This is my last post before the arrival of the Pope. By the time you read this, he will be here; as I write, he is in the air. In my last column, I wrote that I confidently expected all the media attempts to wreck the visit to be swept away by the visit itself. I still believe that: but it is clear that the media attempts to play up the paedophile scandals in the Church will continue.
So in these final hours I repeat yet again what I have already written more than once. The scandal is NOT that paedophilia is more rampant in the Catholic Church than anywhere else: it is that we are all too representative of modern society when we should be an example to it.
I have learned from bitter experience that you can produce the evidence of this until you are blue in the face: the Church’s enemies will still carry on screaming. Nevertheless, I quote once more just one telling survey among a growing number (for some of which see my last post on the subject): according to Dr Thomas Plante of Stanford University, “available research suggests that approximately two to five per cent of priests have had a sexual experience with a minor” which “is lower than the general adult male population” – in which the percentage of those who have interfered with minors “is best estimated to be closer to eight per cent”. This is shameful enough: but it does not make us actually worse than any other institution in modern society (and as for cover-ups, we are very far from being alone in that either. It is very bad: but we are not alone in our squalor).
How damaging will this misapprehension about the Church prove to be to the visit now in its early hours? The media onslaught has already begun. As Damian Thompson wrote a week or so ago, “We’ll know soon enough if certain media outlets have decided to go ahead with their planned dirty tricks. If those tricks work, “antagonism” could lead to a disaster. If they don’t…. then the papal visit could be an unexpected triumph.
Well, last night, Channel 4, in a broadcast prominently puffed in advance by The Guardian (of course), unleashed their own dirty trick by “revealing” that (in the Guardian’s words) “More than half of the Catholic clergy jailed for paedophile activity in England and Wales remain in the priesthood – with several receiving financial support from church authorities, raising serious questions about depth of church commitment to child protection and overshadowing the start of the papal visit”.
The implication is that they are still active in the priesthood, rather than being suspended from all priestly activity as they await laicisation, a lengthy legal process during which the Church has a continuing responsibility for them. They have no contact with the faithful or with their children. In due course, they will be out once and for all.
There is of course absolutely no question whatever about the present “depth of church commitment to child protection”: as for “overshadowing the start of the papal visit”, that is precisely what they hope it WILL do, that’s why they cooked up this smear in the first place, and why they delayed screening it until the very eve of the visit.
This story will be dealt with and discredited: but these things take time. But it will, I trust be ineffective, even in the short term: if that’s all they can cook up the visit is safe enough. Not many people watch Channel 4, and the Guardian’s readership is already substantially anti-Papist anyway; I doubt whether this story will make it into other papers.
But these hours of waiting are anxious and uncertain (just as, it should be remembered, they were before the arrival of Pope John Paul in 1982). As I write, the Duke of Edinburgh will be on his way to the airport; and the pilot of the Holy Father’s plane will be preparing for his final descent. Pope Benedict, I have no doubt, is quietly praying for the success of the visit; and as soon as I have sent this post winging through cyberspace to the Herald, so too shall I be, struggling to follow this great and holy man in this as in all else.