INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - Catholic Church's public response has been 'confused'

The Catholic paedophilia scandal in the US has been exacerbated by the Church's failure to control information flow, writes leading US commentator Paul Holmes.

'If homosexuality is something we should all accept, and if priests should be allowed to have sex, and if the Boy Scouts should have gay scoutmasters, then why is everybody upset that homosexual priests have gotten sexually involved with boys under 18?'

I took this quote from a column written by a Roman Catholic priest for an online publication called The Rake. I present it as evidence of the kind of logical and ethical confusion that seems to infuse the Catholic Church and has characterised its public response to the child abuse scandal.

Is the author suggesting that if you fail to condemn homosexuality you must also condone paedophilia? Examine the position a little more closely, and the logical fallacy takes on an ironic dimension: it's unfair for the media to excoriate the entire Catholic clergy for the actions of a few of its members, but it's OK for the church to castigate another group (homosexuals) for the actions of a few of its members.

This serves as an illustration of the fact that institutions need to control the flow of information; that allowing middle managers with no media training to speak for an organisation can be dangerous.

But many of the church's official statements have been even more asinine. Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston condemned the Boston Globe for its role in uncovering the scandal and called down 'the power of god' on the newspaper.

In Omaha, Archbishop Elden Curtiss wrote to a parishioner who had criticised the church in print that, 'Any Catholic who uses the secular media to air complaints against the leadership of the church, without any dialogue with that leadership, is a disgrace to the church'.

The urge to blame the media comes easily to a lot of institutions in crisis, and should almost always be avoided.

That is particularly true in this case. While there has been some sensationalism, the media has done the public - and, though it refuses to recognise it, the church - a tremendous service in bringing both the abuses and the subsequent cover-up to our attention.

Still, the church seems more intent on looking for the mote in its brother's eye rather than considering the beam in its own. That's a common failing, particularly among institutions convinced of their own righteousness, and it's easy to see how it might be exacerbated in an organisation that believes its leader is infallible and its teachings divinely inspired.

But as the church is learning, every institution is ultimately accountable to its stakeholders.

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