Jan 26, 2006
A Law Unto Itself: The Vatican Rules
by Charles Carreon
HEY, WHAT WISE GUY SUED THE POPE?
It had to happen, sooner or later, that someone would try to sue the Pope, to try to ensnare the man at the top of the world’s wealthiest religious organization in the rogue-priest pedophilia scandal. The Church has harbored abusers of the flock since its earliest days. It is however a recent development to discuss priestly sex abuse, and proportionately few victims have actually filed suits for compensation. This is the first Pope who has ever had to think about how to dodge as much financial liability as possible from this long-delayed inferno of payback. For this is a passionate issue, one that has caused state after state to extend its statute of limitations to allow claims of clergy abuse to go forward despite the lapse of decades. Legislatures have been made to understand that priestly abuse does not surface quickly, and the special position a priest holds among parishioners makes an assault upon his dignity unthinkable.
THERE WERE NO GOOD OLD DAYS
One might wonder, if one were skeptically inclined, what need anyone has for membership in a monstrously wealthy institution ruled by Italians, based in Rome, that claims, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, that its “Pope” is the current representative on planet earth of a very unworldly man. In the middle ages, the Church served as an alternate occupation for the wealthy who didn’t relish life as a soldier. There was good food, wine and reading material in the Church. Nunneries served as whorehouses, clerics did the accounting for the feudal system, platoons of hymn-chanting acolytes kept the sacred batteries charged with virtue, while peasants starved or fed, as was God’s will. When the Popes were based in southern France, they charged large sums to license drinking establishments, prostitution, and all manner of moral fault that could be profitably practiced by the merchant class. Today, the Church is a humorless corporate institution that protects its assets with legal stratagems, such as the one that the Pope used when he finally did get served with a summons and complaint alleging priestly abuse by one of his robed band of spiritual warriors.
A NEW KIND OF NATION
The Pope got dismissed out of the lawsuit tout suite, because he is the Head of A Sovereign Nation – The Vatican. Okay, now I bet you thought it was cute the way the Romans let the Pope pretend to have his own government right in the middle of Rome. I always thought it was, even when I was a kid. It was like Disneyland, I thought, because a real country had like, an economy, and citizens, and principal exports, traditional cuisine, childrearing traditions, romantic cinema, and other things that the Vatican, a unisex institution, just will never have. As far as I could tell, the only thing the Church exports is incense smoke and papal encyclicals that tell woman not to impede their reproductive cycle, and that no, they still can’t perform the exalted ritual known as “the Mass.” The Vatican is indeed a very different type of nation. It doesn’t have, or need, preschools, grade schools, or high schools, but it’s very big on college degrees. It doesn’t have, or need, democracy, voting by its citizens, or a research and development budget to make sure the next generation will be economically competitive with the rest of the world’s population. Apparently, however, in the eyes of the American courts, when an American sues the Vatican, all that matters is the paper certificate. The Vatican has what it needs -- stocks, bonds, real estate, enormous buildings full of hard assets, and millions of believers all across the United States. Four of those believers sit on the United States Supreme Court, and when Judge Alito is elevated, there will be five.
The Jesuits are great lawyers, having had to survive and drive the Inquisition by their wits alone. Any good Jesuit would agree that where there are valid distinctions between groups, there must be differences in the rules that apply to them. A “nation” that doesn’t contribute to production by keeping the world in goods, or contributing to the job of keeping the species alive, doesn’t qualify as a nation. And if no one considers a place to be their “homeland,” as in “I was born there,” then wherefore is it anyone’s nation? The last Pope’s homeland was Poland, and the current Pope’s homeland is Germany. Neither of them spoke Italian as their native language, and the current Pope no doubt prefers bratwurst and beer to pasta and wine. The Church teaches that reproduction of the species is God’s will, but the Vatican produces no children, so as a nation, is it not violating God’s will? Others might say that when the leaders of a nation assists its citizens to injure people under the guise of giving them spiritual education, then it is a fraudulent and degenerate nation. That would seem to be the case with the Catholic Church.
