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The Pope, the people and the paedophiles

The worldwide scandal of Catholic paedophile priests threatens to become the gravest crisis in the modern history of the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit Britain to beatify Cardinal Newman, we look at the life of this humane Catholic convert

One summer afternoon in the late 1990s, my wife and I were by an Italian poolside in the Alban Hills, south of Rome. We watched a group of touring British choirboys, aged ten to 13, relaxing in the water after performing a sung Mass at St Peter's Basilica. Frolicking with them was Joe Jordan, a seminarian who had accompanied them, uninvited, from Rome. After watching his behaviour, involving boisterous tickling and handy-horseplay, my wife, who was a teacher in London schools for 14 years, said: "That young man has a problem: I wouldn't let him near a child unsupervised."

The following year Jordan was ordained a priest and appointed to a parish in Wales. In 2000 he was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court to eight years' imprisonment for sexual abuse of minors in Doncaster and Barry, near Cardiff. When I asked Jordan's seminary rector why it had taken my wife a few minutes to identify what he and his colleagues failed to recognise over a period of five years, he said: "Oh, Joe was a devout man. There was no indication of any kind of problem." Jordan's hidden problem was not only his own, and that of the boys he abused, but a problem with recruitment, screening and formation of Catholic priests the world over. Now it is a problem of the Pope's.

Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to Britain this September. For a man of 82, he has a light step. Yet for the remainder of his papacy he will be travelling the world weighed down like Marley's ghost with the invisible chains and burdens of an agonising crisis. The scandal of the world's Catholic paedophile priests may become the greatest catastrophe to afflict the Church of Rome since the Reformation.

Benedict's state visit will take him to Holyrood, where he will be received by the Queen, whose ancestor Henry VIII founded English Protestantism. The true purpose of his trip, however, is pastoral. At an open-air Mass at Coventry Airport, he will bless the scant relics of a remarkable Englishman - the Victorian spiritual leader Cardinal John Henry Newman. Benedict is to beatify England's most celebrated convert to Catholicism, the penultimate step towards sainthood. The world of English-speaking Catholics will be watching the televised ceremony enthralled; but the Pope is unlikely to seek from the cardinal's extensive writings answers to urgent questions about the dysfunctional Catholic priesthood. Yet perhaps he should.

In 1845, aged 44, Newman left the Anglican ministry for Rome. His conversion - some Protestants called it a "perversion" - rocked the country. He was accused of being a liar, an apostate who had betrayed family, religion and nation to embrace the "Whore of Babylon". Not until he explained himself in his classic Apologia pro vita sua ("A defence of one's life") did he shake off imputations against his honesty.

Newman's reputation as a literary and theological great continued to burgeon after his death. James Joyce thought him England's greatest prose writer. The circuit of his written output is prodigious: theology, philosophy, poetry (including "The Dream of Gerontius", later set to music by Elgar), church history, sermons in their hundreds, fiction (three novels), hymns (including "Lead, Kindly Light"). His letters alone fill 32 fat volumes. His intellectual legacy ranges far beyond religion: his Idea of a University remains the most powerful critique of the ideal of tertiary education across many cultures. The late Edward Said believed that Newman had the key to the independence of university education even in Islamic states.

Newman's greatest gift to the Catholic priesthood today, however, is the example he gave of living a celibate life while enjoying a permanent and affectionate companionship. His intimate friendship with Father Ambrose St John, with whom he was buried, has often been interpreted as a gay relationship. Whatever the case, the significance of their intimacy was its maturity - the mutual support of friends engaged in pressured pastoral and literary lives.

“Conscience first"

When Pope Benedict was still a young professor, known as Father Joseph Ratzinger, he, like many young postwar theologians in Germany, chose Newman as his intellectual hero. Inspired by Newman's writings, Father Ratzinger was an enthusiastic supporter and explicator of the reforming initiatives of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), a meeting of all the Catholic bishops of the world between 1962 and 1965. Newman's spirit was so pervasive that Pope Paul VI (who led the Church from 1963-78) called it "Newman's Council".

Pope John XXIII, who initiated Vatican II, compared it to opening the windows of a room that had grown airless. The Church must become a "pilgrim People of God" on the move, rather than a defensive, static citadel. Catholics were invited to engage with the world, respect other religions, make friends with non-Catholic Christians. The Church should become less centralised, more collegial, the laity more involved. All echoed Newman's idea of the Church. "Here below to live is to change," wrote Newman, "and to be perfect is to have changed often." It seemed an ideal mission statement for the Sixties. Newman insisted, moreover, that a person's individual conscience was more crucial than Church authority. The young Ratzinger's theological writings resonated to Newman's influence.

Then something traumatic, mysterious and never entirely explained happened to Professor Ratzinger. It coincided with the period of unrest in 1968 when a gang of blaspheming students rampaged through Tübingen University, where Ratzinger was teaching. He felt that he had glimpsed into the abyss of a new dark age. Removing himself to the tranquil environment of the University of Regensburg, he prepared to devote himself, not to change so much as to conservatism. If the Church was to survive the surge of relativism, socialism, anarchy and aggressive secularism, it must be distinct and definable; it must remain "semper eadem", ever the same. It was not development that was needed, but restoration.

