Scandal is no stranger to the Vatican
THE Catholic Church has a heavy cross to bear. It's facing the worst crisis it has seen in its 2000-year-old history. Can it survive?
Scandal is no stranger to the Vatican.
Its story is one of centuries of schism, war, heresy, inquisition, financial corruption and political conspiracy.
And sexual intrigue.
This time, it's different. It runs deep. It spreads wide. It's personal.
The size and scope of the child sexual abuse scandal touches the very heart of the Church - the trusting families that place their faith in the hands of its ministers.
It's not the far-removed machinations of politics, finance or theology that the Vatican has weathered like a rock, for 20 centuries.
On the surface, the Catholic Church is strong: Worldwide, it has 1.2 billion members. It has 220,000 parishes, 400,000 priests, 40,000 deacons, 720,000 nuns, and 136,000 schools. Its land holdings, real estate, art and financial investments are estimated to be worth some $4000 billion.
Is this all now at risk?
The child sex crisis comes amid a litany of other failings. An avalanche of ignominious acts in recent decades has shaken the institution to its core.
Here are just a few examples.
In 2011, the world was rocked by allegations of 300,000 babies having been snatched and trafficked by Spanish nuns and priests. It was a campaign that began under dictator General Franco and continued through five decades, into the 1990s. It was an exceedingly simple - and brutal - scheme. Church-run and supported hospitals told mothers their newborn children had died. Sometimes they were given a glimpse of a corpse. Sometimes they were not. Distraught parents found it impossible to find out more as the integrity of the Church and its members was untouchable. The babies themselves were whisked away and sold to childless couples or given over for adoption by influential families. A similar scheme was operational in Chile and Argentina, where priests and nuns allegedly stole newborn babies from single mothers to give to 'traditional' Catholic families between the 1970s and 2005.
Pope Pius XII was remarkably quiet about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Vatican archives reveal he made a conscious decision not to openly oppose Nazism and fascism. The political implications were too dangerous, he judged. Instead, he left the moral dilemma to his German bishops and priests. And when these shepherds of his flock found themselves confronted by Nazi wolves while attempting to protect persecuted Catholics and Jews - Pius XII did nothing. He is often credited with the secret rescue of Jews by Catholics across Europe. But he is also blamed for those priests and bishops who collaborated with the Nazis. Bishop Alois Hudal and priest Krunoslav Draganovic are believed to have helped dozens of senior Nazis escape. Was it a 'papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists', as historian Kevin Madigan writes? Or was it the invisible act of a handful of rogue members of the cloth? The Church and its institutions have also been embroiled in allegations it was used to hide the proceeds of Nazi and fascist looting during World War II, though this has not been proven.
Some among the Vatican refused to admit Italy's powerful mob gangs existed. For more than a century, it declined to denounce their activities. And this probably has a lot to do with land, money - and power. Modern Italy was formed in 1861. It was a process that stripped the Vatican of most of the Italian lands it considered sovereign territory. So, to maintain some control over its former holdings, it may have sought 'alternative' means. It's a complicated relationship. Mobsters attempt to give their behaviour a religious veneer. But when Pope John Paul II denounced the Mafia in 1993, the gangsters responded by blowing up churches. Pope Francis has also angered Italy's underworld by demanding they repent - or face damnation.
Money has always been a significant concern for the Vatican. In modern times, the Pope's personal bank - the Institute for the Works of Religion - has held responsibility for growing the wealth and financial influence of the Holy See. It hasn't had an easy time. In the 1980s, it was caught up in a scandal surrounding a series of unsecured loans to anonymous Panamanian shell companies. An affiliated Catholic bank collapsed because of the crisis, and its chairman - nicknamed 'God's Banker' - was found dead, mysteriously hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. The Vatican Bank was forced to pay creditors $310 million.
The Vatican Bank also has a transparency problem. The bank's president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was ousted in 2012 under allegations of negligence and a failure to crackdown on money laundering. Then, in 2013, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano was charged with corruption for attempting to smuggle $30 million in cash on a private jet from Italy to Switzerland. The corruption charge was dismissed - but only because the plot failed.
Celibacy is certainly a challenge for the Catholic clergy. Another example of the extremes they are prepared to go to was revealed with the arrest of two Vatican staffers in 2010. One was a member of a group of highly trained ushers who tended to major clerical events. The other was a member of the Holy See's best choir. Both were accused of running a gay prostitution ring within the walls of the Holy City. Investigations revealed the existence of a 'gay conclave' among senior clergymen who hired male prostitutes to perform at lavish parties. The discovery of this homosexual 'network' has been linked to the sudden and mysterious resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 - the first abdication from the top job in 600 years.