WHEN I was in Saudi Arabia, I had tea and sweets with a group of educated and sophisticated young professional women.
I asked why they were not more upset about living in a country where women's rights were strangled, an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men's club than a modern nation. They told me, somewhat defensively, that the kingdom was moving at its own pace, glacial as that seemed to outsiders.
How could such spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination?
I was puzzling over that one when it hit me: As a Catholic woman, I was doing the same thing.
I, too, belonged to an inbred and wealthy men's club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity.
I, too, remained part of an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.
I, too, rationalized as men in dresses allowed our religious kingdom to decay and to cling to outdated misogynistic rituals, blind to the benefits of welcoming women's brains, talents, and hearts into their ancient fraternity.
To circumscribe women, Saudi Arabia took Islam's moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Mohammed; the Catholic Church took its moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus is surrounded by strong women and never advocates that any woman - whether she's his mother or a prostitute - be treated as a second-class citizen.
Negating women is at the heart of the church's hideous - and criminal - indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests' care. Lisa Miller writes in Newsweek's cover story about the danger of continuing to marginalize women in a disgraced church that has Mary at the center of its founding story:
"In the Roman Catholic corporation, the senior executives live and work, as they have for a thousand years, eschewing not just marriage, but intimacy with women ... not to mention any chance to familiarize themselves with the earthy, primal messiness of families and children." No wonder that, having closed themselves off from women and everything maternal, they treated children as collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice to save face for Mother Church.
And the sins of the fathers just keep coming. Recently, the Associated Press broke the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter written in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.
As the longtime Vatican enforcer, the archconservative Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI - moved avidly to persecute dissenters. But with molesters, he was plodding and even merciful.
As the Associated Press reported, the Oakland diocese recommended defrocking the Rev. Stephen Kiesle in 1981. The priest had pleaded no contest and had been sentenced to three years' probation in 1978 in a case in which he was accused of tying up and molesting two boys in a church rectory.
In 1982, the Oakland diocese got what it termed a "rather curt" response from the Vatican. It wasn't until 1985 that "God's Rottweiler" finally got around to addressing the California bishop's concern. He sent his letter urging the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile "as much paternal care as possible" and to consider "his young age." Cardinal Ratzinger should have been more alarmed by the young age of the priest's victims; that's what maternal care would have entailed.
As in so many other cases, the primary concern seemed to be shielding the church from scandal. Chillingly, outrageously, the future Pope told the Oakland bishop to consider the "good of the universal church" before granting the priest's own request to give up the collar - even though the bishop had advised Rome that the scandal would likely be greater if the priest were not punished.
While the Vatican sat on the case - asking the diocese to resubmit the files, saying they might have been lost - Father Kiesle volunteered as a youth minister at a church north of Oakland. The Associated Press also reported that even after the priest was finally defrocked in 1987, he continued to volunteer with children in the Oakland diocese; repeated warnings to church officials were ignored.
The Vatican must realize that the church's belligerent, resentful, and paranoid response to the global scandal is not working because it now says it will cooperate with secular justice systems and that the Pope will have more meetings with victims. It is too little, too late.
The church that through the ages taught me and other children right from wrong did not know right from wrong when it came to children. Crimes were swept under the rectory rug, and molesters were protected to molest again for the "good of the universal church." And that is bad, very bad - a mortal sin.
The church has had theological schisms. This is an emotional schism. The Pope is morally compromised. Take it from a sister.
Maureen Down writes for the New York Times.