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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Honest and Decent Humans Should Oppose This Pope

By Michael De Dora
For the past couple of months, a number of prominent secularists – including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – have lead public protests of Pope Benedict XVI, even exploring the possibility of his arrest, for his involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse. I have, for the most part, considered their campaign a distraction from more important issues, and more divisive than not.
No longer. I have changed my mind. That the public sees these protests as unimportant or divisive is not necessarily a problem with the protesters. Rather, it is a problem of lack of general appreciation of just how damning the evidence is for the claim that the Pope has acted immorally and illegally.
There are three main reasons for this change of mind on my part. The first is a deeper and fuller consideration of what the Pope has said and done. There is ever-mounting, yet already crystal clear, evidence that the Pope played a role in covering up sexual abuse of young boys within the Catholic Church. Initially I thought, “well, sexual abuse happens elsewhere.” Well, maybe. But rarely is its cover-up so systematic and calculated. Johann Hari has written one of the better recent commentaries on this situation. In his essay, he outlines a few cases where we know the Pope was directly involved. Here is an extensive quote:
“In Germany in the early 1980s, Father Peter Hullermann was moved to a diocese run by Ratzinger. He had already been accused of raping three boys. Ratzinger didn't go to the police, instead Hullermann was referred for ‘counseling.’ The psychiatrist who saw him, Werner Huth, told the Church unequivocally that he was ‘untreatable [and] must never be allowed to work with children again.’ Yet he kept being moved from parish to parish, even after a sex crime conviction in 1986. He was last accused of sexual abuse in 1998.

In the U.S. in 1985, a group of American bishops wrote to Ratzinger begging him to defrock a priest called Father Stephen Kiesle, who had tied up and molested two young boys in a rectory. Ratzinger refused for years, explaining that he was thinking of the ‘good of the universal Church’ and of the ‘detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke among the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age of the priest involved. He was 38. He went on to rape many more children. Think about what Ratzinger's statement reveals. Ratzinger thinks the ‘good of the universal Church’ – your church – lies not in protecting your children from being raped, but in protecting the rapists from punishment.
In 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee appealed to Ratzinger to defrock Father Lawrence C. Murphy, who had raped and tortured up to 200 deaf and mute children at a Catholic boarding school. His rapes often began in the confessional. Ratzinger never replied. Eight months later, there was a secret canonical ‘trial’ – but Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he was ill, so it was cancelled. Ratzinger advised him to take a ‘spiritual retreat.’ He died years later, unpunished.”
These episodes should disgust you. It should further disgust you that these are but a few examples. It should absolutely enrage you that the Pope and his “administration,” who knowingly covered up sexual abuse, have blamed everyone but themselves (to name a few supposed culprits: secularism, homosexuality, and The New York Times). And it should confound you that the Vatican does not respect the law and justice, as evidenced by their keeping the entire process in-house, evading investigators at all turns.
But the outrage does not end with the actions taken in the sexual abuse cover-up. Consider the Pope’s public statements and positions on an array of topics.
There’s his position not just that condom use is immoral, but that it actually make AIDS worse. Or, take his statements that gay marriage is an “insidious and dangerous” threat, or the Vatican’s position that homosexuality ought not be decriminalized. Or, recall the case of the nine-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather. Doctors predicted that she would die during childbirth, so they performed an abortion. Brazil’s Catholic Church excommunicated the girl’s mother and the doctors – but not the stepfather. The Vatican supported the decision.
The Pope has also stated that atheism has led to “the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" and has blamed atheists for the destruction of the environment. During his recent tour of Britain, he continued this line of thought, both warning against secularism, calling it a “dictatorship of relativism” (that’s obviously false, but one must wonder if a dictatorship of the Pope’s sort of morality would be better); and claiming Nazism was a result of atheism (full transcript here). Richard Dawkins has handled this well, and P.Z. Myers has done us all a service by posting a list of Hitler quotes that show the Nazi leader was anything but an atheist. Again, these are just a few bits of information. If you can stomach it, I urge you to use Google to search for more.
Now consider, as the second reason for changing my mind, that the Pope is not just any ordinary man. He is the religious and spiritual leader, and more importantly public representative, of one billion people on this Earth. He is the face and voice of Catholicism. The combination of his powerful role and the aforementioned evidence makes the entire situation even more disturbing. Thus, it is extremely important to have critical public discussion about his actions and views, more than any other Catholic we can think of. This is similar to the reasoning I have used in an article about Glenn Beck and his arguments.
The third reason for my change of mind is that many people still have not come around to the above facts – especially Catholics, who in America still support the Pope at relatively high levels. I know many Catholics, and when pushed, they do not support any of the above – from sexual abuse cover-up, to backwards policy on condoms and gays, to the painting of non-Catholics as immoral and evil. It would seem, then, that the challenge for those who already agree with the arguments above is to help the one billion Catholics in the world realize that the Pope, currently a revered public figure, is in fact an appalling excuse for their public leader. The combination of the evidence mentioned and the Pope’s powerful role is enough to to cause concern among secularists. But it should be even more reason for Catholics to care. Of course, the Pope is not the only person responsible for immorality or corruption within the Catholic Church. But he was directly involved in much of the recent immorality and corruption. Catholics should care because, at bottom, the man and those he is protecting should face both social and legal scrutiny for their actions.
Perhaps this is why it is so confusing and maddening to find people, including Catholics, who are apathetic to the situation. It is not just that they have sidestepped the facts; they seem not to understand what the facts say about Catholicism and its public image. Say what you will about Dawkins and Hitchens, and the approach they've taken, but the fact that many atheists criticize their method as unnecessarily aggressive – even if wrong – means they care about the public face of atheism. One ought to expect the same care from Catholics about their religious tradition.
Some Catholics have told me that protesting the Pope is but a waste of time, for the Pope will not step down. Probably not. Yet he is 83, and is likely to die soon. Catholic voices can influence the next pick. More importantly, opposition sends a general message that you do not stand with corruption and lies, but with decency, honesty, and humanity. Consider, for example, the following statement by Barbara Blaine (transcribed here by Ophelia Benson) at recent protests during the Pope’s visit to Britain. Blaine is a survivor of priestly sexual abuse:
“When we were children, and the priests were raping us, and sodomizing us, and sexually abusing us, we thought we were all alone – and we felt very alone, guilty, and ashamed. And over these past years, and even more recently over these past months, many of us as victims have found each other, and we have learned that we’re not alone. And I must tell each and every one of you: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all the victims, because today we recognize that you too care about the victims.”
Opposing the protests of the Pope is not about defending Catholicism from anti-Catholic attacks, as the Vatican and other Catholics have framed the debate. It is about defending Catholicism from ruin from within its own ranks. More importantly, it is about standing up for basic human goodness regardless of one’s ideological allegiance. There is no dogma requiring Catholics to follow their Pope to all ends. Theologians often state in debates with philosophers that God would not demand people to do immoral acts. Why does this rule not apply now?
This is not a situation where the facts are unclear and one can shrug his or her shoulders and say “I don’t know where I stand.” The mountain of evidence does not look different from different angles. It looks enormous and hideous from all angles. You need only look to admit that. Caring – and opposition – should follow naturally.


