The Pope, pedophilia & the class struggle
Published Apr 25, 2010 7:31 PM
More than 150 years ago Karl Marx explained that “The history of all
hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Patrician and
plebian, lord and serf, in a word oppressor and oppressed.” The struggle
is an “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.” With modern
society come “new conditions of oppression and new forms of
A fierce struggle has gripped the Catholic Church for the past 25 years as some
of the most oppressed survivors of childhood sexual abuse have increasingly
demanded an accounting against individual priests and ultimately against the
powerful church hierarchy, including bishops and cardinals who consistently
protected the abusers.
This demand for justice erupting from below has now done the unthinkable. It
has exposed the role of the present pope, Pope Benedict XVI, in a monstrous
international criminal cover-up.
Marxism is a science for understanding the class issues that underlie social
developments which can seem obscure and far from the immediate workers’
struggle. The present controversy, although hidden in clerical garb, is in
every way a class struggle within the Catholic Church. It is one small part of
a global class struggle for full equality, rights and empowerment.
What was once accepted, because there seemed to be no recourse, has become
intolerable. Thousands of the survivors raising the charges of pedophilia were
loyal working class believers who were utterly powerless until years later to
resist or even tell their own families of the crimes being committed. They were
abused as children in orphanages, reform schools, schools for Deaf and
disabled, local parish schools and churches.
This challenge from below against secrecy and repression was a sharp break from
the past. Abuse had been unchallenged because religious authority was
unchallenged. In many parish schools, although sexual abuse was hidden,
physical and psychological abuse and humiliation were so routine that they
seemed part of the curriculum.
As survivors began to speak out, any priests who sided with the abused were
silenced and removed from teaching or positions of authority. But the church
hierarchy, a small grouping that holds absolute religious authority, has not
been able to silence or stop this movement.
Almost every exposé has come not from the outside or from secular
authorities, who were fearful of offending such a powerful institution, but
from presumably powerless Catholics within the church who refused to remain
silent. They filed grievances, depositions and finally lawsuit after lawsuit.
They called press conferences, set up websites, organized demonstrations and
support groups, and leafleted Sunday services. Whether they see themselves as
part of the larger struggle for rights and dignity or not, they have used many
of the same tactics that countless other struggles have used.
The church hierarchy, in fighting to defend its undisputed authority, wealth
and privilege, has demanded absolute silence, threatened excommunication of
those raising the charges and demanded that secular officials comply. This
effort to maintain the absolute authority of the priesthood is part of a larger
internal struggle over whose interests this powerful religious institution
This international scandal rocking the Catholic Church now involves detailed
evidence of tens of thousands of cases of child rape and sexual abuse,
committed by thousands of priests. The charges span decades. The struggle
erupted in its fiercest form in cities that previously had the strongest
religious believers in the U.S. Next it broke out in Ireland, followed by Italy
and then parts of Germany with large Catholic populations.
What is new and now receives almost daily media coverage is the evidence
seeping out from every side showing the personal responsibility of the present
Pope Benedict XVI in decades of suppression, cover-up and quiet reassigning of
sexual predators. The strongest condemnations are coming from those who still
consider themselves part of the Catholic Church.
Liberal Catholic theologian Hans Keung described Pope Benedict XVI’s role
in allowing the abuse to flourish, covering it up and ordering silence:
“There was not a single man in the whole Catholic Church who knew more
about the sex-abuse cases than him, because it was ex officio (part of his
official role). ... He can’t wag his finger at the bishops
and say, you didn’t do enough. He gave the instruction himself, as head
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and repeated it as
The National Catholic Reporter editorialized on March 26: “The Holy
Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role
— as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope
(2005-present) — in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse
Before his elevation to the top of the Catholic hierarchy in April 2005, Pope
Benedict XVI was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. His opponents referred to
him as a pit bull and as “God’s rottweiler.” Ratzinger was an
extremely right-wing political appointee of Pope John Paul II, who was
determined to enforce discipline, conformity and church authority in an
institution in the midst of a profound upheaval.
For 24 years Ratzinger headed the most powerful and historically repressive
institution in the Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith. This body was known for centuries as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
It was the church institution responsible for establishing religious courts for
the charging and torture of tens of thousands of people accused of witchcraft
and heresy. It led the pogroms and mass expropriations of Jews and Muslims.
