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Catholicism's latest awful hypocrisy

Date: August 2 2003

If only the Catholic Church pursued abusive clergy in the way it fights homosexuality.

Victims of paedophile Catholic priests around the world must have reeled with dismay yesterday when they heard of the Vatican's vehement public denunciation of homosexuality.

In a 12-page document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has lashed out at all manifestations of gay lifestyle, labelling all homosexual activity as "seriously depraved".

More, it has gone on to require that Catholic politicians oppose laws in favour of homosexual unions, even to the extent of working for the repeal of laws already in existence. It was "gravely immoral" for Catholics to vote to recognise these unions, the Vatican added.

Strong words indeed, and deeply hurtful to many devout gay Catholics - and other Christians - struggling to uphold an ideal of faithful, loving commitment within same-sex partnerships.

But sex abuse victims who fell prey to Catholic priests and brothers over recent decades must feel particularly betrayed by this extraordinary onslaught.

If only the Vatican had been half so critical of its own wayward clergy, and of the bishops who skilfully protected them for so long. If only it had demanded Catholic legislators and politicians bring the full force of the law to bear on the perpetrators.

There have been some words of apology and concern from the Vatican on clergy sex abuse, but each time they have been minimalist, to say the least.

The Pope has expressed a "deep sense of sadness and shame" at the harm done by some clergy. But most official comments have been cushioned and minimised, either by claims that most clergy crimes did not constitute genuine paedophilia, or an insistence that the vast majority of priests were good and holy men.

There has been no extensive public acknowledgement from the Vatican of the terrible pain and injustice suffered by the victims.

As for the bishops who protected abusive clergy, little has been said or done about them by the Vatican. Cardinal Bernard Law, the prominent American archbishop forced to resign from Boston after the sex abuse scandals there, still remains a cardinal. He continues to serve on a high-level Vatican commission.

Coming so swiftly after the sex abuse crisis in the church, this latest document appears to be the height of hypocrisy.

How is it that the Vatican cannot see that there is no comparison, even by conventional moral standards, between private, adult, consenting relationships between people of the same sex, and the wilful destruction of a child's body, mind and soul by a sexual predator claiming the authority of God?

Jesus' condemnation of those who fussed about a speck in their brother's eye but failed to see the great beam of wood in their own, comes to mind.

The Vatican document is only the latest in the battle some mainstream church leaders are waging against homosexuality.

The Anglican Church has been a battleground for months now, and the battle continues this weekend when the American Episcopal (Anglican) Church decides whether to ratify an openly gay man as a bishop. Traditionalist opponents, including the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, have travelled the world to try to stop this move, just as they brought out the big guns to stop the appointment of a gay bishop in England last month. If only they had been so publicly energetic and vehement about sex abuse within their church.

Michael Kelly, spokesman for the Rainbow Sash movement, has commented that the strident tone of the Catholic document shows that the Vatican knows the horse has bolted. That, clearly, is the nub of the problem, for both the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Once the dominant churches set the rules by which society governed sexual behaviour. The church's rules were society's rules, and legislatures enforced the church's expectations. Not any longer. As the churches rapidly lose their influence, few take much notice of their strictures any more. They have become irrelevant.

Same-sex unions are increasingly gaining legal recognition around the world, and most reasonable people no longer have any problem with the loving gay partnerships they know among their families and friends.

In the face of such a catastrophic loss of social power and influence, the reaction of traditionalist church leaders is predictable, if deplorable.

The vehemence of the reaction shows they are fighting to hold on to the last vestiges of the old dispensation. The power to set the rules is far more important to them than the occasional regrettable breaking of the rules, such as has happened in clergy sex abuse.

Meanwhile, the Uniting Church has recently adopted an altogether healthier - and holier - approach to homosexuality, by emphasising that the moral yardstick should not be gender, but rather the quality of the relationship.

It has been a breath of fresh air in an ugly time.

Dr Muriel Porter is an Anglican laywoman and the author of Sex, Power and the Clergy (Hardie Grant Books, 2003).