skeptics and the law vs. the vatican
It seems that every week now, something new and disturbing surfaces about the Vatican’s institutionalization of tolerating and covering up sexual abuses by its priests and the church and its apologists are straining for new excuses for the inexcusable, failing miserably in the process due to the nature of their misdeeds. And while we keep hearing how today’s increasingly secular and open-minded societies are to blame, the roots of the scandal actually go back all the way to the beginning of Catholicism, with the very first reports of cover-ups to protect the institution and the priests dating back all the way to the 1040s AD, as pointed out in this video by the producers of an educational show about society and culture for a major Australian broadcast channel…
So in other words, the Vatican has done pretty much nothing for nearly a millennium to deal with reports of out of control priests and sexual abuse, and now blames modern society for its inability to do what’s right by those who were victimized by their priests. This is what happens when someone is blinded by dogma and cares far more about the organization being served than about the welfare of its constituency. If Ratzinger simply put his foot down and said that all priests found guilty of pedophilia or other sexual improprieties by a court of law are to be defrocked and face whatever punishments their home nation’s courts will assign them, I’d have nothing to say about the matter and neither would many of the other skeptics and atheists ridiculing the Vatican. But to uphold the seeming infallibility of the church and those who serve it, the Pope and his advisors chose to stick to a Medieval manuscript on the issue and hide crimes from the law. Need another reason why theocracy is a bad idea? How about this highly selective enforcement of laws and regulations for an example?
However, while we’re piling on the Vatican, Ratzinger, and his predecessors, one highly influential skeptic has a different take on how skeptics and atheists should be handling the issue. A little while go, Phil Plait wrote a rather interesting post saying that Catholic sex abuses are not a skeptical issue, and that skeptics should get really involved only if the Pope proclaims that God has allowed his immoral, illegal and unethical behavior since we don’t want to alienate the enraged faithful who are just as upset about what’s going on. And to some point he’s right. This isn’t so much a skeptical matter as much as it is a human matter. If we were to take faith out of the equation, we’d be dealing with a straightforward political problem: an abuse of power in which a top member of an organization put PR and appearances before the people he serves and did illegal things in the process. Whether you’re a faithful Catholic or a staunch atheist, your blood should boil equally intensely since we’re talking about basic human ethics here. To use this issue to stomp on people’s heartfelt beliefs and say you told them so is like kicking them in the stomach after someone they trusted hit them over the head with a rock and robbed them. Making people even more miserable by being tone deaf is not how you win fans.
Still, while in this case we do need diplomats more than warriors and the focus must be on helping victims to bring their abusers to justice, we can’t simply ignore the role religion plays in all this. Why did all the cover-ups begin nearly a thousand years ago? To protect the Vatican’s supposed holiness and infallibility. Why didn’t the priests get punished to show how the church had zero tolerance for immoral behavior? To avoid showing that it was and is still ran by fallible humans who think they have a divine mandate to issue moral edicts to others, and that those fallible humans can do very immoral and unbecoming things. Were Ratzinger the leader of just another powerful political group or a massive, secular corporation, he would be quickly summoned before the Italian Parliament to explain himself and his staff before furious lawmakers. But in Italy, the Vatican is its own city state which functions under its own vague and intentionally overcomplicated Byzantine rules and because of its long history and religious power, it holds enormous sway over the Italian government. The diplomats we need have very little power to actually bring anyone actually responsible to justice. And hence we see a fair bit of frustration from the warriors who really want to see some kind of restitution to their fellow humans.
Even though the religious influence of the Vatican is hard to ignore here, we really need to focus not on the big flaws of its dogmas, but the legality and ethics of the matter instead. The issue of whether we should ever give a group of people who went to a particular institution to read and debate holy texts the power to mandate what is expected of others in their daily lives is a much bigger problem which expands well beyond Catholicism. It’s just as important when it comes to the LDS and televangelists in the U.S. and the clerics of the Middle East, or any other place where people wearing religious symbols on their clothing demand money and power. But the issue we see with Catholic sex abuse scandals is much more immediate and concerns whether leaders of a very prominent and powerful religious institution is immune from the secular laws those of us in industrialized nations must follow, laws which couldn’t care less what your religious beliefs may be, but are only concerned with your actions. Let’s start with that and dive deeper into our relationship with organized religion when we’re given a point of reference and either a factual foothold for an argument, or a reason to sound the alarm.