THE PHILADELPHIA GRAND JURY FINDINGS
As we have learned through the sex abuse scandal, Church leaders across our nation aided and abetted serial sex criminals by maintaining their community status as venerated individuals and moving them to new parishes where their past conduct was unknown, where they could silently destroy the lives of another community of parishioners, then often enough, escape again with some money and a new place to go, when things once again got too hot. The Church was not just careless of letting abuse happen – it cloaked pedophile priests in secrecy, silenced accusations with a wall of denial, and fought legal claims tooth and nail. On September 15, 2005, a Philadelphia Grand Jury empaneled by District Attorney Lynne Abraham issued its report after three years spent studying a pattern of criminal conduct within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The report concluded that at least 63 priests – and likely a large number more -- sexually abused hundreds of minors over decades, aided by a coverup kept in place by the last two archbishops, Cardinals John Krol and Anthony J. Bevilacqua. Not mincing words, the report makes clear, “When we say abuse, we don’t just mean ‘inappropriate touching,’ we mean rape. Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped vaginally.” The report notes bitterly in its first pages that none of the abusers it had identified could be prosecuted, because “by choosing children as targets … abuser priests … were able to prevent or delay reports [and] statutes of limitations expired … As a result, these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution.” Not only did the delay and secrecy erect successful legal defenses to criminal prosecution, it increased the number of victims and the severity of the abuse they suffered. The report stated, “Prompt action and a climate of compassion for the child victims could have significantly limited the damage done. But the Archdiocese chose a different path. Those choices went all the way to the top – to Cardinal Bevilacqua and Cardinal Krol personally.” “Even those victims whose physical abuse did not include actual rape – those who were subjected to foncling, to masturbation, to pornography – suffered psychological abuse that scarred their lives and sapped the faith in which they had been raised.” The Grand Jury concluded that although “the behavior of Archdiocese officials was perhaps not so lurid as that of the individual priest sex abusers … in its callous, calculating manner, the Archdiocese's 'handling' of the abuse scandal was at least as immoral as the abuse itself.”
ORGANIZED CRIME OR RANDOM PERVERTS?
One thing is clear from observing the movements of the Catholic Bishops – they listen to Rome. There are occasionally some disagreements, but Catholics are expected to march in line or get out of the Church. So since it is in fact the case that the truth was hidden in Philadelphia, and in Boston, and in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, and every other big city with a Catholic pedophile lawsuit in progress, perhaps those orders came from the top. Perhaps Cardinals Krol and Bevilacqua in Philadelphia “were just following orders.” Perhaps Cardinal Law, who was virtually run out of Boston by a lynch mob outraged that he had hidden pedophiles in the archdiocese for decades, was also just following orders. Right after he lit out of Boston, he landed in Rome, where the previous Pope gave him a cushy position as a Church diplomat.
So did the prior Pope tell his Archbishops to stall this thing? Our current Pope could answer this question. Formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, the new Pope knows at least as much as he could learn from reading every report of priestly sexual impropriety for the last several years. That was his job under the former Pope, and the word is, he didn’t advise anyone to start writing settlement checks. At this time, not many Catholic lawyers are proposing settlement. The Vatican has been around two-thousand years, and it’s not about to lay down its arms over a little hanky-panky in the sacristy. Consider how the faithful, with sheeplike docility, are still dropping money in the pot, wondering if it will be used to pay lawyers to silence the claims of people who got a nasty dose of bad religion, and deserve compensation. More than anything, the scandal needs a thorough airing, and the chips need to start falling.
GROOMING VICTIMS IN SUNDAY SCHOOL
The usual belief is that, since religions do more good on balance than harm, we can tolerate a little pedophilia in the ranks of the virtuous. That seems to be the rule that explains why we tolerate hypocritical exploiters who wear robes. They talk about the meek inheriting the earth, as if that seems likely to happen; they promise peace in the afterlife, which is like selling insurance no one can ever collect; they preach patience during life, and acquiescence to authority. But all of these nice characteristics won’t keep your average pedophile out of jail. Experience shows that pedophiles do develop a pleasant exterior that is attractive to children. They listen to children, and respond to what they say. They groom their victims for victimhood by building a relationship of trust. Priests have much of this work done for them by parents and Sunday school.
FROM HITLER YOUTH TO ST. PETER'S -- THE JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME
Ordinary perverts don’t enjoy priestly immunity for a simple reason – they haven’t earned it. To get people to overlook your faults, you must give them something in return. It’s not easy to go to seminary, study all that theology, and pay all that tuition. The current Pope, for example, actually had to pretend to be a member of the Hitler Youth to keep his scholarship for theological seminary. He explained that last year when he was being made into the first German Pope in centuries, and some people worried about the Germans getting too excited about it. Because Cardinal Ratzinger had been in Hitler Youth, he wanted people to understand that he got out of the organization officially as soon as he could, and thereafter just pretended to be a Nazi. This evoked some dubious looks among people who remember how upset the Nazis would get when they found out that one of their number wasn’t really a good German at heart. Pretending to be a Nazi could be very dangerous. So perhaps the new Pope was a specially brave man, pretending to be a Nazi so he could become a priest and someday, Pope.
