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Just following orders: the politics of pedophilia.

The Catholic church is confronted with its failure to eradicate pedophilia within the ranks of the clergy. Millions wonder why an organization that presumes to call the world to moral and religious excellence can be so corrupt.

Instructing the church

Tolerance of pedophilia has endured because in earlier centuries secular powers were either unable or unwilling to take the church to task. The church was too formidable a foe, or state-church concordats exempted clerics from civil penalties, or the state had not yet achieved adequate respect for civil or human rights.

The United States is among the first countries in history to hold human and civil rights in such high regard as to protect them with the full power of the courts. Because the rights of each individual are legislated into the judicial system, the abused family was able to appeal to the civil courts to bring to justice the mightiest church on earth.

In the United States, the practice of tolerating pedophilia comes to a shrieking halt as the child David with the slingshot of civil justice deals a mortal blow to a centuries-old abuse. The church stands in court, defendant, because it has collided with a superior justice system.

The scandal is grave. When there is no compatibility between word and witness, the word is thrown into disrepute.

The internal failure

When one asks why the civil courts had to bring the church to its knees, disturbing realities emerge:

1. The church did not have within itself either the consciousness or the instruments of justice to secure the human rights and pastoral well-being of its members.

2. The hierarchy condoned pedophilia by silence and impunity, thus timing the bomb for inevitable explosion. When a priest was discovered in this practice, he was not defrocked, suffered no loss of salary or employment, but was simply transferred to another parish. Thus, the victim's only recourse was the civil courts.

Rather than caring for the lambs, it ministered to the wolves. The stage was set for scandal. Unwilling to reform, the church invited civil intervention.


Why did the entire hierarchical echelon of a major religious body, whose profession is to recognize and oppose all forms of injustice, implement a policy devoid of justice? The answer: Unquestioning submission to Rome. The monarchical absolutism of Catholicism conditions its leaders to follow orders, just or unjust.

Catholic seminaries and moral manuals teach that unjust orders and laws are not to be followed. Rather, there is a moral obligation to oppose them. The Catholic hierachy as a body is familiar with the Nuremberg principle: Following unjust orders does not exempt anyone from moral responsibility or punishment.

How is it, then, that the corrupt policy to protect the church's image at all costs found ready compliance throughout the church? Did the hierarchy fail to recognize the inherent immorality? If so, what is the quality of seminary training? If not, why the compliance with recognized injustice? The answer lies in the system.

The policy

The policy is rooted in the Middle Ages, when popes declared themselves both temporal and spiritual rulers of the world. Through its secural power, the church succeeded in exempting its clergy from the jurisdiction of the secular courts. It was known as the Privilege of the Forum and was formulate, in part, as follows:

All lawsuits against clerics, both

civil and criminal, must come before

an ecclesiastical court unless other

provisions have been made between

church and civil authorities.

Cardinals, legates of the Holy See,

bishops and supreme heads of religious

organizations approved by the Holy

See may not be sued in the secular

courts in matters relating to their

offices without permission of the

Apostolic See.

Out of this historical matrix, the practice of protecting pedophiles from civil penalties emerged. Subsequent popes inherited the policy and implemented it. The practice survived in North America until effectively challeged by the U.S. democratic system and civil courts.

The system

In a monarchical or totalitarian system, policy is set at the top. There is an awareness that if one wishes for advancement, one must not challenge the system; one must not oppose policy or party lines; one must obey orders whether moral or immoral.

Within such a system there is the ever-oppressive weight of authority, custom, written or unwritten policies, sanctions subtle or blatant, peer pressure, group-think -- the insistence on team players.

In the seminary, submission to Rome is religiously inculcated. Those later chosen to be bishops are appointed in expectation that they will protect HOly Mother Church, give unquestioning allegiance to the Holy Father, implement any and all doctrine and practice imposed by Rome.

Accountability in this system points upward to Rome, not donward to the flock. When faced with a conflict between the pastoral needs of the people and obedience to Rome, the bishop is environmentally conditioned to obey Rome.

Within this freighted environment, the bishop addresses the crime of pedophilia. His seminary training has instructed him in the urgency of pastoral care for his people and in his obligation to disobey unjust laws and orders.

The same training also schooled him in unquestioning obedience to Rome. He weighs this conflict in the context of his peers' responses, under the eye of the apostolic nuncio, and in terms of his next ad limina evaluation in Rome.

Each bishop is affected differently. One sees only the imperative of protecting the church; another senses the policy is immoral; another agonizes over the tragic injury to the family. Another sees his hope of promotion threatened by opposition to the policy, and another fears the hostility of his peers if he breaks ranks.

No doubt, many of these sentiments frequently overlap. Ultimately, though, all choose to implement the policy. Subservience to Rome takes primacy over the pastoral care of the flock. The price must be paid later: subpoena and lawsuit.

"I see men's judgments are a parcel of their fortunes, and things outward do draw theinward quality [of judgment] after them" (Shakespeare). Human judgment is easily subverted by the fear of loss or the lure of gain to the point where what is right yields to what seems expedient. Pressure to conform undermines fortitude, leeches integrity from the will and seduces the victim into acting "prudently."

The lessons

The Lessons are evident:

1. Rome can make disastrous moral errors.

2. The autocratic character of Roman Catholicism is hostile to pastoral wellbeing. The bishops lack the freedom to pastor their flocks and administer their dioceses as the justice of the gospel demands.

3. The gospel of Christ is tained by its vesture of totalitarianism.

4. The totalitarian structure makes the system immune to reform from within. The people have no means of calling their leaders to account.

The pastor is appointed by the bishop, the bishop appointed by Rome, the cardinals appointed by the pope, the pope chosen by a small group of subordinates elected by no one. There is no mandate from the people and no effective structure of accountability to them.

"Ecclesia semper reformanda in capite et memberis" (the church is ever in need of reform both in head -- the papacy -- and members) is a cry heard within Catholicism since its democratic structure gave way to absolutism in the Middle Ages. Beneficial reforms have had to be imposed on the church too often by secular powers, schisms or revolutions such as the Reformation.

The recent vote on the pastoral on women hints that many bishops are willing to begin shaping the U.S. church as conscience rather than canon law demands. There may be a glimmer of hope here.

Father James MacLoughlin is pastor of St. Theresa's Parish, Belleview, Fla.
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Author:MacLoughlin, James
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 16, 1993
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