fri 21/06/2024

The Trouble with the Pope, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Trouble with the Pope, Channel 4

The Trouble with the Pope, Channel 4

Peter Tatchell covers the ground clearly, but needs to let others do more talking

Peter Tatchell and fellow OutRagers protesting against the Pope outside Westminster Cathedral, March 2010

"The church shouldn't be interfering in the personal and private lives of people - we don't own them." The comment comes from a Catholic priest working with abused children in the Philippines, Father Shay Cullen. It would be good to hear from other men or women of God rather more liberal than Pope Benedict XVI, for whose visit to Britain later this week this programme sounds no trumpets.

Apparently few priests or bishops would speak to human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, so his is the talking head we see rather too much of here. But that's the personality-driven world of TV for you, and by and large he makes his points.

I worried at first that Tatchell was going to be sketchy over chapter and verse. When minutes into the programme he ominously declared about Ratzinger, "This man has form," and skimmed over the 2001 letter in which the Pope adjured his bishops to secrecy over cases of child abuse, my first reaction was, "Well, quote it." And then, in a few seconds, Caroline O'Reilly of Catholic Voices - one of the few organisations who agreed to speak to Tatchell - was given a tiny slot to start putting it in the context of internal processes. Not long enough; you'll need to read Geoffrey Robertson QC's Penguin Special for the finer points.

Understandably, many viewers are going to want to know what Tatchell grasps of canon law, or whether he's read any of the Pope's more complex reasonings. For the purposes of this programme, which attempts to put some of Benedict's more unfortunate statements and failures to speak out in the context of democracy, liberty and social justice, it's surely irrelevant.

The format of the programme, though not its lack of detail, has something of Tatchell's quiet eloquence in his press releases. As a speaker to camera wandering the world on a mission, he's not quite so impressive. But he does structure the short time available well. From the general introduction focusing on the issue that's given the Catholic Church most grief recently, and over which the Vatican, if not the Church in England, seems inadequately to share its victims' grieving, we travel from London via America to Germany. Ratzinger's co-professor in theology at Tübingen University, Hans Kung, pinpoints the moment at which his then-progressive colleague and "inspiring teacher" parted company from the liberal agenda of Vatican II and reverted to his conservative Bavarian roots: it was, he claims, the invasion of the lecture room by rioting students in 1968.

Fast forward to 1981, when Cardinal Ratzinger becomes Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. It's a bit tittle-tattly to report his reputation as "God's rottweiler" without citing the source, but we at least have Kung to hand to tell us how the present Pope assembled bishops around him who all thought exactly as he did.

Cue Tatchell's attack on the "most shameful" act of his recent leadership - the way in which, in 2009, he revoked his predecessor's excommunication of the extreme Right bishops of the Society of St Pius X. We don't need Tatchell to tell us that the reception of Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson back into the fold was an "insult" - that's expressed perfectly well by one of the two young Jesuses in the Oberammergau Passion Play. But the more complicated fact that Williamson isn't allowed to practise as a bishop unless he revokes gets a little pushed to one side.

Tatchell's homing in on Manila looks as if it's going to be broad-brushstroke time again. But the slum-dwelling mother of 10 who's told by her priests to have as many children as she can, because if she doesn't it's a sin, makes a simple point perfectly well. A lawyer advising bishops on their case against birth control falls glibly into the trap about holey condoms; a health worker calmly expresses disbelief at the victimisation of doctors and ministers in the Government's anti-AIDS campaign; and Father Cullen makes the necessary point about Varican pomp and ceremony simply by citing Christ's, "I came to serve and not to be served."

That leaves precious little time for the last quarter back in the UK. Arguments for and against stem cell research glide into a thumbnail sketch of the idiosyncratic Cardinal Newman, whose adoption by the Pope as a conservative figure is going to cause a lot of trouble later this week. We get two pithy quotations from John Henry here, one about the unaccountable intensity of Father Ambrose St John's love for him - whether it was sexual or not is unprovable and irrelevant - the other his toast to "conscience first and the Pope afterwards".

