TERRY PRONE: Time will be the judge of good, bad and downright ugly deeds of popes

I TAKE issue with points made on this page last week by fellow columnist Stephen King.

I don’t plan to do a public burning of the paper.

I don’t disagree with everything Stephen wrote. He suggested, for example, that no matter what Pope Benedict does during his visit to Britain, it’s likely to be a public relations disaster. He’s right on that one because media don’t start with an open mind.

Either it adores the central figure or it hates them, and if it hates them, the central figure had better not even blow their nose, since some hack will interpret it as negative body language (of course, sniffing would equally serve as negative body language, so there’s no winning on the nasal front).

It won’t help that the Pope’s progress will be dogged by protesters who will give lucid and passionate sound-bites to every microphone, whereas if His Holiness says a dickie bird, it will be a heavily-accented dickie bird of generalised holiness. Against which background, King speculated that Pope Benedict will ask himself what possessed him to agree to this trip in the first place.

Fair point. Unfair point? His Good Pope (John Paul II) versus Bad Pope (Benedict XVI) scenario.

“John Paul II, at least in his early years, could seemingly do no wrong. Presidents and prime ministers queued up to be photographed alongside him,” he wrote.

Yeah, and the same is true of Princess Diana. So what? The media-savvy, media -obsessed, good-looking woman who became The People’s Princess, as Tony Blair described her, represented nothing other than vicarious thrills for the masses.

Similarly, popularity during his lifetime does not define a pope as a good pope.

Broadcasters may be judged by the quarterly JNLR figures but the Church has a longer time-frame. Like eternity. Within that time-frame, a prime minister queuing up to be in pictures with John Paul II is neither here nor there.

John Paul II is described by Stephen as “the great communicator, a man forever seeking to engage with the big, wide world beyond the Vatican.” This persona he compares unfavourably with the current holder of the job, a man “few seem to warm to”.

However, if we probe the “great communicator” designation just a little, we in Ireland cannot fail to remember that John Paul’s visit to this country, while superficially exciting, caused no lasting change for the better in any aspect of Irish life. It did, however, offer an opportunity for astonishing public hypocrisy, led by Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, who dominated the media coverage by figuring constantly in films of the event, right up there beside His Holiness, at a time when neither man was living as they were supposed to live.

John Paul’s background, his poetry, ground-kissing and pope-mobiles created a sense of modernity around him and have left a positive aura around his papacy. Few seem to have noticed that the bulk of the clerical child sex abuse emerging in the last five years happened on John Paul II’s watch. Of course, it went back much further than the Polish pope’s period in office, just as the institutional mistreatment of children went back to the 30s and 40s.

Nonetheless, his papacy was not distinguished by open and empathetic examination of the CSA issue, and it’s too easy to blame the present incumbent for that.

Benedict didn’t do the victims, himself or his Church any favours by the way he handled the issue when, as King points out, he was a papal enforcer. But that’s all he was.

In corporate terms, he was management, not chief executive, and the buck stops with the pope of the time, John Paul II, who failed to understand the horrors visited on children by some clerics and the dire threat to the Church posed by the child sex abuse issue, but has largely been given a free pass on the issue.

YOU may not like the current Pope. You would not be alone in this. But to position John Paul II as the personification of excellence and the current man as a dud by comparison is as invalid as King’s understanding of how Catholicism was seen in the 20th century. “The papacy was respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for waging battles against totalitarianism,” he states.

Well, no, it wasn’t, actually. Younger Catholics in the latter half of the century not only didn’t perceive their Church as waging war against totalitarianism, they believed it cosied up to right wing dictators, including Franco, Salazar and Mussolini.

They believed that in Central and South America, the Church establishment continued that pattern into the 60s and 70s, with only a handful of maverick clerics fighting for the poor in that area.

As far back as 1963, Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy had portrayed Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope, as more concerned with Vatican wealth than with the fate of the Jews. Although the play didn’t hugely dent that pope’s positive reputation among Catholics, it provoked writer and academic John Cornwell to seek access to Vatican archives with a view to vindicating him.

“Nearing the end of my research,” Cornwell later admitted, “I found myself in a state I can only describe as moral shock.

“My research told the story of a bid for unprecedented papal power that by 1933 had drawn the Catholic Church into complicity with the darkest forces of the era. (The pope’s diplomacy) had resulted in the betrayal of Catholic political associations that might have challenged Hitler’s regime.”

Having challenged the positive myths generously posited by King, let me get to the one that must be nailed – the attribution of clerical child sex abuse to celibacy.

“Few seriously believe the acts of sexual abuse themselves were not the product of the culture of celibacy, the Church’s strange views on sex and the fact that in some institutions priests were given ultimate authority over young boys and girls,” he wrote, adding that “many of Ireland’s deepest social problems are now discussed as the products of those decades of abuse”.

The reality is that celibacy did not cause child sex abuse, and none of the authorities studying paedophilia would suggest it did. The thesis that not having sex turns a man into a paedophile is indefensible. It doesn’t.

We should always remember the thief who, when asked why he robbed banks, said: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Similarly, paedophiles go where the children are. Children are found in schools, orphanages, reformatories and hospitals – precisely the institutions set up and run by the Catholic Church. Celibacy was not causative.

Finally to King’s claim about our deepest social problems being “products of those decades of abuse”. Our deepest social problems at the moment include unemployment, poverty – including the impoverishment of the provident elderly – alcohol, drug and cigarette addiction.

While abused individuals may be disproportionately present in the statistics of those social problems, I can’t see how the overwhelming majority of such problems have any connection with clerical child abuse.

* Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell, Viking 1999.


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