Dateline: Vatican City, July 12, 2021. “A teen was accused of abuse inside Vatican City. Powerful church figures helped him become a priest.”
The article in The Washington Post (by Italian journalists Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli) describes the case of Gabriele Martinelli, a teenage altar boy, who allegedly “coerced a peer to engage in sex acts night after night for a period of six years within the Vatican’s own walls.” Long story short, Martinelli, a former altar boy in residence at the Vatican’s St. Pius X Youth Pre-Seminary, used his position as a “papal gatekeeper” to pressure another altar boy into sexual submission.
Despite the accusations against him and the subsequent, though inept, investigation, Martinelli was ordained a priest in 2017. The case, which supposedly was well known to the Vatican hierarchy, including Pope Francis, was deemed unwarranted and then closed. After Martinelli’s ordination, witness and former Vatican altar boy, Kamil Jarzembowski, took the story to the press. Only then did the Vatican revisit the case and put Reverend Martinelli on trial. It should be noted that without Jarzembowski first bringing the alleged abuse to light back in 2013, the Vatican quite possibly would have done nothing about Martinelli.
Of course, we’ve heard tales of abuse within the Catholic Church before, but this particular case is a bit different. Allegations have never before been made against someone within the Vatican’s walls, and Pope Francis’ knowledge of an accused abuser has never been so thoroughly documented. There’s a lot to think about here. Notwithstanding the legal implications, the emotional and spiritual impact of this scandal is clear. This will certainly not draw lapsed Catholics home, and it definitely won’t attract new people to the faith. Quite the opposite. A March, 2021 Gallop poll reported religious membership in the United States has fallen to just 47% among those surveyed, representing less than half of the adult population for the first time in 80 years. The biggest decline is for Catholics; from 1999 to date, the percentage of Catholics attending church declined from 76% to 58%, due in large part to publicized cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic clergy. While some die-hard Catholics cling to the Church, others have understandably abandoned the institution that loudly professes faith in God’s commandments but has difficulty keeping them.
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You could argue that an individual priest’s (or one altar boy’s) actions do not reflect the morality of the entire clergy. “One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch,” as they say, but a pattern of Catholic clergy at all levels concealing illicit behavior within their ranks reveals a downright blasphemous disregard for a congregation’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Moreover, it clearly indicates the church’s selfish focus on “the things that are in the world” rather than on the human souls the church is tasked with protecting.
Those who sexually abuse others suffer from a mental disorder; their enablers suffer disorders of their own. With power, ambition, and pure evil in the mix, the Catholic Church is clearly in trouble. Who can blame the faithful for walking – running – away? Who wants to invest their time, their spirit, and their money in a broken, hypocritical institution? A church of any denomination is only as effective as its leaders. The leaders of the Catholic Church helped neither Gabriele Martinelli’s victim nor the perpetrator himself. In failing these young men, the church has once more failed its faithful. The solution to this crisis is as vague as the problem is concrete. Perhaps the Vatican should review 1 John 2:15-16: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” That seems a good place to start.