Through this office within the church Pope John Paul II tried to install a
Documents expose vast cover-up
The scale of the criminal international conspiracy of silence to protect serial
molesters and to put church interests ahead of child safety and well-being was
fully revealed over the past year in the handling of sexual abuse in Ireland,
an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
After years of demands by abuse survivors for church action and government
prosecution, and a series of exposes in the Irish news media, the Irish
government commissioned a study that took nine years to complete. On May 20,
2009, the commission released a 2,600-page report.
The report drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials
from more than 250 church-run institutions. The commission found that Catholic
priests and nuns had terrorized thousands of boys and girls for decades and
that government inspectors had failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and
humiliation. The report characterized rape and molestation as
“endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and
The scale of the abuse in Ireland and the force of the movement demanding an
accounting forced Pope Benedict to issue a weak apology on behalf of the
Catholic Church that blamed local Irish bishops. This abdication of all
responsibility for his own well-known senior role that had insisted on silence
enraged millions of sincere and believing Catholics and further inflamed an
opposition that has grown inside the church for decades.
Preaching in Springfield, Mass., a long-time critic of the church cover-up,
Rev. James J. Scahill, responded to the weak apology by describing some in the
clergy as “felons” and calling for the resignation of Pope
“We must personally and collectively declare that we very much doubt the
veracity of the pope and those of church authority who are defending him or
even falling on the sword on his behalf. It is beginning to become evident that
for decades, if not centuries, church leadership covered up the abuse of
children and minors to protect its institutional image and the image of
priesthood,” said Scahill. (New York Times, April 12)
Scahill said he began to speak up after his own parishioners came to him in
2002 during the exposure of decades of sexual abuse in Boston and told him that
something had to be done.
Cardinal Bernard Law of the Boston Archdiocese clearly played a role in
protecting child-molesting priests from punishment by religious or secular
authority and quietly transferring them. This became a national scandal in 2002
when a judge in Massachusetts permitted the release of thousands of pages of
documents, memos and legal depositions. The documents showed a clear pattern of
cover-up, protecting perpetrators and marginalizing victims, revealing that
more than 1,000 children had been abused by 250 priests and church workers in
the Archdiocese since 1940. Cardinal Law was forced to resign his post in
disgrace and the Boston Archdiocese was ordered to pay a settlement of between
$85 million and $100 million to settle 552 cases.
This multi-million-dollar settlement, growing scandals in other cities and the
media coverage forced the U.S. bishops to issue a “Charter for the
Protection of Children and the Young People” that declared a “zero
tolerance, one strike and you are out” policy for offending priests. It
did not propose any action against bishops who covered up the crimes.
Even this modest effort to develop a clean-up policy by U.S. bishops was
opposed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican. He demanded that all abuse
charges be referred to the office he headed — the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — before priests
could be expelled from the priesthood. One of his first acts as Pope was to
elevate Cardinal Law of Boston to a prestigious Vatican post.
In an often quoted, infamous letter sent to bishops in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger
used his position to order that sexual abuse allegations be kept secret under
threat of excommunication. Priests accused of sex crimes and their victims were
ordered to “observe the strictest secret” and be “restrained
by perpetual silence.”
Former Vatican lawyer Father Tom Doyle denounced this top Vatican policy by
saying: “What you have here is an explicit written policy to cover up
cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy and to punish those who would call
attention to these crimes by the churchmen. When abusive priests are
discovered, the response has been not to investigate and prosecute but to move
them from one place to another.”
Negligence or criminal complicity?
How extensive are the sex abuse crimes committed against youth? Are the church
hierarchy guilty of ignoring the problem — meaning criminal
negligence? Or are they guilty of criminal complicity by refusing to take
action even when crimes were brought to their direct attention?
A memo personally signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, when he
headed the powerful Vatican office where all charges of abuse were centralized,
was exposed this April and has aroused a new outcry. Ratzinger overrode and
stopped any action against the predator priest Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy.
Reverend Murphy was accused of sexually abusing more than 200 boys at a
Milwaukee School for the Deaf, despite appeals for his expulsion even from his
bishop. For decades the former students had used sign language and written
affidavits in meetings with bishops and secular officials to demand that Father
Murphy be charged and prosecuted.
