Belfast Telegraph

Geoffrey Robertson QC: The clerical abuse of tens of thousands of children is a crime against humanity by any definition

Sickening case: people protest with placards as Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court in Melbourne earlier this week
Sickening case: people protest with placards as Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court in Melbourne earlier this week

By Geoffrey Robertson QC

News of the conviction and remanding in custody of Cardinal George Pell, number three in the Vatican, for the rape of small boys in a sacristy came as a fitting end to a papal summit on child abuse which achieved nothing.

It had begun with other cardinals attributing the problem to homosexuals in the priesthood. Of course, the reality is that priests abuse small boys, not because they are gay, but because they have the opportunity.

Most are not even paedophiles, but rather sexually maladjusted, immature and lonely individuals, unable to resist the temptation to exploit their power over children who are taught to revere them as the agents of God.

A Church which has tolerated the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children — a crime against humanity in any definition — needs to face unpalatable truths and to make drastic reforms.

Cover-ups are no longer an option. The magnitude of the crimes is well-established and the evidence of how the Vatican and its bishops hushed them up in order to protect the reputation and finances of the Catholic Church is fully proven.

By insisting upon its right to deal with allegations under medieval Canon Law, the Church itself became complicit.

Obviously, there should be zero tolerance for clerics who confess or are convicted.

They must be defrocked and certainly not allowed any appeal to the Vatican, which, in the past, has permitted many to remain in Holy Orders.

Even in countries where local bishops have announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex abuse allegations, there is always the qualification “only if the victim consents”. It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counselled that their son’s best interests lie in allowing the Church to deal with the matter “in its own way”.

Abolishing the role of Canon Law in dealing with sex crimes will take some papal courage, but will be relatively easy beside the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse from happening in the first place.

The reform most often suggested is to abandon celibacy. But marriage does not “cure” paedophilia. Abuse happens because priests are too weak, or emotionally immature, to resist the temptation to abuse their power.

Why does that temptation arise?

The Church indoctrinates children at the earliest age possible — usually at seven — that the priest is the agent of God.

Communion is an awesome miracle performed by the God-priest and then the impressionable and nervous child is made to confess his sins and seek forgiveness from God, represented again by the priest.

It follows that the only reform that could tackle the evil of clerical sexual abuse at its source would be to raise the age at which children are first given communion and confession from seven to, say, 13.

Other churches, and the Jewish faith, leave indoctrination and spiritual commitment rituals until teenage-hood.

By this stage, young people are much more capable of resisting sexual advances and have more courage to report them.

Could the Pope ever contemplate this reform? The Jesuits say “give me the boy at seven... ” and now we know what this has meant. But if such reforms are not implemented, there must be consequences.

One consequence could be to reconsider, not the state, but the statehood of the Vatican.

It is, after all, the only religion allowed this elevated status, with diplomatic immunities, expensive embassies and a role at the UN where it condemns programmes that help homosexuals, or propose family planning, or gender equality.

Yet it is, in reality, no more than a religious enclave in Rome, without the attributes of sovereignty, or even an indigenous population (no one is born there, except by accident).

If it continues as an organisation that facilitates the abuse of children, it should have no immunities at all.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a former UN appeal judge and the author of The Case of the Pope (Penguin)

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