When a group of young people are asked to think imaginatively about how to prepare for an occasion, say the Pope's visit, it is inevitable that some ideas will be sillier and more offensive than others. The ideas thrown up by junior Foreign Office staff showed every sign of being the result of a brainstorming session that concluded shortly before the pubs shut. And, as such, they should have been filed under D for dustbin rather than being circulated to Whitehall and Downing Street staff where it was virtually certain that they would be leaked to the media. Those who played the situation for laughs by suggesting that the Pope be asked to open an abortion clinic, bless a gay marriage and launch a range of Benedict-branded condoms may well have thought their suggestions hilarious. But they have helped to shift the emphasis from the need to help countless thousands of children abused by clergy to a government apology to the Vatican. The government had no choice over this, since Britain's Catholics are likely to have seen the suggestions as an attack not simply on those who have raped children but on their faith itself. Putting a religious minority in a situation of feeling that the articles of its faith are under attack actually undermines the fundamentals of a tolerant secular society. It is something that Muslims in Britain and in various European countries have been experiencing for some time, with proposals to ban certain modes of dress and architecture.
Worse, to put the government into a position where it has to apologise to the Vatican means taking the pressure off the priority of putting exploited children's interests first. The widespread problem of sexual assaults on children by a minority of Catholic clergy is only part of the problem. More aggravating has been the systematic cover-ups that took place in several countries, where paedophile priests were simply moved to another parish and frequently continued their crimes with a new set of victims. The culture of cover-up and denial was so endemic as to suggest that failure to put an end to this perversion of the church's teachings and of the law of the land stretched to the highest echelons of the organisation. The number of child victims who saw their evidence ignored or disbelieved attests to an even greater treachery than the original betrayal of trust by their abusers. In giving the lie to the victims and protecting the abusers in the name of defending the reputation of the church, the hierarchy acted immorally and illegally. Those who abused children and those who conspired to cover up their crimes should not simply be subject to internal church procedures. They should face charges in criminal courts and attract due retribution in line with the normal sentences handed out to those who rape children. The Catholic church's stipulation of clerical celibacy must not be used as an excuse for abnormal and criminal behaviour. Many people see forced celibacy as unnatural, but that is a matter for the church itself. Non-Catholics have a right to demand punishment of the wrongdoers, compensation for their victims and future protection for children. But this must not stray into demonisation of an entire faith, the overwhelming majority of whose adherents will have been horrified by the shameful treatment of defenceless children.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.