At the same time, the story broke in Italy that 67 former pupils of another
school for the Deaf in Verona had accused 24 priests, brothers and religious
laymen of sexually abusing them from the age of 7 years.
In Germany, more than 250 suppressed cases of abuse have surfaced in the last
two months, including in districts directly overseen by Pope Benedict when he
had been the bishop.
International publicity surrounding the Boston suit over sexual abuse of
children and the multi-million-dollar settlement gave many other victims of
abuse the courage to also speak out and seek justice. More than 4,000 priests
have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950 and the Catholic
Church here has paid out more than $2 billion in settlements to victims of
abuse. In 2007 the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced a $600-million settlement
to about 500 plaintiffs. Six dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy and many
dioceses have been forced to sell substantial church assets to pay
Many of these cases are detailed by an organization called SNAP, the Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP describes itself as the oldest and
largest support group for clergy abuse victims.
Not only children have been the victims of abuse. According to the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch of Jan. 4, 2003, a national survey conducted by researchers at
St. Louis University was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns.
It estimated that a “minimum” of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40
percent of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual
It is important to take note that overwhelmingly the testimony, lawsuits,
inquiries and exposés of sexual abuse have come from within the Catholic
Church itself, from survivors of abuse. Many other ordinary, but outraged,
Catholics have joined in demanding an accounting from a privileged, clerical
hierarchy bent on protecting their position, authority and wealth and not on
Throughout Europe there is a growing call to criminally prosecute Pope Benedict
at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the grounds that protecting the
church, not its victims, is a criminal offense. Geoffrey Robertson, U.N.
Justice Council member and president of the Special Court in Sierra Leone, says
he believes it is time to challenge the pope’s immunity.
In an article in the London Guardian of April 2 headlined, “Put the pope
in the dock,” Robertson wrote: “Legal immunity cannot hold. The
Vatican should feel the full weight of international law. Pedophilia is a crime
against humanity. The anomalous claim of the Vatican to be a state
— and of the pope to be a head of state and hence immune from
legal action — cannot stand up to scrutiny.”
Of course, it is important to remember that the International Criminal Court
has to date brought charges only against four African countries that are
targeted by imperialism.
U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Israeli crimes against
Palestinian and Lebanese civilians have been ignored by the ICC. A bulwark of
U.S. imperialism on a global scale, it is unlikely that the Vatican will face
charges any time soon.
War on global movement for justice
What role does the Vatican play in class society that is of particular value to
While absolving, covering up and transferring thousands of priests who were
guilty of child abuse, Pope Benedict XVI used his position for 25 years as head
of the most powerful church institution, the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, to remove from parishes, schools and all positions of authority
thousands of priests, bishops and religious persons who were in any way
progressive or concerned with advocating for the rights and dignity of poor and
Dissident Catholic theologians, teachers, writers and intellectuals were
prevented from writing, publishing and teaching in church institutions. Bishops
who attempted to use their authority for social change were investigated for
loyalty and forced to resign. They were replaced by the most politically
reactionary clergy who were concerned mainly with preserving religious
authority and dogma.
This was a right-wing effort to stamp out a progressive religious current known
as “liberation theology,” which sought to align the church with the
liberation movements and anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles sweeping
Africa, Asia and Latin America and the civil rights movement in the U.S.
Priests such as Father Camilo Torres in Colombia, who wrote, spoke and
organized around the effort to unite revolutionary Marxism and Catholicism,
were considered a direct threat to capitalist exploitation. Father Torres
joined the armed struggle against the U.S.-supported dictatorship and died in
Activist nuns who led the sanctuary movement to provide assistance and safe
transit to Salvadoran immigrants fleeing death squads were targeted. So were
Philip and Tom Berrigan, priests who continually risked arrest and served jail
time with a militant Catholic grouping opposed to the Vietnam War.
Liberation theologians, such as the charismatic Leonardo Boff of Brazil, were
prohibited by the Church from speaking or writing. Priests who sought to serve
the poor, like Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, were expelled from their
religious order and forced to resign for the crime of “glorification of
class struggle.” Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Mexico, was ordered to
refrain from “Marxist interpretations.”
It was a witch-hunt and a purge that targeted anti-racist and social justice
activists. Yet the reactionary breakaway Bishop Richard Williamson, who
publicly denied the Holocaust, was welcomed back into the church.
