Gwynne Dyer: The lawless Roman Catholic Church

This article was updated on March 25, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.

The Biblical formula “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is generally taken to mean that people should recognise the authority of the state in secular matters, but that is not necessarily what Jesus meant by it. It is certainly not the current practice of the Roman Catholic Church, although the rule in modern democracies is very clear: the law applies equally to everyone, even priests.

It’s more than two decades since evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy began to surface in the United States, Canada, and Ireland, and still the revelations continue. A “tsunami” of allegations of child abuse in Catholic schools and orphanages is spreading from Ireland across the rest of Europe, and at the same time the extent of the coverup is becoming clearer.

Even the Pope was involved. For over 20 years he headed the Vatican office that deals with pedophile priests, but he did not order them to be reported to the police because—as a Vatican spokesman explained—Church law “does not envisage automatic penalties” for child abuse. Evidence emerged this week that in 1996 he did not even answer letters from two archbishops asking him to take action against a priest who allegedly abused 200 boys in a school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

The priests who abused and raped the children were individuals, and such people exist in other walks of life too. But the decision to cover up their crimes was a greater crime, committed by men whose main concern was protecting the reputation of the large organisation which they served, the Catholic Church. They acted as they did because they genuinely believed, and still believe, that the Church is above the law.

No other organisation makes this claim. Consider, for example, what would have happened if any other large organisation had discovered that some of its members were exploiting their positions and their power to have sexual relations with children.

The organisation in question might be a welfare department, or a boarding school, or a long-term care centre for severely handicapped children; it could be in the U.S., or Chile, or France. It makes no difference: the response would be the same.

The people in charge would immediately suspend the individual against whom the accusation has been made, so that he or she has no further contact with children until the matter has been fully investigated. If there was any actual sexual contact, they would immediately report it to the police, because that is a criminal offence. Not to report it would be a criminal offence on the part of the managers, and they could go to jail for it.

Well, a lot of child sexual abuse has been going on in the Catholic Church, and offences of this sort have been coming to the attention of the abusers’ superiors on a quite frequent basis for decades now. What did they do about it?

They hushed it up. They swore the child victims and their parents to silence, exploiting their loyalty to the Church. They moved the paedophile priests to other schools or institutions where they generally still had contact with children. And they didn’t report them to the police.

No bishop, cardinal, or pope ever went to prison for his part in this massive coverup of grave crimes. This is the really shocking thing about this scandal: the sheer contempt for “secular” law that permeates the entire Catholic hierarchy.

At a relatively low level, you can see it in the ignorant remarks of Monsignor Maurice Dooly, one of Ireland’s leading experts in canon law, who explained to Irish radio last week why priests did not have to report child abuse to the police. “Priests are not auxiliary policemen,” he said. “They do not have an obligation to go down to the police.” But they do: they are Irish citizens, and that is the law in Ireland.

Even Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t get it. In 2001, when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a letter to Catholic bishops around the world instructing them to report all abuse cases to his office at the Vatican for confidential handling.

This was taken by most bishops as meaning that they should NOT report abuse cases to the police. Vatican sources now claim that that’s not what Ratzinger really meant by his letter, but what else could it mean? He still doesn’t understand that bishops and even cardinals must obey the laws of the country they live in.

As a head of state, Pope Benedict XVI is now truly above the law, so he need not fear the policeman’s knock at the door. But there are still many priests who committed horrendous crimes but have been protected by the Church. There are also a good many bishops who should face trial for covering up those crimes, but it will never happen. A dog-collar is as good as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



Russell Barth

Mar 23, 2010 at 12:11pm


0 0Rating: 0

Lily p

Mar 23, 2010 at 12:58pm

Ugh. I consider myself Roman Catholic. I am truly embarrassed and ashamed by the news, although for as long as I can remember, there has always been a reputation of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Your article hits a cord. I admit that the truth hurts. However, please understand that these are isolated cases. The Roman Catholic religion obviously doesn't promote this or the cover up.

I think that perhaps like any other "higher" organization, there will always be an incentive to protect that "power".

0 0Rating: 0


Mar 23, 2010 at 3:34pm

I think most of these accusers are folks jumping on the bandwagon of money and greed against the Catholic Faith. Satan never ceases his attacks.

0 0Rating: 0


Mar 23, 2010 at 3:37pm

Most of the accuzations are the work of Satan in attacking the Catholic Church. Were is your artilces about other sections of society that commit sexaul crimes ?

0 0Rating: 0

Mike 666

Mar 23, 2010 at 4:55pm

Satan has alot to do with the priests maybe but not with what happened to those poor children. It,s the same with politicians. They never seem to have to pay for thier horrible crimes against people that have no recourse. We are just helpless pawns in this mess of a world we have!!!!

0 0Rating: 0

Evil Eye

Mar 23, 2010 at 9:29pm

Satan is organized religion!

0 0Rating: 0

Ross Lowe

Mar 24, 2010 at 1:23pm

Without wishing to appear to approve the actions of the priests who violated the trust of their children and parents in their care, I must admit some sympathy for the notion that the Catholic Church is above secular law. Going back to the Middle Ages (and weren't there plenty of accusations of pedophilia against clerics in those days, too?), it used to be accepted practice for a fleeing felon to seek "sanctuary" in the confines of the church. And this is as it should be; are we to serve God, or Caesar?

The offensive thing to me is not that the Catholic Church is defying secular law, but that it is surely defying God's wishes under cover of His Holy Name!

0 0Rating: 0

fred the head

Mar 24, 2010 at 2:41pm

sorry but you did not make it this is hell

0 0Rating: 0

glen p robbins

Mar 24, 2010 at 7:40pm

Jesus will not condone these betrayals of man--no matter what team they believe they are on.

0 0Rating: 0

Truth Commission

Mar 24, 2010 at 8:38pm

Religion is protected by secular laws that render it above suspicion and blame for vile immorality. Tax-exempt status for religion must end. Only when we can blame religious people and religion itself for providing the environment in which the child-raping Catholics can operate, will this kind of monstrous activity be stopped. No, it is not some individuals. Religion itself is evil. The End.

0 0Rating: 0