Magazine article The Spectator

Sacred and Profane

Magazine article The Spectator

Sacred and Profane

Article excerpt

There is something about Holy Week that seems utterly baffling to those unfamiliar with Christianity. Why would Christians be so proud of the crucifix, the symbol of a defeated, slain Christ? Then there's the sacrifice of Lent, the solemnity of Good Friday and the joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. All are difficult to explain to the generations that never learnt Bible stories at school.

And over the years, Christians in Britain have learnt to stop trying to explain. In the face of an increasingly confident and aggressively secular society, churchgoing, especially among Anglicans, is becoming something one doesn't talk about.

Roman Catholics have more reason than most to keep a low profile at present.

The Roman Church is yet again embroiled in the most appalling controversies: from Munich to Wisconsin, the stories about child abuse proliferate. Not far behind this scandal lies a general question about the role of the Catholic Church in society. And lurking behind that, the role of churches in general: with their schools, adoption agencies, specific outlooks on personal life and defiance of the equalities agenda.

There is no smoking gun in the latest scandal. The Pope is accused of intervening to prevent a Wisconsin priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, from facing penalties for sexual abuse. Fr Murphy's case was referred to the Vatican after almost 20 years of inaction by the local bishop. The then Cardinal Ratzinger is not recorded to have taken any decision: instead his deputy recommended a full canonical trial in 1996. In August 1998, the local bishop wrote to say that the accused's ill health made a trial impossible. Fr Murphy died later that month.

It is hard, here, to see a papal cover-up.

Not until May 2001 did the Vatican take central authority over such crimes, and responsibility for such investigations fell to Cardinal Ratzinger. He soon became known for dealing with sex abuse cases swiftly, and authorising immediate action without need for a lengthy canonical trial.

But that some 3,000 cases passed through his office shows the extent of the problem within the Church. At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger claimed this had nothing to do with the priesthood or celibacy: the proportion of abuse was no higher among priests than among other groups. Yet studies suggest that this was not the case - the figure was higher. And it is clear that the Church was for a long time lax in dealing with such complaints. Its structural failings left bishops to save their dioceses from controversy by moving around offending priests who should have been sent to jail. …

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