It is a time of reflection upon sin and suffering; a time for repentance and for seeking forgiveness; a time for thinking about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
These practices are not reserved to Lent, but they come into special focus at this stage in the Christian calendar. This year, however, it is hard to think of these themes other than in relation to the Catholic Church itself, as it stands accused of being a source of evil and suffering, inflicted, ignored or concealed.
For the Church, the burdens of shame weigh down upon it, being felt most acutely by its priests, its bishops and its Pope; but the laity, too, feels the disgrace and the taint of corruption. The Church exists to be a light to the world, but the world seems to see it as a place of darkness.
Let me declare an interest. I am a Consultor to the Vatican Council for Culture, the equivalent of an unpaid adviser to a UK government department. This doesn't make me a spokesman for the Vatican or the Pope, any more than Professor David Nutt was a spokesman for Whitehall or the Prime Minister. It does, though, give me some insight into the character and operations of the government of the Catholic Church.
I also have knowledge of the life of the Church and its hierarchies in Britain, in the United States and elsewhere. I am an admirer of the intellectual and cultural achievements of Catholicism but also aware of the long history of charges against it. And I am a flawed and unsteady, but would-be-faithful, Catholic. What, then, do I make of the current accusations against the Church and the Pope?
The record shows that numbers of priests betrayed their vows and their positions of trust through abusing and seducing minors, including young children. Quite apart from immediate degradations and harms, such actions, indulged repeatedly and with many victims, often caused those affected to lose trust in older people and disabled them from forming mature sexual relationships, leading in turn to self-harm, addiction and sexually aberrant behaviour.
The record also shows senior clerics and bishops sometimes ignored or rejected accusations, at other times dealing with them by simply moving the accused to other locations, but almost never reporting them to the police. What we now know, and what confessors and spiritual directors ought always to have known, is that child-sex abusers are often narcissists and sociopaths who are deaf to anything but the demands of their own lust for sex and power. The collective failings of senior clergy are simply inexcusable.
That said, the current storm lashing down upon the Vatican has less to do with justified indignation at the true facts of clerical abuse and episcopal dereliction, than with opportunistic attacks perpetrated by long-time critics of Catholicism and its teachings. Since the time of Watergate, it has been customary for journalists to ask the question "who knew what when?" and this is driving the effort to discover a smoking gun in the hand of the Pope. But there is another question, posed by Lenin when he asked "Who, whom?" Who is making the case against the Pope, to what end, and at what cost to truth and justice?
First, truth. According to US research, fewer than 2 per cent of priests have been subject to accusations; and so far as numbers can be determined, there is no evidence of the incidence of abuse being greater among Catholic clergy than among other professions that provide opportunities for unsupervised contact by persons in positions of authority: ministers of religion in general, teachers, youth group leaders, sports and leisure coaches, etc.
Also, the majority of clergy cases involve adolescent boys; in the US, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of victims are male teenagers. This casts doubt on the idea that clergy abuse represents an effect of repressed heterosexual desire resulting from celibacy. Indeed, pressing the case for a married clergy as a solution risks excluding those of homosexual or asexual orientation (who may represent 20 per cent to 40 per cent), the vast majority of whom have proven to be good and chaste priests.
Next, justice. The current attacks against Rome were launched by reports of the case of Lawrence Murphy in the US city of Milwaukee. According to these, efforts were made in the 1990s to prosecute Murphy in a Church court but the then Cardinal Ratzinger overturned them. The principal sources for this story are Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer, and Rembert Weakland, a former Archbishop of Milwaukee.
The claim is that Weakland pressed Rome to act on the case but that it instructed him to abate it. In fact, Weakland did not proceed against Murphy until 1996, 20 years after the allegations were first raised, though he had been archbishop since 1977. Moreover, the priest lawyer who prepared the Murphy prosecution has now come forward to say that no reporter contacted him to check that fact; that, contrary to Weakland's claim, he had not been asked by him to abate the trial; and that there is no evidence of Cardinal Ratzinger having even been aware of the case.
In response to the "who, whom?" question, it is relevant to note that Jeffrey Anderson is involved in a civil suit against the archdiocese and has a direct financial interest in the case; and that Rembert Weakland was himself accused of mishandling abuse cases, was exposed as having used $450,000 of diocesan funds to make a settlement with a male lover who accused him of sexual assault, and recently published a memoir in which he records his conflicts with Church teachings and authorities.
In Holy Week of 2005 with John Paul II nearing death, Cardinal Ratzinger laid bare the mind and heart of the man who, as Pope, would take up the burden of reform. "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to (Christ]. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them!".
The force of that Good Friday message of five years ago shook those who heard it, and the reform is under way. This is testified to by Benedict's action towards the Irish bishops and it will be further demonstrated shortly in relation to a prominent religious congregation. For now, however, and for a long time yet, their victims and the wider Church will carry the wounds inflicted by the sins of the fathers.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy at St Andrew's University.