As the shockwaves of last week’s revelations about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Portugal subside somewhat, it is worth remembering that Catholicism has been at the forefront of atrocious behaviour towards children for centuries.
The Catholic Church has certainly not been the only religious or political entity involved in inhumane activity, and historical records are just a backdrop to the moral misconduct in recent decades that has at last been highlighted by those Catholics who have courageously lifted the veil of silence on abuse.
Catholic Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of Muslim and Jewish men, women and children on entering Jerusalem in 1099. The so-called ‘Children’s Crusade’, initiated supposedly by a divine instruction, sent children to march along with women and elderly people from Europe towards the Holy Land in 1212.
This was during the Crusader wars (1095 to 1291) in which European Catholics made a series of violent and often ruthless invasions into the Middle East to seize land from Muslims and Jews. All three faiths regarded the land in the war zones as sacred. All three worshipped the same God, only in different ways.
A countless number of children were among the victims of the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions that lasted from 1478 to 1834. During the Passover in 1497, Portuguese authorities raided Jewish communalities, seized all Jewish children below the age of 14 and forcibly baptised then into the Catholic faith.
Parents were not allowed to be reunited with their children unless they agreed to be baptised too. Many children were lost and many of their parents committed suicide in the churches they were to be baptised in.
Popes and priests were very much involved in slavery. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church abolished the enslavement of Christians, but it was still permissible to enslave non-Christians, including children.
In 1761, Portugal banned bringing slaves into this country but carried on trafficking, until 1869, an estimated 4.5 million to six million slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, mainly to Brazil.
Regarding the Holocaust, the part played by Catholics, particularly Pope Pius XII, is a highly contentious matter. Since then, however, the issue has not been so much about Catholics harming those of other faiths as harming those of their own.
Cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests started in the United States in 1985. The full scale of the systematic priestly perversion began to filter out in 2002 with articles published by The Boston Globe.
Numerous bishops arranged cover-ups, many successfully, but, by 2012, the dioceses in which the crimes had been committed were forced to pay more than $12 billion in settlements to victims. Critics said the pay-outs allowed the Church to escape proper justice.
A deluge of scandals has rocked the Church in other countries as a result of independent inquiries such as that carried out in Portugal. About 216,000 children were abused by the clergy in France between 1950 and 2020. Many of the thousands of victims in Ireland were abused in Catholic orphanages.
Paedophile priests have been abusing in several other European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. There has been more of the same in South America, Canada and New Zealand. In Australia, the Vatican’s former finance chief, Cardinal George Pell, was found guilty in 2018 of sexually abusing choirboys in Melbourne in the 1990s.
On and on it has gone: clergymen abusing, raping and causing life-long trauma. The Church has, at times, been secretive in allowing many of these criminals to move to other dioceses or retire without punishment.
Hypocritical priests have been able to preach to their congregations about the need to avoid sinfulness, but have they themselves been much concerned about divine retribution? Pope Francis has expressed his deep sorrow and disgust. It remains to be seen if he can put an end to the crisis.
Like all the vast number of decent Catholics, especially parents, Pope Francis will be aware of the many kind things mentioned about children in the Bible, such as: “Children are a gift from the Lord” (Psalms 127:3).
The well-known atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, claims that forcing religion on children is as bad as child sexual abuse. He has repeatedly said that sexual abuse “arguably causes less long-term psychological damage” than being brought up a Catholic. A growing number of people – former Catholics as well as non-religious people – agree.
Catholicism is in steep decline in Portugal as in many other parts of the world. Some think the decline could be terminal in the decades ahead as young people become better educated, more scientifically minded and distrustful of dogmatic teachings.
Meanwhile, it is ironic that young people from around the world are being encouraged to register as volunteers to help arrange the World Youth Day in Lisbon, which will be attended by Pope Francis in the first week of August.
COMMENT By Len Port
Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt