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The next abuse crisis

By Michael Cook - posted Monday, 29 March 2010

What the world needs is the truth about Germany’s sex abuse scandal, not Christopher Hitchens’ inflammatory rhetoric.

Media coverage of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Europe is being formatted according to the Watergate template: lurid crimes, decades-long cover-ups, dogged reporters, denials from official hacks, half-apologies from sallow bureaucrats, threads leading to the monster in his dark lair of lies and obstruction.

Last week the media’s favourite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, bundled together a handful of yellowing newspaper clippings and packaged it as a sulphurous attack in The Australian: “The pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it.”


But after cross-checking Hitchens’s allegations against his sources, it seems to me that the real stench comes from his incompetent research. He claims that Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter in 2001 to all bishops reminding them of “the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture” of children by Catholic priests. This letter is freely available on the internet and it says no such thing. Hitchens made this up. Let me repeat that: he made it up.

Hitchens’ most stinging allegation is that Ratzinger’s letter goes on to say that charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way restrained by a perpetual silence and everyone is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office under the penalty of excommunication".

Ratzinger’s letter says no such thing. Hitchens appears to have lifted this damaging quote from a seven-year-old article from the Guardian about a 1962 document.

The Catholic hierarchy has often handled sexual abuse allegations very badly. Even Benedict may have stumbled when he was Archbishop of Munich. We need answers. But we won’t get them by reading diatribes from Christopher Hitchens. If this is Vaticangate, he is not Deep Throat.

Benedict is determined to take a tough line on sex abuse. His recent letter to Ireland amounted to a savage dressing-down of his bishops and its directives for how the Irish clergy should do penance and self-examination are the closest thing to excommunicating an entire country in centuries. The paedophilia crisis has done more damage to Irish Catholicism than centuries of persecution, he said bitterly.

But it’s important to remember that these scandals relate to priests who offended decades ago. Wannabee Woodwards and Bernsteins are deflecting attention from the crisis that is happening right now, a crisis from which the media is averting its eyes, just as the bishops did 30 years ago, a crisis in which they play an active role.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel got it right last week. She denounced sexual abuse of minors as “a despicable crime” but refused to single out the Catholic Church for special criticism. "Let's not oversimplify things,” she said. “We need to speak about [changing] the statute of limitations, we can address the idea of compensation, but the main issue is that this is a major challenge for our society."

The huge, unreported story is that we are in denial about a widespread, deliberate, systemic encouragement of people not to control their sexuality. It’s as if a health department allowed Reiki therapists to edge out surgeons. Or as if a defence department allowed its tanks to rust. Fundamental principles of a civilised society like sexual restraint, fidelity in marriage, and nurturing families, are being undermined. The mind-numbing list of politicians caught with their pants down, the tsunami of pornography, sky-rocketing teen sex - all these are warning bells about the consequences of creating a hyper-sexualised culture.

Just take last week’s announcement by an Australian company that it had sold the licensing rights to a testosterone roll-on underarm deodorant to boost men’s flagging sex drive for US$335 million to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

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This is an edited version of an article first published at on March 18, 2010.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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