Faced with growing opposition on every level, this powerful institution that
has for centuries protected the property and privilege of the Western ruling
classes increasingly chose to elevate the most fanatically reactionary forces
to do battle with those urging change, opening, equality and attention to the
needs of the poor and oppressed.
Under Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church was a
staunch ally of U.S. imperialism opposing socialist construction in Eastern
Europe. In turn the powerful U.S. media played an active role in promoting and
giving favorable coverage to the church while demonizing Muslims and other
religions of oppressed people.
In 2006 Pope Benedict gave Catholic support to the anti-Muslim propaganda that
Washington had consciously enflamed in order to justify war and occupation in
Iraq and Afghanistan. In a major papal address he quoted a 14th-century
Byzantine emperor who said that the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only
“evil and inhuman things.”
The alliance with U.S. imperialism forced the Catholic Church to revive the
most reactionary excesses of its own dark past. Members of groupings tied to
death squads and military dictatorship throughout Latin America and to fascism
and extreme reaction in Europe, such as the secretive Opus Dei and Legionnaires
of Christ, were promoted to top offices in the Vatican and around the
Two fascist clerics, Josemaria Escrivá, who sided with Hitler during World
War II and organized fascist gangs to hunt down communists and revolutionary
trade unionists in Franco’s Spain, and Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of
Croatia, who helped establish extermination camps for Jews, Serbs and Roma
people, were proposed for sainthood.
It is not a contradiction that priests who abused children were protected and
hidden while those religious forces who sought to defend the rights of the
oppressed and ally with their movements were forced to resign. Leniency to
criminal thugs and harsh repression of progressives are two sides of the same
class policy of defending the authority of the established hierarchy. The same
approach played out on every social issue.
Repressive view of all sexuality
From the Roman slave state to European feudal society and then as a major
instrument of imperialist conquest, this is a religious institution rooted in
class society and patriarchy. This patriarchal heritage is the basis of its
repressive views toward all forms of human sexual expression. Gay or straight,
married or unmarried, the Catholic Church asserted the right to legislate to
society as a whole all forms of human sexual expression.
While taking no action against sexual predators because this threatened the
authority and sanctity of the priesthood, Ratzinger was the leading enforcer of
archaic religious doctrines on sexuality and the subordinate role of women in
the church and in society as a whole. No liberalization on issues of birth
control, abortion, divorce or recognition of homosexuality was allowed. Within
the church these rules were enforced through focus on sin and guilt. Gay
Catholics, Catholics who remarried, practiced birth control or had an abortion
were denied the sacraments, barred from the church or excommunicated.
The full weight of Church institutions with large amounts of funding and
political leverage were aggressively used in secular society to oppose
liberalization of divorce laws and a woman’s right to birth control and
to abortion. The Catholic Church organized and funded political campaigns
against same-sex marriage and adoption of children by gay couples. But while
proclaiming their religious duty to protect the “unborn child,”
they refused to protect children directly under their control.
As the storm of protest over the attacks on children under their care grew,
this reactionary grouping tried to turn its criminal cover-up into a struggle
against gay people by linking pedophilia, meaning sexual abuse of young
children, with homosexuality between consenting adults.
On April 14, Pope Benedict’s top appointee, Vatican Secretary of State
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, blamed pedophilia on homosexuality, which he called
“a pathology.” Pope Benedict in a well-known letter to bishops in
1986 described homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.” He went
so far as to justify and even encourage violent attacks on gay people by
stating that “neither the church or society should be surprised if
irrational and violent reactions increase” when gay people demand civil
These crimes against all movements of oppressed peoples must be included in the
anger directed at the church hierarchy.
The years of repression, witch-hunts and organized bigotry have given the
Catholic hierarchy less and less a basis of support. They are more out of touch
with their own congregation and totally out of touch with the values of society
as a whole.
Despite every effort, they cannot go back to their absolute hold of 500 or even
100 years ago, when priests and bishops did not have to account for crimes
against women or against slaves, serfs, peasants or illiterate workers.
Carefully crafted apologies that accept no blame and scripted public relations
meetings with a few selected abuse survivors will not solve the crisis facing
the reactionary leadership of the church.
Today those who have suffered abuse have found their voice and have found
The writer attended/survived 14 years in Catholic schools.
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