PAEDOPHILIA AND THE CHURCH
Melbourne, Australia, March 13 – During my teenage years I had a class mate called
Norbert, a tubby little guy who waddled when he walked and puffed like a steam engine when we played ball.
The image of Norbert came back to me today, hours after Cardinal George Pell, the third most
senior Vatican official, was given a six-year jail sentence for orally raping two choir boys in the sacristy
at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. One of the two boys, now 30 years old, (the other boy died six
years ago) gave the court a graphic description of how Pell made them watch each other being abused.
The abuse occurred only minutes after Pell, then an Archbishop in 1996, had celebrated holy mess.
During the abuse he still wore his celebrant robes.
My friend Norbert had a lovely singing voice, perhaps the reason he became a choir boy at his
church, something he was proud of though we teased him often, warning him about ‘funny’ priests and the
rumours about ‘buggery,’ rumours prominent even then, in the late 1950s, in local Australian jargon and in
anti-catholic jokes – most of them told, of course, by Protestants.
Sixty years later the cardinal’s sentencing has ripped open the Pandora’s box that has been
hiding rampant sexual abuse by the clergy and the devious way the church covered for centuries the
misdeeds of paedophile priests, shunting them from one parish to another, surely aware they would
practice their hideous behaviour elsewhere. With the genie out of the box it will be hard to stop the
accusations. Last month in New Jersey, USA, 200 priests and deacons were publicly named as
paedophiles, those who may have driven their victims to suicide or mentally maimed for life.
But back to my class mate Norbert. One day he did not come to school. Nor did he come the next
day or the day after. One of the teachers said Norbert was ill which we accepted. When Norbert did come
back, two weeks later, he had lost weight. He was pale and he didn’t want to play cricket with us anymore.
Instead he would sit on the ground during recess and pick at the grass.
He had changed.
We thought he was still recovering from his illness, the same reason we thought he no longer went
to church choir practice, or to mess on Sunday, so we found out by and by. He also seemed to have lost his
voice, much to the chagrin of our music teacher who always made him sing the lead. We teased him a little
about puberty and then we kind of forgot about Norbert who had become somewhat of a recluse. I
remember if you clapped him on the back, as we always did to one another, he would jump sideways and
snap ‘stop it!’ He left school at the end of Matriculation and I never saw him again.
At one stage of my career as a foreign correspondent I covered the Vatican for a few years,
particularly during the years of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, a stickler for church ethics and opposed to
any ‘modernisation’ of the credo, the priesthood for women and an absolute ‘no’ to the right of abortion -
even for Bosnian catholic nuns, those who became pregnant after being gang-raped by Serb soldiers.
In John Paul II’s regnum little seeped out about paedophilia, although it was already rampant mostly
in Italy, USA, Ireland and Australia. But rumours of that kind were quickly squashed by the Pontiff’s favourite
lay order, Opus Dei, a kind of secret service for the Vatican. Its members, among them Vatican spokesman
Navarro Valls, always managed to stifle complaints or pay off complainants. The lid on these abuses was
tight in those days. Nothing was done to curb the malaise. Ironically, during this period the founder of Opus
Day, Jose Maria Escriva Balaguer, notorious as an anti-Semite and pro-Fascist, was proclaimed a saint.
Times have changed. Today the Catholic Church faces its greatest challenge in centuries because it has
failed to address, sweeping it under the carpet, what has become endemic among its all-male priesthood.
Legal experts now argue that by its failure to report abuse of minors the Church itself must be
investigated, even face trial for having covered up crimes either by paying off victims or threatening them
with eternal damnation - or simply shunting the culprits between parishes.
For years there are those who argue the problem of sexual abuse in the Church could be solved by
allowing priests to marry, a proposal knocked back by experts including famous philosopher and
psychiatrist Slavoj Zizek, who writes about an articulated ‘counterculture’ within the Church
that has its own set of rules.
“Allowing priests to marry would not solve the problem. We would not get priests doing their jobs without
harassing young boys because it is the priesthood itself that generates paedophilia through its
sexual apartheid – (male exclusivity)” he wrote.
As I said I never did see Norbert again. But some ten years ago I ran into an old friend from school,
an art dealer who kept in touch with Norbert once Norbert’s paintings had become known. Sometimes he,
Norbert and other artists would play poker at Norbert’s apartment.
During one such night he said everyone had been drinking, laughing and joking when Norbert
suddenly got up and said he was tired and would go to bed. But the rest should go on playing and drinking
as long as they wanted, so he said.
“We must have played another hour or so before we went home,” my old school friend said.
“I remember someone even shouted ‘goodnight Norbert” as we filed out.
“Next day Norbert’s sister telephoned me. She was crying. She said Norbert had taken an
overdose of sleeping pills and had died during the night.”
My friend sniffled a little then added: “We never did ask him why he stopped going to church,
Uli Schmetzer was a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of six
books, all available on Amazon and Kindle.