Following on the heels of a rather confusing and regrettable action yesterday, the Vatican further sullies its image today by saying it can – and will – prove that it isn’t liable for the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the U.S.
Now, before you get your panties in a wad, know that, like all countries and businesses, the Vatican has lawyers, and lawyers, whom I believe have been placed by Dante in the third level of hell, have a job to do. That job is to protect the vested interest of their clients. In this case, the vested interests of the Vatican are quite broad and are not, as some might assume, solely the archives or the artwork. The vested interests are all the millions of people the Church helps via its charitable arms.
Thus, the argument goes, if one victim of clergy sexual abuse is able to sue the Vatican for millions, then it will open the doors to hundreds more and pretty soon, the good the Church does will simply stop for lack of money. S0, for all those who think I’m criticizing the Vatican’s action because I don’t know my nose from my naval, rest assured, I understand what is at stake. I also understand the legal arguments and how the Vatican can, as a nation-state, attempt to claim diplomatic immunity in this case.
However, when we are dealing with an institution that holds itself up – rightly so in many cases – as the voice of reason and high morals, the voice of virtue and high standards, then we have to ask: Just because an institution can claim something under legal rules, does it mean it is the right or moral thing to do? And in a Church that says, over and over and over again, amen, that a good ends can NEVER justify a evil means, is it right for that selfsame Church to refuse responsibility for the evil of sex abuse in the name of saving resources for all its other, very many, good works?
What we’ve got here is more than just a charitable organization. We’ve got an institution that claims an unbroken line of succession back to St. Peter, to whom Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18). We also have an institution that claims to image Jesus on earth, the same Jesus who said, of those who harm children, “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” (Mark 9:42)
Legally, as the Vatican’s lawyer says, the accused priest is not a Vatican employee, if you define employment with the technicalities of a paycheck and benefits. And yet, as any priest worth his Roman collar will tell you, during ordination all priests take a vow of obedience, and that vow applies to all said priest’s superiors – up to and including the Pope. So, when push comes to shove, every priest works for the Vatican, even though few are actually employed directly by that city-state.
But legalities are not all the Vatican should be concerned with here. This is about faith and morals: How much faith does the Vatican place in God and how much in its cover-your-butt lawyers? And, what is, in the end, the moral thing to do in the case of victims of sexual abuse? Various dioceses have compensated victims financially and numerous ones continue to offer free counseling to anyone claiming sexual abuse by priests. The Pope has apologized for the sinful nature of the very small percentage of creepos that got ordained into the priesthood. But while doing those things, there is an underlying tendency and habit of defensiveness and denying responsibility.
Should one man be allowed to sue the Vatican just to prove it can be done – and thus bringing a Liffey River full of salivating, money-grubbing lawyers to the trough? Maybe not. But it might just happen unless the Vatican takes some other actions. I suggest the Pope fly out to see this plaintiff, hear his story and find out how to make amends without the cost and distraction of a lawsuit. In fact, the best thing the Church could do to improve its image right about now is send Pope Benedict XVI on a worldwide listening tour where he meets with victims – sans lawyers, the press and representatives of groups obsessed with seeing their names in print – and lets those victim’s personal stories inform what he will do.
Who thinks his handlers will let him do that? Yeah, me neither. And more’s the pity.