/ 6 April 2010

Conspiracy of the cloth

At last one of Pope Benedict’s closest aides uses the word “conspiracy” in relation to the systematic global cover-up of child abuse by paedophile Catholic priests. Unfortunately, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins believes the conspiracy is against the Catholic church.

“We should not be too scandalised if some bishops knew about it but kept it secret,” he told reporters, on the same day that the Vatican newspaper opted to blame the media for “ignoring the facts”. “This is what happens in every family; you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.”

Though Saraiva Martins declined to spell out who was behind the conspiracy, he informed his listeners darkly: “There is a well-organised plan, with a clear aim.”

For those who imagined church-related conspiracies involving psychotic albino monks, easily decipherable holy grail puzzles and guff about the sacred feminine, this all comes as a shock. I suppose a cryptex that falls open if you align the letters N, O, N, C and E may yet surface, and X-ray analysis might discover the words “perhaps he could teach at a girls’ school next time?” concealed in the rural backdrop of the Mona Lisa.

It appears that a shadowy organisation deputised innumerable priests to abuse innumerable children down the decades (and, it’s reasonable to assume, down the centuries). These obscure evil masterminds then contrived to manipulate the most senior church figures — possibly Calvinist sleepers.

First this secretive society of conspirators swept the lot under the carpet, frequently allowing priests to be relocated and begin their reign of horror anew. Then, many years later, they marshalled a coordinated global attack by survivors of the abuse, whistle-blowing priests and the media.

This attack would also expose the paper trail of several of these cover-ups. And by some fiendish orchestration, paths would increasingly lead to the office of the pontiff, who for two decades headed the Vatican moral watchdog, from which some of the highest-profile cases date.

Quite a conspiracy, isn’t it? By comparison, hiding the existence of a bloodline stemming from the issue of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for 2 000 years seems about as challenging as falling off a log.

In fact, one of the only NGOs powerful and closed enough to perpetuate such an enduring global conspiracy is the Catholic church. That is one of the many ironies to this growing scandal — though considering the hideous wrongs done to generations of children, by no means the most revolting.

Considerably more distasteful is the Vatican’s firefighting strategy. Confronted by this week’s revelations from Wisconsin, where, as a cardinal, Benedict apparently chose not to discipline a priest accused of abusing up to 200 deaf boys in a single school, the Vatican newspaper accused the media of acting ignobly.

And instead of insisting on the resignation of Sean Brady, the Irish cardinal complicit in two abuse victims being made to sign an oath of silence, Benedict last week responded by sending Irish Catholics a pitifully inadequate open letter.

Right up there is Cardinal Saraiva Martins’s implication that the abuse — or, more pertinently, its ongoing disclosure by outsiders — is not a monster of the Vatican’s making but a trial sent to test it.

One can only speculate who sends such tests, remembering that of his apparently reluctant elevation to the papacy, Benedict once revealed: “I prayed to God: ‘Please don’t do this to me.'” One can imagine that precise prayer being offered up by countless terrified children.

Yet as the abuse scandal closes in on his own involvement, the question is whether Benedict will have the brass neck to extend ultimate responsibility to his unseen boss.

It’s not an argument that will stand up in court. But then, you will have noted the absence of police chiefs in the scandal-hit dioceses pulling in suspected coverers-up for questioning, let alone the righteous emergence of anyone approaching a pan-continental justice figure.

One suspects that a keen applicant’s hobbies should include taking riverside strolls with bricks in their pockets. We might as well accept that compensation lawyers are our best hope. —