Last night I squeezed into a packed lecture theatre at the London School of Economics to hear Geoffrey Robertson QC present “The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuses”. Although I approached with some trepidation, I felt determined to keep an open mind and I was immediately reassured by the chairman’s insistence that the lecture was an academic assessment of the sexual abuse crisis. I therefore assumed that although I may not agree with Mr Robertson’s conclusions he would at least, in accordance with the values of academia, construct his case on the foundation of a sound and sophisticated understanding of the Catholic Church and canon law. Furthermore, he would be able to detach himself from any personal objections to the Church’s moral teaching and not allow this to flavour his tone.
My hopes were dashed after about 90 seconds. Robertson’s dramatic prologue introduced a “typical” paedophile priest who would be perfect for The Pope On Trial: The Musical but did not accord to reality. Paedophile priests are apparently “lonely” and “sexually frustrated” individuals, shackled by the vow of celibacy and the Church’s teaching that masturbation is a mortal sin. Supposedly then, Robertson’s pseudo-psychological investigations have discovered a form of priest who molests and rapes young children, but when it comes to masturbation and sexual relations, he is paralysed by the fear of eternal damnation, his selective scruples overwhelm him and his heart brims with obedience and loyalty to the Church.
The reality of the sexual abuse crisis is that it is disgusting and heartbreaking. As a Catholic especially, I find it impossible to read about the terrible cases that have come to light without feeling deep anger and sorrow for innocent children who have suffered so unspeakably. One simply cannot begin to imagine what the victims feel and suffer. But a recurring feature in this discussion seems to be profound ignorance by vocal critics about how canonical procedure works within the Church and the fundamental misunderstanding that the Church utilises its internal disciplinary procedures to usurp civil law. This misunderstanding was the basic premise on which Robertson built his case.
Given the severity of the sexual abuse crisis, it was in some ways encouraging that Geoffrey Robertson’s lecture was so busy, because it seemed to signify concern about victims of sexual abuse and a sincere desire to critically assess the solutions. On the other hand, objective analysis of very harrowing cases can have a dehumanising effect. During last night’s talk the ability to “detach” reached uncomfortable new boundaries when a surprising amount of tittering erupted while Robertson jovially discussed the merits of using the term “sodomising” when talking on US television about the sexual abuse of children. Within academic discussions, we are often rightly encouraged to “take a step back”, but this lighthearted slant was very far away from the pain at the heart of the issue.
The need to safeguard every vulnerable member of the Catholic Church from abuse in any form requires critical thought based on solid knowledge and must be tempered with compassion and sensitivity. Unfortunately, last night’s lecture did not strike this balance.