US: Scandal shakes catholic church

The revelations about the sexual abuse of children in the U.S. Catholic Church have become an enormous issue for the nation’s 64 million Roman Catholics, and for society as a whole. When the scandal first broke in the Greater Boston area this January, the extent of the problem and its wider implications were not fully apparent. Physical and sexual abuse is not a recent phenomenon or confined just to the Catholic Church, but the history of these problems within the church goes back many decades.

Similar scandals have surfaced within Catholic institutions in Ireland, Australia, and Canada. This year has seen the resignations of Catholic bishops in Poland, Ireland, and the United States, after they admitted to their own sexual misconduct or to covering up the behavior of others. A growing list of other bishops and cardinals now face pressure to follow suit.

In the United States, over 30 dioceses out of a total of 196 have so far had allegations of child abuse made against their clergy. While the number of lawsuits filed by victims vary from diocese to diocese, plaintiff lawyers estimate that the total financial compensation the church will have to pay out will come close to $1 billion (CNBC 4/29/02). The price in relation to the emotional and psychological damage suffered by the victims for the remainder of their lives is incalculable.

Church Cover Up

What angers many are the attempts of the church hierarchy – the bishops, cardinals, and the Vatican in Rome – to systematically cover up sexual abuse. For years they have failed to report known cases of sexual abuse by priests to the authorities, and even now they are barely beginning to change this practice.

A few victims have attempted to dispense their own form of justice. One priest accused of abuse was recently shot by an alleged victim, and another priest narrowly escaped when police stopped another planned attack. Other victims have stood in front of the altar during Mass and faced down their abusers.

Many ordinary Catholics have been shocked and infuriated by the arrogant and insensitive handling of the crisis by the church hierarchy. The Boston Archdiocese withdrew a $30 million settlement agreement for 86 victims, after they found that an estimated 150 new cases had surfaced. Boston’s Cardinal Law amazingly asserted in court papers that one victim, Gregory Ford, was responsible for his own abuse through negligence despite being 6 years old when it began.

The Vatican also recently stated that church leaders are not held responsible under church law for covering up the abuse by other priests and clergy. The political and moral authority of the church hierarchy has been undermined by these actions.

The church hierarchy has consistently taken a very narrow, conservative stand

on social issues such as marriage, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, sexual education, contraception and abstinence. But as the recent wave of scandals within the Church has shown, a very different standard of behavior is applied by the Church hierarchy towards these outrageous crimes against children, when they are committed by its own priests.

These scandals also reveal the consequences of the repressive doctrines of human sexuality, promoted by the Catholic Church throughout its history, which seek to prevent sexual activity except as a way to reproduce within marriage. Untold damage has been caused by these teachings, particularly to women, young people, lesbians and gays.

Enormous Wealth

The financial costs of the scandal for the Catholic Church are increasing, both in the numbers and size of lawsuit claims and by an overall decline in revenues, as congregations become more reluctant to hand over their hard earned cash to the church.

It is difficult to estimate a true figure of the enormous wealth of the Catholic Church, because of their long-time reluctance to disclose their assets and financial interests. At a parish level the church collects around $8 billion nationwide each year, and this figure alone places the institution 234th on the Fortune 500 of US corporations (Boston Globe 2/13/02). Real estate experts in Boston have estimated that the sale of Cardinal Laws’ palatial mansion and surrounding grounds, which include an almost empty seminary could easily raise over $100 million.

Meanwhile, the new Los Angeles Cathedral multiplex presently under construction, at a cost of $200 million, is being compared to the new stadiums some wealthy sport franchises have pushed onto the citizens of cash strapped cities. Invitation-only crypts start at $50,000 a piece for those with the extra cash. The actions of the Catholic leadership are also comparable to those of the top executives at Enron. As with Enron, it is the poor and ordinary church member who will be made to pay the costs of the crisis, while the leaders get off and are well taken care of.

Layoffs of workers and cuts in the programs and services that the church provides to communities are being proposed. The Catholic Church runs over 2000 agencies spending more than $2.28 billion per year. It has the largest network of private schools in the U.S., providing an education to over 3 million students. It also runs 637 non-profit Catholic hospitals, which account for 17% of all hospital admissions nationwide (CNBC 4/22/02).

Growing Challenge to Hierarchy

These scandals are provoking increased questioning and debate within the Church. Church reform groups have emerged and are receiving increased support. The church’s positions on priestly celibacy and preventing women from becoming priests, as well as its authoritarian, unaccountable structures, are being challenged by some of these groups and by church liberals.

The church hierarchy continues to bury its head in the sand, hoping that the crisis will soon blow over. However, their failure to deal with their responsibilities only adds fuel to the fire.

As socialists we respect the right of all religions to practice their beliefs, oppose any discrimination of one religion over another, and firmly support the division of church and state. We solidarize with the struggle being waged by ordinary Catholics who are demanding accountability. However, we must point out that in our view there is no possiblility that the hiererachy can be made fundamentally accountable to the laity.

In a broader sense the Catholic leadership, while talking about the need to alleviate poverty and other social problems, offers no solution to society’s pressing issues. In fact, under this papacy the Vatican has taken overtly reactionary positions on a range of issues, from opposing the right of women to control their own fertility to opposing the struggle of the Nicaraguan people against US imperialism in the 80s.

When sections of the Church itself moved to participate in mass social struggles like the "liberation theology" movement in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, this was suppressed and repressed by the Vatican. Large numbers of Catholics in the US disagreed with these positions. This section of the Church’s membership is looking not only for a more democratic spiritual community, but also for a way of expressing concrete solidarity with the oppressed.

The socialist approach to addressing the world’s problems is to first examine the workings of the capitalist economic and political system and its inherent contradictions in order to find the alternative that will show a way forward to humanity. We see a need for working people to organize ourselves in our communities, workplaces, schools, and political organizations, in order to defend our interests as opposed to those of the wealthy few.

All too often the line taken by the Catholic hierarchy in the past is that "the poor will always be with us," and that we should "offer up our suffering." Socialists believe that there are realistic, workable solutions to all the major problems we face in the world today. We also have confidence that the human species has the capability, with the correct ideas, to organize itself into a democratic, socialist society, so that we can control our own destinies and shape our world to provide prosperity, comfort and security from want for all.

The current crisis in the US Catholic Church will not go away soon and the struggle over the Church’s future could have quite wide implications. At the moment the hierarchy, fearing the financial costs of the scandal and under pressure from Rome, may be moving towards taking a harder line on settlements and trying to disclaim responsibility for the consequences of past cover-ups. But what ordinary Catholics and ordinary people in general want to see, is justice for the victims. The one positive aspect in all these tragic revelations is that it reveals that people are thinking issues through for themselves and are standing up for their rights. There needs to be far more of that in society as a whole.

This article first appeared in Justice (Issue 30, June-August 2002), the paper of Socialist Alternative (US CWI section).

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June 2002