Professor Ratzinger was nominated Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, then made a cardinal. He continued to revere Newman and to support the decrees of the Second Vatican Council; but he now insisted that Newman and Vatican II had been widely misunderstood by liberal Catholics. When, in 1875, Newman wrote that he would drink a toast "to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards", he meant, according to Ratzinger's revision, the very opposite. Conscience meant an "informed" conscience, which was obviously a conscience instructed by, and obedient to, papal authority.

When John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger head of the department that watches over theological orthodoxy (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF), it was in full confidence that he would curb the proliferating dissidents, not least the liberation theologians of South America who argued that sin could often mean not wrongdoing by individual moral agents, but the injustice of social and political structures leading to poverty and oppression. He soon earned himself the sobriquet "the Pope's Rottweiler". Theologians guilty of unorthodoxy were summoned to his inquisitorial office: some were deprived of their teaching licences, and others were excommunicated.

When Benedict succeeded John Paul II on 19 April 2005, Catholic traditionalists were confident that he would quash the "progressives" once and for all. Over the past five years he has brought back the Latin Mass, reduced marriage annulments, and restricted ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. The Vatican II call for collegiality - a greater share of authority between the Pope and his bishops - has been laid to rest; the governance of the Church has become ever more centralised.

Meanwhile revelations of large-scale clerical child rape and episcopal cover-ups, which first began to surface during the pontificate of John Paul II, continued to proliferate. In North America, the allegations of crimes involve 11,000 abuses, perpetrated by 4,400 priests from the 1960s to the 1980s; damages so far amount to $2bn and counting. Then emerged similarly stunning figures from just two Irish dioceses (with more to come). Fresh allegations are coming to light virtually by the day, involving countries as varied as Austria, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
Benedict knows all too well that the scandal is prompting defections from the faith, and will continue to do so perhaps for generations to come. So what has he done, and what is he doing now, to renew the integrity of the priesthood and restore the Church's reputation?

Through the 1990s John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger tended to dismiss the reports as media mischief-making. Pope and cardinal shared an elevated view of the priesthood which proclaimed that the sacrament of ordination bestowed special graces on a priest, enabling him to withstand the particular temptations that went with his office. John Paul II spoke of the priesthood as a status above that of the angels. Both men simply could not believe that priests could be abusers on anything but a very minor and exceptional scale. Benedict has been forced to alter that opinion, but he continues to think of the abuse as a spiritual lapse, rather than a psychological, social and criminal problem. Priestly paedophile abuse, in his view, is a failure of priesthood, a failure of holiness, asceticism and piety. It is a great sin rather than a great crime. His strategy for dealing with the crisis is accordingly based on that conviction. From the very outset, the Vatican centre has insisted that not a scintilla of responsibility has ever attached, or could attach, to the Pope himself.

A fortnight ago Benedict delivered himself of a scathing verdict on the abuse scandal in a "pastoral letter" to the Irish Church. The cause of the crisis, he said, had been secularism, and the temptations secularism has posed to the holiness of priests. The innocent majority of priests in Ireland are indignant at being treated as a venal bunch, tarred with the same brush as the paedophile rapists. They are infuriated by Benedict's implied exculpation of the Vatican and the papacy.

It is common knowledge that, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he discouraged bishops from dealing expeditiously with abusers locally. On 24 March, a report in the New York Times alleged that in 1996, as head of the CDF, the cardinal ignored two letters from Rembert Weakland, the then archbishop of Milwaukee, about an abusing priest in Wisconsin. Father Lawrence Murphy was accused of sexually assaulting up to 200 deaf schoolchildren in his care between 1960 and 1974. The case was retrospective by a good 20 years, but Ratzinger, according to the report, cancelled a secret trial after Murphy appealed to the cardinal personally. Murphy was never defrocked, and died in 1998. It may be that Benedict was entirely innocent of a cover-up, but the perception is that he is less inclined to take responsibility than he is to pass the buck.

Meanwhile, Benedict's chosen initiatives to combat the paedophile priest scourge focus on supernatural rather than human remedies. He has decreed that the Eucharistic wafer (which Catholics believe to be the "body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ") should be exposed for adoration in hundreds of churches across Ireland. He has vowed to send teams of clergy to the country to investigate its seminaries, monasteries, parishes and dioceses. These spiritual shock-troops will preach the gospel afresh to the shamed Hibernian clerics and nuns. They will lead prayers, preach homilies and hear confessions. In the same letter, the Pope blames clerical misinterpretations of the reforms of Vatican II. In other words, Catholic liberals are ultimately responsible for seducing the Irish clergy away from priestly piety.

Twenty years ago Benedict said that the answer to the tide of secularism was for the faithful, loyal, orthodox remnant of the Catholic Church to retreat into a metaphorical catacomb. Catholicism would survive by ridding itself of dissidents and retiring to a defensive position of spiritual and doctrinal integrity: he called these future Catholic survivors the "salt of the earth".

