Last night (Tuesday February, 25, 2014) PBS aired a Frontline presentation ostensibly on the secrets of the Vatican. (You can watch the program for free at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/secrets-of-the-vatican/). It is actually a reflection on corruption and lack of transparency on three major issues; the sexual abuse crisis, hypocrisy regarding clerical celibacy and financial impropriety. The implied claim of the documentary is that Pope Benedict lacked the political muscle (and in the case of the appointment and retention of Cardinal Bertone demonstrated political and managerial incompetence) to effect the change required to clean up the Vatican and upon realizing this, relinquished the reigns of the papacy, eventually to Pope Francis. The program covers a lot of ground and probably should have picked a more central thesis. I am going to cover the first sin of the church that the program examines; namely the sexual abuse crisis.
The ugly truth of the program reveals many unflattering experiences in the church and truth be told are very difficult to watch. The most emotionally devastating aspects of the program include individual accounts of priest pedophilia and rape of children and young people. I would caution anyone who has post-sexual abuse survivor traumatic stress to take great care in determining whether or not to watch the program. It begins with accounts of survivors of the Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel in Mexico (the relationship between corruption and the Legion of Christ especially with regard to it’s privileged relationship with Rome could probably be it’s own Frontline special) and continues with accounts of abuse survivors in the Diocese of Milwaukee. The survivors accounts’ are heartbreaking and truthful and raw. The show accurately points to clericalism as one of the root causes of the issue in that pedophile priests were protected and moved from parish to parish providing more opportunity for horrific abuse instead of legally tried and locked away in metal hospitals for life as they should have been.
The program then makes a leap to tie the issue of priestly pedophilia to clerical celibacy. This is flatly false. People who abuse children have a disease and should be locked away from people (I’d argue for life). This disease does not take hold in someone because they experience same sex attraction or because they choose to abstain from sex with anyone. This link has been attempted by others and demonstrated to be false. Fr. James Martin has made this point abundantly clear. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/its-not-about-celibacy-bl_b_533037.html) It is surprising that a show with the gravitas of a Frontline presentation would take this tact. It also misses the point of the horror of the victims and the need to strategize ways to make sure that this never happens again by incorrectly assigning blame to celibacy when in fact blame rests completely with sick priests, the bishops who allowed them further access to children and the sin of clericalism in our Catholic culture that protects priests and not the people they serve.
The rest of the program addresses other ugly truths; complete disregard for the vow of celibacy in some parts of the church; the so called “slime machine” that attempts to discredit leaders in the church who seek reform and the magical world of unicorns and rainbows that is the transparency and transactional processes at the Vatican Bank. The program does lay the truth bare about some aspects of the church and it does so accurately. There are some missteps in the show that are surprising for a Frontline calibre program.