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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Bill Maher tries to one-up Ben Stein

April 16, 2008. I caught the end of Bill Maher's show the other night, the part where he does a kind of monologue called "New Rules." Among other things, he said that Pope Benedict XVI "used to be a Nazi." At least he didn't blame Nazism on Catholicism, as Ben Stein might have done if Catholics accepted evolution. Wait a minute! Many Catholics do accept evolution. They must not believe in creation, then, right? No, sorry Ben. They believe God created everything and they believe that evolution accurately describes how species came to be for the most part. Ben might find that to be a shock if he ever left his narrow-minded neighborhood. Anyway, it is common knowledge that the pope is German, grew up in Germany as Joseph Alois Ratzinger (b. 1927), and at the age of 14 was legally required to enroll in the Hitler Youth. At 16, he was removed from a seminary and drafted into the German military. Ratzinger was never a Nazi.

The Nazi reference is minor, however, compared to Maher's claim that when Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he “wrote a letter instructing every Catholic bishop to keep the sex abuse of minors secret until the statute of limitations ran out. And that’s the Church’s attitude: ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.’” The last line is a gratuitous insult. The data on homosexuals in the priesthood is inconclusive and more likely based on guesses than any reliable surveying. But the priesthood is no more likely to attract homosexuals than school teaching. There is no evidence that celibacy is related to homosexuality. (Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy.) There is evidence that homosexual males are more likely to be child abusers than heterosexual males, but the evidence relies on samples of convicted abusers rather than samples from the general population.

In any case, Maher's assertion that the pope told bishops to cover-up sexual abuse until the statute of limitations ran out is a serious accusation and isn't true. Maher didn't invent the claim, however. He may have stumbled upon one of the many websites that proclaim the pope ordered a cover-up. Or, he may have heard the claim made on BBC One a couple of years ago in a program called "Sex crimes and the Vatican." The BBC in turn may have gotten their information from a 2003 CBS report read by anchor Scott Pelly:

For decades, priests in this country have abused children in parish after parish while their superiors covered it all up. Now it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican.

CBS apparently got its information from a couple of trial lawyers who interpreted the English translation of a Latin document called  Crimen sollicitationis ("the crime of soliciting"), a letter written in 1962 by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office.* The letter laid down some canon law regarding procedures to be taken when clerics (priests or bishops) of the Roman Catholic Church are accused of having taken advantage of the confessional to make sexual advances to penitents. (It should be obvious why the church would want to keep such a letter secret. The fact that such a letter was written indicates a serious problem of sexual predation among a significant number of priests.) Crimen sollicitationis extended the rules to any charges of sexual abuse by priests. The rules laid down concerned the church and its own investigation of charges against priests. The rules say nothing about not cooperating with civil authorities. However, it is easy to see how someone could read the document as implying that all parties must be bound by secrecy in a civil trial. The document does say that everyone involved in the canon law proceedings must take the following vow:

I do promise, vow and swear that I will maintain inviolate secrecy about each and every thing brought to my knowledge in the performance of my aforesaid function, excepting only what may happen to be lawfully published when this process is concluded and put into effect … and that I will never directly or indirectly, by gesture, word, writing or in any other way, and under any pretext, even that of a greater good or of a highly urgent and serious reason, do anything against this fidelity to secrecy, unless special permission or dispensation is expressly granted to me by the Supreme Pontiff.

Thus, if someone accused a priest of sex abuse and demanded a hearing before an ecclesiastical court, it would seem that when the canonical proceedings were finished, the accuser would have to get the pope's permission to file civil charges. In reality, however, it would be rare for an accuser to ask the church to conduct a hearing according to canonical law. The fact is, most accusers would go straight to a civil proceeding, where canon law has no bearing.

As John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter put it:

it’s been difficult to explain to non-Catholics the distinction between canon law and civil law, and that when the church imposes secrecy in canonical proceedings, that’s meant to be in addition to, not instead of, cooperation with civil and criminal investigations.

Maybe. Or maybe there is a more noble purpose:

Others see [the secrecy] as aimed rather at the protection of all involved, the accused, the victim/denouncer and the witnesses, before the verdict was passed: "It allows witnesses to speak freely, accused priests to protect their good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward who don’t want publicity. Such secrecy is also not unique to sex abuse. It applies, for example, to the appointment of bishops."*

The pope was brought into the fray because in 2001, when he was Prefect, he clarified the section of Crimen Sollicitationis that concerned the confidentiality of internal Church investigations into accusations made against priests of certain crimes, including sexual abuse. "While bishops hold the secrecy pertained only internally, and did not preclude investigation by civil law enforcement, the letter was often seen as promoting a cover-up."*

It is not too difficult to understand why there are few challenges to CBS, the BBC, or to Bill Maher. Most people don't have a clue about canonical law and what its function is vis-à-vis civil law. More important, there were too many cases of bishops protecting priests they knew to be serial abusers, such as Bishop Robert Banks, Bishop William F. Murphy, Bishop Thomas V. Daily, Cardinal Law, etc. etc. To be fair, however, we should not accuse the pope of ordering a cover-up. Unfortunately, he didn't need to. What we should accuse the pope of is not being a very good moral leader as each of the names of his clergy who had protected abusive priests was unveiled. His meeting with abuse victims on his current tour of America looks like little more than damage control and a public relations stunt.* It's too little, too late. Where were Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II, and all the other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church when story after story of cover-up unfolded? Praying? For what? That the stories would go away? Maybe they were praying with the Muslim clerics who stand silently by as a small band of fanatics perverts their religion by murdering and maiming anyone who happens to be present when they ignite their weapons or explode the bombs they wear.

It may bring roars of laughter from guests like Jason Alexander and from typical Bill Maher audiences, but the stereotype of the Catholic priest as a homosexual pedophile is unjustified. The data demonstrate that, at least regarding pedophilia, you have no more to fear from a typical Catholic priest than from a typical politician, school teacher, athletic coach, journalist, or celebrity. Because of the stereotyping, it may even be the case that these days a priest has a better chance of being falsely accused of sexual abuse than a child has of being sexually abused by a priest. On the other hand, only rarely will anyone accuse priests and parents of abusing children simply by indoctrinating them in religion. Few have the courage of Richard Dawkins to proclaim that a religious upbringing itself is a form of child abuse.

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