THAT CRAZY THING CALLED FAITH
Socially, the Church is in a very strong position because it controls minds through tradition and something its adherents call faith. It is strange that they call it faith, because that is what Islamics say informs their belief in a different Deity, and the same is true for the Jews, and the Hindus, etcetera. They all cite faith as the ground of their belief, but it results in belief in different things. But when people work jointly to generate a concrete result, they do not speak of faith. Prayers for rain are abandoned in favor of drilling a well or digging a ditch. Hoping for manna to fall is replaced by hunting for squirrels and pulling up roots. But if a concrete result does not have to be produced, people are comfortable relying on faith to produce it. So most expectations based on faith are scheduled for fulfillment in the afterlife. Donations to the Church, however, have to be made now. It was ever thus.
SERVING GOD BY SERVING MAMMON
Financially, the Church is in good shape. Too good a shape up in Portland, it turns out, to stay in bankruptcy. When the Archdiocese of Portland sprung a stinky leak in its scandal-soaked legal Attends, its lawyers dragged it into bankruptcy court, claiming it needed protection from its creditors. Nobody had ever noticed priests bouncing checks at the liquor store, or short a dollar in a local strip bar, so it took many people by surprise. Well, it turns out they’re still flush, and all the dancing around like one of Disney’s hippos in Fantasia, trying to hide its full-hipped bottom line, was just a ruse. The Archdiocese is stuffed with real estate and other eminently saleable assets, but Archbishop John Vlazny will be damned before he lets a penny of it go to sex abuse plaintiffs until he has exhausted every possible legal maneuver and paid his Catholic lawyer friends every dollar in fees he can squeeze out of the collection basket. So in an effort to wedge its ungracious bulk into the the framework of “insolvency,” the Archdiocese left all of its juicy real estate off the schedule of assets in bankruptcy. How did the Church lawyers explain this brazen stratagem? Because “under Church law,” that property was owned by various official and unofficial Church sub-entities, and couldn’t be touched to satisfy the debts of the Archdiocese. Fortunately, the bankruptcy judge checked to see that there was an American eagle on the wall and not a man bleeding on a cross, and instead of genuflecting, told the Church lawyers to file a schedule with all the property on it.
TIME TO RECONSIDER WHETHER THE VATICAN IS REALLY OUR FRIEND
As always, the Church lawyers will quickly deploy another roadbloack to slow the advance of claims. Like the Philadelphia Grand Jury said, describing the delaying tactics of the archdiocese – “the biggest crime of all is this: it worked.” Yes, it works. Justice delayed is justice denied, and no one yet has exceeded the Vatican’s skill in outlasting its foes. But these days, the smell of false piety is insufficient to mask the stench of corruption, and the reek should motivate us to get to the bottom of the rot. We should begin by dismantling the mistaken description of the Vatican as a sovereign nation and the Pope as a Head of State. The Pope should no more be considered a head of state than Sun Myung Moon, who crowned himself in the Sam Rayburn building, or Bubba Free John, who owns an island in Fiji.
The Church’s reputation for sanctity is remade in every generation out of the pure new cloth spun from the hearts of fresh believers. The Church will never cease cultivating this illusion in the minds of those predisposed by birth or sentiment to believe that Jesus founded One True Church. But for those of us who live in secular, political reality, and have been reading history, not catechism, a new viewpoint is overdue. The Church is not a country, and if a clutch of Archbishops hide criminal acts committed by priests in our country, because the Pope directed them to do so, then the Pope can and should be sued. The current Pope may have had actual knowledge of the scope and severity of the clergy abuse scandal in this country, and ordered the continued strategy of concealment. The bankruptcy judge in Portland had the right idea – the law of our nation, not “Church law” should apply in our courts. The Texas judge who dismissed the lawsuit against the Pope erred by subordinating our laws to the pretensions of a religious sect that claims national autonomy despite its lack of a truly national character. With literally billions of dollars in claims from abused victims gathering on the horizon, and the assets of the Vatican itself at stake, the issue of Papal immunity from civil liability will eventually come before a Supreme Court with five Catholic justices. When that case comes before the Court, a lot will depend on Alito.