The Roman Catholic Church’s defensive response to the cascading charges of clergy sexual abuse has unleashed an astonishing spectacle: the world’s most powerful church draping itself in the mantle of victimhood. In the process, the church has managed to draw Jews into this story, with an offensive comparison made by the preacher of the papal household that the church’s bad press is somehow akin to historical antisemitism — a statement the Vatican later disavowed.
As this drama unfolds, it’s important to focus on the real victims: certainly not the church itself, no matter how much it protests, but the thousands of people who claim to have been abused by Catholic priests and whose stories were cruelly ignored or discounted while the alleged perpetrators have been allowed by a protective church hierarchy to skirt justice and accountability.
This pedophile scandal is sui generis because the Catholic Church is truly like no other religious institution, with its rich and complicated history, adherents worldwide and, of course, a pope who is not accountable to any earthly superior. But there are uncomfortable echoes of this scandal with similar ones within the Jewish community.
The common thread is not necessarily sex, or sexual abuse. That is, instead, the painful byproduct, the awful consequence of unbridled, unchecked power.
To some outsiders, the Catholic conundrum can be traced to the church’s insistence on celibacy, and the unnatural expectations that places on the men who become priests. (Little mention is ever made in this context of the women who become nuns.) But the requirement to “serve the Lord without distraction,” as Paul said, is an insufficient explanation for the epidemic of reprehensible behavior.
Rabbis who have been caught in their own abuse scandals were not celibate. Moreover, child sexual abuse is more likely to occur inside a family than in a church, synagogue or schoolroom.
Instead, the common thread is the abuse of power, the willingness of a closed and autocratic leadership to avoid transparency and protect the lives and reputations of those within their ranks, rather than those who have been harmed.
We’ve seen this same dynamic play out in some of the recent scandals involving rabbis in the United States and Israel. Take, for instance, the case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon, accused of having sex with his male students. A charismatic leader in Israel’s religious Zionist community, Elon was forced into “retirement” four years ago by Takana, a private forum on rabbinic sexual abuse, after it quietly investigated the charges against him without revealing the names of alleged victims to civil authorities.
This is eerily reminiscent of attempts by the Catholic hierarchy to probe, sometimes punish — and too often protect — its own. While any institution has the right to guard against unfair accusations, the failure to openly confront alleged wrongdoing compounds the hurt of victims and endangers the public’s trust.
The Vatican is faced with an enormous challenge, in part religious, in part managerial, and blaming this crisis on the media or anyone else only prevents the Holy See from completing the painful self-examination and institutional reforms necessary to reclaim the faith of its flock. The church’s predicament should serve as a warning to other faith communities: Power can corrupt even those who claim to walk with God.