THE BLOG

The Inmate of Rome

01/03/2013 15:25 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 10:12 BST

"But what are kings, when regiment is gone,

But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?"

--- Edward II (Christopher Marlowe)

It's a relief to be able to call him Joseph.  And it will be a relief once he's treated just like any other Joseph.  It's been said before and it will be said again: there's a Ratzinger-sized space in Rome's nearest prison cell just waiting to be filled.  The former Bishop of Rome should soon become the Inmate of Rome.

It shouldn't have taken me by surprise when I discovered recently that the Vatican doesn't actually have a prison system.  Earthly justice doesn't seem to apply to the elect, after all.  Not to a man who personally granted the abuser of 200 deaf and dumb children in a Wisconsin school his wish to die without the oh-so-unconscionable spectre of a canonical trial hanging over him.  Not to a man who delayed the defrocking of a convicted child molester for four years, before writing and personally signing a letter asserting that the "good of the Universal Church" and that of the offender had to be considered for longer still - without even a hint of a mention for the trauma of his 11- and 13-year-old victims.  Not even to a man who disseminated the disgusting memo to every single Catholic bishop in 2001 that encouraged - nay, demanded - secrecy and silence with regard to every last case of child molestation and rape under pain of excommunication.  'Tackling' the issue head on was something of a speciality of his, it seems.

In any other walk of life, that man would already be locked up.  And that's just what he is: a man.  No more, no less.  Vaticanites may reason that elevating him from mere primate to venerable and venerated Primate lifts him above the law, as if a capital letter and a Latin intonation automatically give you special privileges; but strip him of his robes and his cronies, and you'll soon find out that he's no different from you or I.

Is this how brittle our values really are?  So brittle that we're willing to excuse from justice anyone who can persuade us that they're running a rather important errand for God?  'My apologies,' he says, 'but I happen to be infallible too.  Fancy that?'  Maybe what we should actually be questioning is the kind of God that would endorse such arrogance, such malevolence, such a sickening brand of despotism.  This is not morality; this is delusion and depravity.

And I, for one, am having none of it.  Think of every single one of the many thousands of victims of child abuse by priests; think of all those cases that Ratzinger could have stopped - and chose not to - as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Just think.  And then imagine looking into a young child's eyes and telling them that the man who put the welfare of a 2,000 year-old Church over that of 12 year-old children is likely to go unpunished.

Any decent human being simply couldn't.

When Ratzinger announced his resignation, he talked about having "repeatedly examined my conscience before God".  He can say that again, and again - in the jail cell where he belongs.  Apologies and excuses and stage-managed contrition won't cut it anymore.  The most courageous thing he could do now is to hand himself in.  If the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church can't subject himself to civil law and emerge unscathed, his 1.2 billion followers have got to question whether his 'divine' mission is one they want to be part of.

The Vatican is shaken, no doubt.  An institution that has insisted on being its own judge and jury for so long suddenly finds its carefully sealed totalitarian tinderbox at risk of being prised open.  Reutersrecently quoted a Vatican official who commented revealingly that it was "absolutely necessary" for Ratzinger's future place of residence to be within their jurisdiction.  Otherwise, he might end up as defenceless as the children abused at the hands of Father Keisle or Cardinal Law or Father Hullerman or Father Murphy: "He wouldn't have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else".  What more needs to be said of the constipated morality that underpins the Roman Catholic Church?

After Ratzinger's final disrobing, we mustn't let ourselves be persuaded that he's to be handled with care.  There's no reason for us to respect his rights in a court of law any more or less than the next man.  There never has been.  But now, we can either make it our duty to challenge him and the institution he represents - on behalf of the children whose lives have been blotted by his signature, and on behalf of an entire civilisation whose progress surely relies on unflinching inquiry and scrutiny - or else face being complicit.

For if you look on impassively as Ratzinger slinks off to his very own 4,300-square-foot convent for the rest of his days, you're like the kid in the playground who's too timid to stand up for the victims of the mother of all bullies.  Only the stakes are higher this time.  Much higher.