We plan to make the Pope’s visit a most uncomfortable experience, says Keith Porteous Wood
Pope Benedict is in trouble. Deep trouble. An indication of how deep can be seen in his desperation to find someone other than himself to blame for the child abuse catastrophe that has engulfed his church. Stunningly, Benedict has even been reduced to pointing the finger of blame at his predecessor on the throne of Peter. Indeed, John Paul II’s once certain sainthood now seems to be on hold.
Not even the slickest PR machine could have coped with the almost daily diet of worldwide revelations over the last few months, each seemingly worse than the one before. But despite these unprecedented drubbings, the Church has still not realised the game is up. At the European Parliament in May the doyen of the Vatican press corps concluded that Benedict had “come a long way” from the time in 1985 when he wrote to Oakland diocese in California of the need to “consider the good of the Universal Church” before the needs of victims of a notorious paedophile priest.
But has he really come so far? I immediately turned to the devout Catholic sitting next to me in the audience and we said in unison “Only because he has no alternative”.
Speaking recently to a very senior official in the Church, it is clear that he still thinks they can talk the crisis down with comments about the prevalence of child abuse in other settings such as schools and families. When I told this Church official that victims must be released from vows of secrecy, often conditional in out-of-court pay-offs by the Church, the decoded answer was “anything but that”.
And I can understand why. There is – believe me – plenty more yet to come out. The genie is out of the bottle and it won’t be tempted back in by the age-old tactic of silence and waiting for collective amnesia. The blind deference on which the Vatican relied so heavily is no more. And it brings a new vulnerability.
Child abuse even became a major issue during the recent Papal visit to the most pious country in Europe, Malta. The Pope was tackled about it at a press conference and for once resisted the usual tack of playing victim: “The greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without but arises from sin within the Church.”
In previous times the NSS’s petition objecting to taxpayers footing the bill for the Pope’s visit to Britain in September would have been dismissed as a fleabite. Yet the 28,000 signatures gathered in a fortnight unsettled both the Government and the Catholic establishment, to the point that a collection was ordered in every diocese to help cover the cost of the directly religious elements of the trip. I had even been hoping for the headline “NSS saves taxpayers £7 million”. But that now seems rather optimistic, as rumours abound that the cost estimates of the pastoral element have doubled and the distribution of the requisite gift aid envelopes was a fiasco. Lord (Chris) Patten has been parachuted in to take over the helm. Especially in these straitened times, we must insist that the public purse does not pick up the overrun.
Such are the jitters that surround this trip that a small demonstration outside Westminster Cathedral by the Protest the Pope campaign may have resulted in the decision on security grounds to make all the papal events in September “ticket only”. That alone will hugely reduce the crowd size. Attendees would be restricted to those known to the churches – and that is far fewer than it was, as mass attendance has halved since the last papal visit in the 1980s.
If the NSS and Protest the Pope campaign have their way, child abuse will dominate the British visit, too. And that is as it should be; victims past, present and future deserve no less.