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You’ve no doubt heard by now about Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K., where one of his first statements was an accusation that the Nazis were atheists. To be honest, it makes me worried for the old fellow. After all, he himself served in the Hitler Youth as a teenager, yet he doesn’t seem to remember that the Nazis distributed Bibles, emblazoned their uniforms with the slogan “God With Us“, and gave speeches in which they boasted that they were doing Jesus’ work. This strange historical amnesia on the Pope’s part could be a symptom of oncoming senility, and I certainly hope that isn’t the case.

Meanwhile, the story continues to widen in Belgium, the latest country rocked by revelations of molesting priests protected by their superiors. In late August, Cardinal Godfried Danneels was caught on tape urging one victim to keep quiet so that his abuser, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, could retire without scandal. The victim’s response was unsurpassable:

“The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait,” the cardinal told the victim. “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.” The cardinal warned the victim against trying to blackmail the church and suggested that he accept a private apology from the bishop and not drag “his name through the mud.”

The victim responded, “He has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old,” and asked, “Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?”

And this case was just the tip of the iceberg. A report released two weeks later found that sex abuse in the Belgian church was pervasive, with “almost every institution, every school” harboring predators over a four-decade period. Almost 500 victims have come forward so far, and at least 13 committed suicide.

But don’t worry, Catholic apologists, the church has a perfectly good explanation for why they covered this all up. This brilliant defense comes to us by way of another Belgian bishop, Guy Harpigny:

“We did not dare. If you officially apologise, then you are acknowledging moral and legal responsibility. Then there are people who ask for money and we don’t know what lawyers and the courts will do about that,” he said.

See? It’s too expensive for the church to accept responsibility for crimes it’s committed. How can you possibly doubt their benevolence of spirit after hearing that perfectly reasonable and legitimate defense? In fact, this is such a faultless excuse, I should rob a bank and then use the same reasoning to the police: “Your Honor, I would have turned myself in, but I just couldn’t go to jail. My schedule is much too full!”

Rest assured, however, that although the Vatican finds obeying the law too expensive, they’ve sprung into action with their usual alacrity and taken their own corrective measures. The Pope’s office has stressed that serial child molesters like Roger Vangheluwe have been punished more than adequately:

“Vangheluwe is no longer allowed to say mass in public. At the moment I have no knowledge of other specific measures that will be taken,” said [Vatican spokesman] Father Lombardi.

Take that, pedophiles! Yes, it seems harsh, but the Vatican had to send a strong message about its stance on child rape. Of course, they’re not going to take away Vangheluwe’s $3600-a-month pension – they’re not monsters, after all.

But in all seriousness, the Times article cites one other statistic that’s no laughing matter: despite declining attendance and a plummeting number of new priests, the Belgian church is being kept afloat by over $350 million of annual state subsidies. It’s outrages like this – the church being propped up, even rewarded, despite its sickening abuses of power – that made me glad to see freethinkers turn out in force to protest the Pope’s visit to the U.K., with heavy hitters like Richard Dawkins showing up to rally the troops. (Dominic Self, who wrote an excellent post about the protests, also contributed the pictures seen in this one.)

The Pope and his top henchmen ought to be greeted like this everywhere they go. This is exactly what we need to be doing – tearing off the robes of magisterial dignity in which this corrupt and wicked old fraud has tried to cloak himself. The Catholic church loves to surround its emissaries with pomp and circumstance, wishing us to consider this evidence of their credibility. But that credibility hasn’t been earned, and its lavish spectacle is nothing but a hypocritical sham.

Neither the Pope nor the church is a sacrosanct moral authority, as much as they’d like us to believe that. They’re just one voice among many, one particular perspective on the world that can and should be challenged and criticized just like everyone else. And they’ve more than earned that criticism, given the manifest evidence of their immorality: their unapologetic bigotry against women and gays, their life-destroying dogmas forbidding contraception, their monstrous hypocrisy in portraying themselves as the source of all moral virtue while at the same time they’re protecting and excusing child rape. Religious institutions going unchallenged in public discourse, being allowed to portray themselves as supreme moral authorities, is precisely what made it possible for the horrors of clergy sex abuse to continue for so long in secret.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...