Magazine article The New Yorker

Indulgence

Magazine article The New Yorker

Indulgence

Article excerpt

On October 31, 1517, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, Dr. Martin Luther, put the finishing touches on a series of bullet points and, legend has it, nailed the result to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany--the equivalent, for the time and place, of uploading a particularly explosive blog post. Luther's was a protest against the sale of chits that were claimed to entitle buyers or their designees to shorter stays in Purgatory. Such chits, known as indulgences, were being hawked as part of Pope Leo X's fund-raising drive for the renovation of St. Peter's Basilica. The "Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" touched off a high-stakes flame war that rapidly devolved into the real thing, with actual wars, actual flames, and actual stakes. The theological clash that sundered Christendom didn't just change the face of Western religion; it birthed the modern world.

Half a millennium later, the present agony of Catholicism is very far from being in the same league, even though the National Catholic Reporter has called it "the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in Church history." The crisis is not about doctrine, at least not directly. It's about administration; it's about the structure of power within the Catholic Church; it's about the Church's insular, self-protective clerical culture. And, of course, like nearly every one of the controversies that preoccupy and bedevil the Church--abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, celibacy, marriage and divorce and affectional orientation--it's about sex.

It's also about indulgence--the institutional indulgence, fitful but systemic, of the sexual exploitation of children by priests. The pattern broke into public consciousness in the United States a quarter of a century ago, when a Louisiana priest pleaded guilty to thirty-three counts of crimes against children and was sentenced to prison. Since then, there have been thousands of such cases, civil and criminal, involving many thousands of children and leading to legal settlements that have amounted to more than two billion dollars and have driven several dioceses into bankruptcy. In 1992, Richard Sipe, a Catholic psychotherapist and researcher who served for eighteen years as a priest and Benedictine monk, told a conference of victims that "the current revelations of abuse are the tip of an iceberg, and if the problem is traced to its foundations the path will lead to the highest halls of the Vatican."

America's liberal system of tort law, along with the enterprising reporting of journalists at newspapers like the Boston Globe, brought the problem to light earlier here than elsewhere. But it can no longer be dismissed as an epiphenomenon of America's sexual libertinism and religious indiscipline. In Ireland, for example, where Church-run orphanages and other institutions for children are supported by the state, a government commission reported last year that

the Dublin Archdiocese's preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities.

The past few years have seen a cascade of revelations from many countries, including, most recently, Germany, and in the past month the cascade has become a flood. Sipe's prediction has come true. …

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