  1. Michael, I don't understand. What's an honest and decent human?

  2. Michael, in your opinion, is there a legal case for, probably not arresting the pope, but at least for getting the pope to answer to the laws of UK or other countries? How realistic is it to mount a legal case agains Vatican? Not completely unrealistic, I hope?

  3. Wow, you changed my mind too. I hadn't any idea Ratzinger was so directly culpable.

    Right now prosecuting him sounds sort of unthinkable and taboo to the average person, but I have a feeling that now that the idea has been seriously floated, it might seem more acceptable the next time it's proposed. Social momentum is a funny thing. Haste the day!

  4. Good for you!

    Although I find it a bit surprising how you make it sound as if all that information has only just surfaced. While more details about the systematic protection of rapists become available every month now, most of the items you list are rather old news.

    The sad thing is only how little public outrage they cause. If a state court would, without the benefit of religious justification, sentence the doctors and mother of the Brazilian girl while letting the stepfather go free, it would probably be torches and pitchforks time, but for a bishop to use the same logic is a-okay.

  5. "Initially I thought, “well, sexual abuse happens elsewhere.” Well, maybe."

    But not on the same scale as in the Catholic Church. A back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates that Catholic Priests are 100 times more likely to be sex offenders than the average member of the public:


  6. I see you've been reading Butterflies and Wheels lately.

  7. "A back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates that Catholic Priests are 100 times more likely to be sex offenders than the average member of the public:"

    I would love to see the documentation that supports this because I have a feeling, it's completely fabricated. Everyone here needs to read Brendon O Neill's articles on Spiked to get a much better balanced idea of everything that is happening. Remember, you need to get an unbiased view of the situation first. Hari is not unbiased and will select only articles that support his theory. And a lot of the articles mentioned above are a distortion of the Pope's message. I don't think many people are going to argue that the Vatican wanted to keep things from blowing out of proportion, but I do think this whole article here is blowing things VERY much out of proportion and I highly recommend reading other sources before people condemn a man who has not been charged or never was charged. Remember he was made Pope only recently. Why didn't anyone charge him when he was a Cardinal? Do you honestly think Interpol is afraid to bring arrest a Cardinal? Think before you add to sensationalism of this whole thing.

