of a series of Catholic Church sexual abuse cases in the United States and Ireland. In 2002 the Boston Globe exposed and then covered a series of prosecutions of Roman Catholic priests criminally convicted of sexually abusing of minors. It encouraged a subsequent flood of previously silent victims to come forward and expose a very concerningly large amount of Catholic priests. It has been a growing legacy in an emerging pattern around the world of the Catholic Church. As such, it was rather depressing when news broke in June that Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, is also being formally charged with multiple complaints of sexual offences, becoming the highest ranking member of the Roman Catholic prelate to join the club. A great irony is that in 1996, in response to increasing child sex abuse allegations, Pell said that “It’s a matter of regret that the Catholic Church has taken some time to come to grips with the sex abuse issue adequately”, and then in 2014, he said “I apologize once again to the victims and their families for the terrible suffering that has been brought to bear by these crimes”.
The hypocrisy of institutionalized religion is not confined to sexual abuse and the Catholic Church of course, but it is an extremely telling and perverse example. Like most matters of corruption when powerful institutions are involved, Cardinal Pell is likely to be granted leniency of some sort. Last month, Paul Shanley, a priest sentenced to prison in 2005 for repeated rape, in some cases at a gay retreat for boys that he had set up, was released from prison on good behavior. The commonwealth was not legally permitted to seek that Shanley be confined any longer on grounds that further expert testimony be required to demonstrate that Shanley meet the legal criteria for confinement as a sexually dangerous person. It is hard to understand how time in jail can unequivocally equate to being less of a threat, especially when age is a proven asset for sexual predators. The Catholic Church teaches us that the pretender is eventually revealed no matter what moral blanket is used to cloak his sins, but society teaches us that absolution is often granted to the pretender.
Religion lies in sanctimony and it is a fundamental way of life for its followers, as opposed to social and economic structures like capitalism or socialism. It is in this capacity that the failure of the Catholic Church is immense. Many followers of the Catholic Church have come to its defense in light of recent events, assessing the crimes of the Church against its contributions such as community programs, orphanages, educational opportunities and so forth. One individual said to me, “As the Catholic Church has always showed compassion to others, we should judge the Church with the same compassion for its wrongdoings”. Compassion is often warranted circumstantially, but reworded more bluntly, it is essentially saying that we should forgive rapists for their crimes because they once helped those less fortunate. As Cardinal Pell walked from the court room at his first hearing last month, some of his supporters yelled, “God bless you Cardinal”. Defense of the Catholic Church for these crimes is a sad call to moral equivalence and a subset example of the denial, insecurity and lack of courage that the Catholic Church has condoned. This is their lesson in pretending well learned.