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Undermining the faith

Catholic bashers like to refer to priests as ‘men in dresses.’ It’s just another in a growing number of media cheap shots directed at Pope Benedict XVI.

May 02, 2010|Charlotte Allen

"Men in dresses." That's who columnist Maureen Dowd blames for decay in "our religious kingdom."

Which men in dresses is she referring too? The ballerinas-in-drag of Les Ballets Trockadero? The Marilyn Monroe lookalikes marching in gay pride parades? Nope. She's talking about Catholic priests.

Lately Dowd, along with half the other columnists in America, has been speculating about what Pope Benedict XVI knew or didn't know concerning clerical abuse of minors back when he was Josef Ratzinger, acting as archbishop of Munich or as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And she and her gang seem to find it hilarious that Catholic priests and bishops often wear cassocks or other long traditional robes, especially on formal religious occasions and when celebrating Mass.

It's odd that no one ever uses the word "dresses" to describe the ankle-length liturgical garments worn by Episcopal priests. Nor are Protestant ministers or Jewish rabbis derided as cross-dressers when they don long robes for religious services. Has anyone ever called the Dalai Lama "a man in a dress"? Or Genghis Khan? Not unless you wanted to see your ribcage sliced into salami by a scimitar.

For most of human history long robes on men — whether the togas of Roman senators, the kimonos of Japanese samurai or the black gowns worn by judges and academics today — have been associated with status, dignity and, in the case of the clergy, the sacral separation of religious ritual from the ordinary activities of daily life. Indeed, so redolent of masculinity are those garments that when women enter the professions for which they are worn, they often soften and feminize them. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, wears lace collars with her judicial robes

Catholic priests alone are mocked as ecclesiastical Lypsinkas in the media and elsewhere when they dare to wear the traditional garb of their calling. There is a reason for that. The latest round of abuse allegations, only one of which can be said to have occurred on Ratzinger's watch, aren't really about supposed Vatican cover-ups of sexual exploitation of children by clerics. They are yet another effort to discredit the Roman Catholic Church wholesale by people whose beefs with Catholicism rest on entirely different grounds — namely that it forbids abortion and homosexual conduct, it doesn't allow women to be priests, and it requires men who enter the priesthood to remain celibate.

If you can undermine the Catholic Church and its theologically conservative current pope with a cheap shot by calling its clergy a bunch of drag queens, the thinking seems to go, all well and good. Far better, though, to reach into your quiver for a more expensive and deadly shot, which is the best way to describe the current campaign, based on flimsy to nonexistent evidence, to implicate Benedict in a sinister conspiracy to shield Catholic clerics from the consequences of their sexual rapacity.

Eight years ago, in 2002, the media performed a valuable, if painful, service to the church by exposing a large number of instances in which Catholic bishops in the U.S. acted in ineffectual, dilatory and self-serving ways during the 1970s, '80s and '90s so as to permit Catholic priests who were known child and teen molesters to continue serving in parishes.

The revelations resulted in a drastic and salutary overhaul of the U.S. church's procedures for handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse of children. Even before then, in 2001, Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, had centralized and toughened standards for the Vatican's then-piecemeal system for disciplining abusive priests. As pope, he has issued apologies to U.S. and, most recently, Irish victims of systematic church mishandling of their cases.

This year is essentially 2002 repeated as farce instead of tragedy, as journalists scramble to locate some microscopic shred of evidence that might connect Benedict to the handful of now-hoary abuse cases they have unearthed. The offenses enumerated in those cases are appalling: molesting deaf children; soliciting sex from the confessional. But it's not exactly the Vatican's fault that the diocese of Milwaukee, for example, waited 20 years, until 1996, before initiating proceedings to defrock a notorious, now-deceased priest-pederast, or that the diocese of Oakland never even tried to defrock Steven Kiesle, who pleaded guilty in 1978 to charges of fondling boys in his church rectory, Instead, the diocese relied on Kiesle's slow-moving voluntary petition to the Vatican for laicization while he continued to work as a parish youth minister in Contra Costa County.

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