  8. What about dishonest and undecent humans?

  9. "What about dishonest and indecent humans?"
    Well, they can try opposing the Pope as well, as I believe there is a good legal case here. Or else, come up with a good argument on why he should not be opposed to.
    As to the kids, if dishonest and indecent humans cannot stop [BEEP]ing them, maybe they can try only [BEEP]ing their own. But I am afraid there will be a good legal argument against that too, in most jurisdictions.

    PS: the censorship is self imposed.

  10. @Alex, I didn't mean to make it sound like all this information has just surfaced. Rather, I was trying to coalesce all the information that is out there into one long argument about opposing the Pope. Reason being that I just came around to how damning all the information is myself ...

  11. @opticalradiation,

    I don't feel sufficiently informed about the legal landscape to answer your question about whether the Pope can be charged. But lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who has a book coming out about this exact issue, believes a legal case is a real possiblity:


    However, even if the legal avenues were in place, I do believe social taboos would prevent a legal case from happening.

  12. @David,

    First, if Hari is unbiased because he is against the Pope, is O'Neill biased because he is for the Pope? Doesn't it go both ways?

    Second, facts are irrefutable. Sure, this essay consists of many of my own arguments -- but it also contains many facts, and none of them are distorted or presented out of context. Even so, there are more links in this essay than I have probably ever put in an essay before. People can judge for themselves if I misrepresent the Pope's statements and actions. I believe any such investigation would vindicate me.

    Third, all of this information about the current Pope's direct involvement in such affairs only recently has come to public light. That's why he was never charged: he and his people had covered it up until now. That's the point.

    Fourth, I can imagine you're going to eventually point me, as many others have, to evidence that the Pope is trying to work out the kinks now. Well, too little, too late.

  13. @Ophelia,

    Yes, I even read Pharyngula.

  14. That extensive quote of yours is feeding you bad information. The first case leaves off the fact that Ratzinger was moved to Rome in 1982. Also the knowledge of the time was that these deviants can be rehabilitated. So merely sending them to therapy was what was done across the board, not just by the Church. When Ratzinger reassigned him, he was placed in a situation where he would have no interaction with children. His successor, however, did not follow this pattern.

    The second case makes no sense. A bishop has the authority to 'defrock' a priest in their own diocese, so there was no need to involve the Roman Curia. A bishop has nearly absolute authority in their diocese over the clergy. A point might also be made that it was the priest who wanted to be defrocked, so the bishop would no longer have any authority over his life. That "dispensation" is what the Cardinal was denying.

    The last one is the most annoying. That abuse happened in the 60's under Abp. Weakland (who is a thorough reprobate) charge of the diocese. He had every opportunity to handle himself. It was eventually sent to Ratzinger. Why it too so long is for Weakland to answer as he knew about it in the the late 60's. The priest in question in '96 was bedridden at his mother's house after having a severe stroke. Raztinger decided that this man was not a danger to anyone, so there was no need to drag him through what would probably be a 6-10 year trial. The offending priest died shortly there after and went to his final Judgement.

    In light of all these, and many more, reports, Cardinal Ratzinger got the Pope to expand his jurisdiction as Prefect of the CDF, expand the definition of 'grave dereliction', and streamline the process of canonical trials. This was granted to him in 2001. He also told the clergy to keep the names of the victims private (i.e. don't get their names on the news) for the victim's sake. He never restricted the victim's ability to go public.

    The Brazilian girl is another twisted case. The first hospital said that the pregnancy did not endanger her life; however, a C-Section would need to be performed to deliver the twins. A certain interest group then convinced the mother to take her daughter to the hospital of the primary abortion provider in Brazil and they said that a natural birth would kill the 9 year old, but said nothing about a C-section. So it was the same prognosis, but used to a different end. Based on that they killed the twins. The mother did this in defiance of the bishop's personal pleas and offers of assistance.

    The excommunications are automatic for anyone that procures or helps to procure an abortion. An excommunication is a public penalty to emphasize that something is wrong. Things like rape and murder do not have a formal excommunication attached to them because nearly everyone understands that they are wrong, so no further emphasis is needed. Excommunication is essentially a teaching tool. They are also a warning to the offender that what they have done is a big deal and needs to be rependted of because they have placed their soul in danger.

    The stepfather is still guilty of a grave mortal sin, and if he dies unrepentant that will send him to Hell, that is the Church's teaching. However, one does not need to be a Catholic to understand what he did is gravely and manifestly wrong.

  15. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse.



    A 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland's Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police — a disclosure that victims' groups described as "the smoking gun" needed to show that the church enforced a worldwide culture of covering up crimes by pedophile priests.

    The newly revealed letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican's rejection of a 1996 Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests following Ireland's first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.

    The letter undermines persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never instructed local bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. It instead emphasizes the church's right to handle all child-abuse allegations and determine punishments in house rather than give that power to civil authorities.


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