And only now, cannily towards the end, Tatchell's supposed hobby horse, the Pope's condemnation of homosexuality whether acted upon or not as "a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil". You may feel he's bullying a renascent O'Reilly over this one, but this time she doesn't come out of the encounter so well. And finally the punchline: "This is not a pope we should be welcoming to Britain." Will anyone now stand up on television and argue intelligently for an hour on why we should? Would Father Cullen, perhaps, like to make the case for Vatican III?

The slum-dwelling mother of 10 who's told by her priests to have as many children as she can, because if she doesn't it's a sin, makes a simple point perfectly well

Share this article


It would have been interesting if, in the section on clerical abuse (which grotesquely misrepresented Ratzinger's 2001 instruction), Tatchell had discussed his own views a little more openly. This is, after all, the man who on 26th June 1997 wrote to The Guardian that, "The positive nature of some child-adult sexual relationships is not confined to non-Western cultures. Several of my friends – gay and straight, male and female – had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused. All say it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy. While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful." Makes his claims to concern for child welfare a little difficult to take seriously.

Well then, Andreas, that's the case for another article/programme: why should it impinge upon Tatchell's case here? You and I may find it questionable in the extreme, but the undeniable fact is that the assaults made by Catholic priests - anything up to nine per cent, according to Robertson's documentation - WERE 'unwanted, abusive and harmful', and the secrecy still continues. If you wanted to make a useful contribution, it would be better to tell us how Tatchell 'grotesquely misrepresented Ratzinger's 2001 instruction'.

" is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful." Tatchell's justification of adult-child sexual relationships is as nauseating and self-serving now as it was then. Who does sex between and adult and a child serve? Who of the two is likely to hold the better formed means of judgement and knowledge of integrity? Who knows more about right or wrong? Who is duty-bound to behave responsibly around children? The adult who has sex with a child interferes with the child's development with Godlike power, and ruptures the child's trust of adults and the adult world. It may NEVER appear thus to the grown child, such is the extent of damage in some cases. Others may cope and have the grace to accept. Only a very, very few surely reflect on the 'good' that came out of it.

I find the comments here rather reassuring. When the messenger is attacked, it leads me to think that arguments against the message are few. As Christine says, that would make for another article/program. I made a similar point elsewhere about exposing what seems to fairly widespread child abuse in the UK - although I do not specialise in it, I would guess that around 50% of my clients had issues stemming from school and at home. My fervent hope is that more survivors of abuse will feel able to bring their cases to court in knowledge that they will be taken seriously.

I realise I may risk passing judgement on Tatchell in my comment. I have no right to do so. But there was and is (in my judgement) something particularly ambivalent in his original statement which makes me nauseous. He appears, by reporting the reflections of grown people, to be reaching a conclusion about the sexuality of children. He seems, in other words, to sexualise the child. I would welcome him being offered the chance to qualify what he said. I also acknowledge that being a parent (and a human) makes me susceptible to projecting my own fears onto others.

Christine - a decent response regarding the 2001 letter is HERE. As for 9% - I've yet to read Robertson's work (waiting until I can do so without buying a copy), but my first reaction is to find that figure highly unlikely. Newsweek's article on clerical abuse rates is worth reading.

No doubt I shall read these in good time, Andreas, for which thanks, but you seem to be working along the same lines as those you propose for Mr Tatchell by implying that 9 per cent (and it was 'possibly up to 9 per cent', who's going to have the exact figure) is exaggerated without the crucial clause to the effect that of course the priests' behaviour was the greatest sin in the book short of murder and that of course the Pope should have done more to express his sympathy for the victims rather than his concern to shield the perpetrators. Both of you would seem to be apologists for the unspeakable.

Christine - if you had ever met me, or heard me speak about the bishops who so pathetically mishandled the abuse cases, you would know that I am not an apologist for the indefensible. That there are bad men in the Church will come as news to no-one, and the priests who abused children were depraved, their acts wicked and ungodly, and their punishments - both in the Church and in secular law - wholly insufficient. This said, the Church does not claim to be a community of the morally perfect. What I cannot accept is that the Pope, and vast majority of good, hard-working priests should be smeared on the basis of untruths. Do please read those articles when you have time.

Seems the links have been deleted. Well, you can Google "sean murphy response catholic coverup" and "newsweek mean men abuse" to find the articles I meant.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters