Peter Lyons: Petty gossip? Church hierarchy is out of touch

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Abuse scandals are a legacy of centuries of intolerance of critical self-analysis, writes Peter Lyons, a teacher at St Peter's College, a Catholic school for boys in Epsom.

Angelo Sadano, the dean of cardinals of the Catholic Church, dismissed the child sex abuse scandals as "petty gossip".

This suggests the church hierarchy is out of touch with the concerns of its parishioners and the wider public. Allegations and criminal convictions against Catholic clergy have been bubbling away for decades. To dismiss the issue as "petty gossip" is absurd and hugely dismissive of the innocent victims.

A comprehensive study commissioned by the Catholic Bishops' Council in the United States found that approximately 4 per cent of ordained priests had sexual misconduct allegations made against them between 1950 and 2002. This equates to one in 25 ordained priests. Such an unpleasant statistic should concern any organisation. Apparently not one run by the elderly men of the Vatican.

A business or government that was accountable to shareholders or voters would respond to evidence of systemic failures by trying to establish the causes.

Unfortunately the Catholic Church has a long history of intolerance of critical self-analysis. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was the result of the failure of the Catholic Church to address its administrative shortcomings.

Martin Luther was frustrated by his observations of the venality and corruption of the church administration. He was fortunate for his personal welfare that he was supported by secular rulers eager to rid themselves of the church's influence in their territories.

Without their support Luther would have died a very unpleasant death, like other previous critics of the church.

The Catholic Church provides an easy target for critics because of its inherent conservatism. As the Anglican Church tears itself apart over the ordination of women and gay clergy, the Catholic Church proudly espouses its lineage back to Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. This unbroken tradition is a convenient myth apparent to anyone with a passing knowledge of church history.

Until the 11th century, Catholic priests were allowed to marry. In fact many priests had several wives and sometimes a few girlfriends for good measure. The sexual morality of clergy was not a major issue. Many popes also had wives and offspring. The concept of priestly celibacy had yet to be invented.

A series of reforming Popes during this period, including Gregory VII, introduced reforms aimed at preventing priests from marrying or indulging in carnal pleasures. There is no continuity in the tradition of celibacy of priests dating back to the establishment of the Catholic Church. Most of the 12 Apostles were married.

These reforms were designed to prevent church lands and other bequests being left to the offspring of priests. Many wealthy parishioners left hefty donations to the church for fear of having to fit through the eye of a needle to get into heaven. There is no scriptural justification for the reforms. They werean exercise in wealth gathering and preservation by the Catholic hierarchy.

The question that the current hierarchy should be asking is why child abuse scandals seem to be a feature of the Catholic clergy and less so other mainstream religions? The answer would appear to be that the church requires its clergy to live an unnatural lifestyle. Some can cope with this lifestyle but others cannot. This lifestyle also attracts an element who are trying to deny their sexuality. Suppression can lead to perversion.

This is not an attack on the Catholic faith but rather the human-created bureaucracy of the church. The Catholic faith, based on Christian principles, provides solace and comfort to millions of people.

The human-created institution associated with that faith is as susceptible to human frailties as any other organisation. Probably more so because it is not open to critical self-analysis or accountable to its congregation. This is an anomaly in the age of information. Nasty secrets can no longer be hidden.

The apex of the church is an aged College of Cardinals who elect one of their own as Pope. They are determined to maintain the status quo. The belief is that clinging to traditions enhances the church's appeal. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council suggest this is not necessarily the case. Unfortunately some of these traditions appear to have led to horrific crimes against the most innocent members of the congregation. Sadly this also tars the many clergy who have served their faith with great dignity and compassion.

- NZ Herald

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