At the summation of Benedict's letter to the Irish Church came an outlandish token of that "salt of the earth" scorched-earth policy. In accordance with the Catholic culture of invoking saints, he has asked all priests and seminarians to follow the example of a 19th-century French priest named Jean-Baptiste-Marie ("John Mary") Vianney. This barely literate eremitical priest, also known as the Curé d'Ars, would spend most of the night flat on his face in church, with only snatches of sleep on the stone floor of his house, using a log for a pillow. He whipped himself daily with a metal scourge, spattering the bedroom walls with blood. For food he would boil a saucepan of potatoes once a week and live off them until the final ones were black and rotten. He banned dancing in his parish because he thought it a prelude to carnal temptation, and cut down the trees in his orchard so that children would not commit the sin of scrumping. He would hear confessions for up to 14 hours a day. Is it possible that Benedict believes that extreme ascetic rigour to the point of self-harm is the answer to the paedophile priest problem?


It has been obvious from the 1970s onward that the Catholic priesthood has been in crisis. A hundred thousand priests left the ministry over a period of two decades, and the haemorrhage continues. Newly ordained priests for the dioceses of England and Wales leave the ministry after a mere seven years on average. Against this background, the paedophile priest scandal is one of a range of symptoms of a crisis that includes inadequate recruitment criteria, inexpert and unprofessional screening, questionable seminary formation and the danger of defining priesthood in terms of spiritual exaltation.

The Catholic celibate priesthood attracts many men who have authentic vocations. By the same token, because it endows each ordinand with unearned respect, adulation even (an estate higher than that of the angels), it can also attract men with unresolved sexual, social and psychological problems.

The screening process for vocations rarely involves laypeople, including women, with appropriate expertise. The well-regulated seminary routine, with its devotional preoccupations and pleasant, totally supervised community life, is an unrealistic preparation for the unsupervised life of gregarious solitude experienced by many parish priests who live alone without the support of a significant relationship. The formation of mature and lasting relationships, known as "particular friendships", is actively discouraged in the seminary.

“Where's the boy?"

Had Benedict cited John Henry Newman as an exemplar of priesthood, rather than John Mary Vianney, he might have proposed a preparation and style of priesthood more suited to the pressures of Catholic pastors in the modern world. When Newman's body was disinterred in preparation for his beatification, the media were surprised by the news that he had been buried with Ambrose St John. The circumstance was seized upon to claim that they were in a "gay relationship". In fact, Newman, whatever his sexual tendencies, surely lived a life of chastity. But he believed that a priest should enjoy a permanent companionship, with all the mutual affection and support that such a relationship implies. Catholic clericalism, however, has traditionally involved the cauterising of permanent emotional ties, thereby contributing to the crisis that led to defecting and defective priests.

In Newman's view, formation for the priesthood should be done on the job, in parishes, rather than in an enclosed monastic hothouse. His idea of a priestly lifestyle could not be more different from the outlandish asceticism of John Mary Vianney, or the exalted notion of John Paul II and Benedict. A priest's pastoral life, according to Newman, should be one of normal domesticity; he should eat well, take frequent holidays, enjoy his wine and nurture many friendships, with both women and men. Newman confessed that he would have achieved nothing without Ambrose, who died 15 years ahead of him. "I was his first and last," he said of his friend.

Such an example of priestly life is far from Benedict's ideal of a celibate ascetic. But then, Newman had scant regard for the opinion of popes. He had seen the tawdry spectacle of Pius IX's eccentricities and court of sycophants. It was Pio who kidnapped a six-year-old Jewish child named Edgardo Mortara and kept him in the Papal Apartments until he was old enough to be placed in the seminary. Pius would hide the child under his cassock and call out: "Where's the boy? Where's the boy?"

Despite calls from the monarchs of Europe and repeated editorials in the New York Times, Pio refused to return the child to his parents. Newman considered the dogma of papal infallibility inopportune and had no scruples about accusing authority of wrongdoing. As he once wrote of ageing popes: "He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it."

Newman's legacy hardly sits comfortably with the conservatism of Pope Benedict. It is entirely possible, in fact, that his beatification signals an attempt to sanitise his legacy rather than adopt those aspects that are critical of Rome, which he once compared to a swamp. Just a month ago Benedict cited Newman, without proper quotation, as an enemy to all Catholic dissidents; but no one was more critical than Newman of the Vatican, wrongful assumptions about papal infallibility, and Rome's over-centralisation.

We may expect, as September approaches, to hear tidied-up versions of Newman's critical and liberalising views of the Catholic Church, but unlike those dissident theologians who have been suppressed down the years, his unexpurgated works, many written while he was still an Anglican, remain in print. They are unlikely to offer consolation to the abused, but may well contribute to the long healing process that lies ahead, which must start with acknowledgment of shared responsibility for the Church's dysfunctional priesthood, right to the very apex.

John Cornwell's new book, "Newman's Unquiet Grave: Portrait of a Reluctant Saint", will be published by Continuum on 31 May

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD