On the occasion of his death in April, I wrote in this space (“Pope’s legacy is a few shades short of golden,” 4/18/05) that John Paul II’s papacy, through its errors and misconduct, had succeeded in destroying both Catholic sainthood and the Catholic priesthood as categories worthy of any special recognition. I did not mean to leave the impression that things could only get better. Josef Ratzinger, who spent his salad days as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor institution to the Inquisition), was fittingly placed on St. Peter’s throne that same month on the strength of his counter-reform orthodoxy.

“Habemus Papam,” the suddenly worshipful news networks announced, as individuals alleged to be reporters explained that John Paul had put forth his spectral hand to direct Ratzinger’s accession. What we had, in fact, was not a benevolent father, but a grand inquisitor who has wasted no time transforming his church into a protection racket for thugs, child molesters, war criminals and their accomplices.

Anyone who has read an American newspaper within the last few years is aware that the Catholic Church spent decades shielding rapists from secular accountability, subjecting offenders to the awesome ecclesiastical punishment of having fresh victims procured for them. What is less well-known is that God’s newly chosen prime minister was, with John Paul II’s blessing, the architect of the church’s brazen, far-flung conspiracy to obstruct the administration of justice.

Despair not. While a cardinal, Ratzinger may have contributed only to the whitewashing of priestly pedophilia. As pope, however, he is committed to resolving the crisis outright. The solution: an edict banning all gay men (er, all honest gay men) from admission into seminaries. “It’s not appropriate to put an alcoholic in a bar,” Mike Sullivan of Catholics United for the Faith contentedly told The New York Times last week. The idea is that homosexuality is an involuntary condition whose sufferers cannot help but violate innocents entrusted to their care. This logic is incoherent as well as bigoted; it makes no more sense to ask of a pedophile whether he is gay or straight than to ask of a man caught in coitu with a dog whether the beast is male or female.

It is tempting to say that deciding the criteria of vocation in the Catholic church is the business of the church alone. I’m neither gay nor Catholic, and I understand the intuition that this fight belongs to others. But that intuition rests on precisely the same faulty assumption that drove the news media to their disgraceful obsequies in Rome: that somehow, the fact that an organization is religious and ancient exempts it from assessment in terms of modern secular norms, that by miracle of transubstantiation the tools of critical analysis become a posture of dumbfounded reverence.

In no other contexts does society evince such an appalling lack of respect for its own institutions and codes of ethics. Corporate swindlers are tried by the entire body politic, not by their own boards of directors; mafiosi are not entitled to sanctuary within family hideouts; a day-care provider who silences witnesses to his subordinates’ child abuses goes to jail, not a Roman villa.

Yet in an act of sheer masochism, the U.S. Justice Department just last week dismissed civil actions against Josef Ratzinger for his role in covering up sexual molestation, on the grounds that the pope, as head of state of the Vatican, enjoys sovereign immunity — the doctrine that Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein invoke in their own defense — whatever the merits of the case against him. It might be dispiriting, but it is certainly not surprising, that Ratzinger and his hierarchs again and again demonstrate wanton contempt for secular justice, when the very authorities that ought to be prosecuting them are instead offering them license under a discredited legal principle that the international community, the U.S. included, long ago repudiated.

What were merely symbolic disgraces under John Paul II have been consummated in praxis by Josef Ratzinger. Whereas the previous pope sought, for example, to extend the honor of canonization to the World War II-era Archbishop of Zagreb, a willing collaborator with genocidal Ustase fascists, the new pope has outdone his predecessor by granting aid and sanctuary to a still-living Croatian mass-murderer. General Ante Gotovina, who butchered hundreds of Serbian civilians and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homes, is wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He remains at large and at leisure, “hiding in a Franciscan monastery and [is protected by] the Catholic Church,” according to chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who has “taken this up with the Vatican” itself only to find that “the Vatican totally refuses to co-operate with us.”

The evidence is ample and inarguable, but our political and civic leaders, our journalists and public intellectuals, will not pronounce the words that the data assert almost pathetically: the head of the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice across continents, and is an accessory to an assortment of crimes against humanity.

Josef Ratzinger and his comrades have passed judgment upon all of us who reject his nihilistic resentment of modernity, including the countless decent Catholic priests, of whom scores are gay, who resist the pope’s centralism. Our choice, then, is between pluralism in its timorous and unapologetic forms; between placating the instantly offended faithful and pursuing justice for those whose faith has shattered; between coddling perpetrators and defending their victims. It’s high time to pass judgment on Ratzinger.

Daniel Koffler is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.