The Catholic Church didn’t just celebrate Easter this year, it re-enacted it. The main difference between the Church’s ordeal and The Passion of the Christ is that the Church’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.

The sexual abuse scandal that began in Boston eight years ago, involving the Church hierarchy’s widespread refusal to protect youngsters from child-molesting priests, spread inexorably around the world–Canada, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, Germany–until it finally reached the heart of the Mother Church, the Vatican, where it now rests at the feet of the Pope himself, Benedict XVI.

It’s increasingly apparent that the problem isn’t isolated. There’s a systemic flaw in the way the Church does things, involving hundreds of priests and thousands of victims of abuse, mainly children, throughout the world.

Which would be bad enough–middle-aged victims tell harrowing stories of the anguish they’ve suffered throughout their lives as a result of sexual abuse–but recent news reports show that until very recently, the Church did little or nothing to protect those victims. Instead, it protected itself.

When it became impossible to ignore the actions of an abuser, church officials would merely transfer him to another parish and tell him not to do it again. Very often, he did it again. The children were ordered not to talk about it.

It’s somewhat ironic that this scandal should now cast Pope Benedict as the villain. When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he occupied a position in the Vatican that gave him access to virtually every abuse case in the Catholic Church and it was he, at long last, who began to do something about it.

As one writer put it, “Nobody at the Vatican did more to confront abuse than Benedict.”

The problem is, that sets the bar very low. Although Cardinal Ratzinger did something, he didn’t do enough.

He was known in Vatican circles as “God’s Rottweiler,” for the sure and swift punishments he handed canonical lawbreakers. But when dealing with priests who were child molesters, he became “God’s Labrador.” With them, he was understanding.

Church defenders would have you believe that the abuse problem comes entirely as a surprise to the modern Vatican, and that until 10 years ago or so it had never been heard of in Rome.

If you believe that, I’ve got a nice cathedral I can sell you. It’s been going on for decades, centuries even, and so has the cover-up.

Defenders of the faith have mounted a counterattack.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights ran an ad in The New York Times in which its president, Bill Donohue, wrote:

“The Times has teamed with Jeffrey Anderson, a radical lawyer who has made millions suing the Church…so they can weaken its moral authority. Why? Because of issues like abortion, gay marriage, and women’s ordination. That’s what’s really driving them mad, and that’s why they are on the hunt.”

Well, last time I looked it was neither illegal nor unethical to sue wrongdoers on behalf of victims. That’s what lawyers do. And if they can make millions in the process, more power to them.

As for what’s driving people like me mad, he may have a point there, but it’s a badly bent one.

I disagree with the Catholic Church on the matters mentioned by Mr. Donohue, but I tend to disagree with most churches on most matters, particularly authoritarian churches. Church policy, however, is a matter of indifference to me so long as it stays within the church.

But when that church sets itself up as a moral arbiter, is accepted as such by millions, and moves out into society influencing legislation and the laws non-members live by, then it’s worthwhile knowing whom we’re talking to.

And what the Catholic Church is revealing itself to be, at its core, is a cynical boys’ club, more interested in preserving its reputation than doing the right thing.

Pope Benedict isn’t the issue. It’s bigger than that.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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