There is, it seems to me, a connecting thread between all the various depressing bits of Catholic news this past week, beginning with the clueless, insular outreach to reactionary SSPX anti-Semites and culminating in the latest revelations about the serial child rapist protected by John Paul II, Father Maciel. That thread is not sex or anti-Semitism. It is the abuse of absolute clerical power.

In their panicked reaction to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its expansion of lay and episcopal power within a more inclusive church, the last two Popes relied on raw papal power to get their way. They did not persuade many on, say women priests or contraception or the "objective disorder" of homosexuals. But it became pretty clear after a while that persuasion was never the point. When the Pope simply declared certain topics undiscussable - and when he enforced that silence within the Church by policing dissent and appointing generations of docile flunkies as bishops and cardinals - he was telling us that he was restoring hierarchy. Some ratcheting back was doubtless necessary in the wake of excessive experimentation in the 1970s; but it then easily degenerated into arrogance and error. That's what dictatorships - even benign, non-coercive institutional ones - always produce. Because they have no mechanisms for self-correction.

And so, as Obama just discovered, even the most well-meaning person with such power can lapse into establishing one rule for their own clique and one rule for everybody else. And so Holocaust-deniers slip through the cracks because the Pope sees them first of all as his ideological and theological allies, and does not subject them to the same scrutiny as his opponents within the Church. And a monster like Marcial Maciel can be protected by Wojtila and Ratzinger for years and years, even as the evidence of his corruption and rank abuse of power is overwhelming.

The revelation that the sexual abuser Maciel also had a secret wife and even children on the side, that he used a cult of personality to establish a near-autonomous fiefdom within the Church, that he used religious money as a personal slush-fund, and that John Paul II and Benedict XVI knew all this and protected him because he too was their theological ally: this should come as no surprise. Check out the video above. Ratzinger physically slaps a reporter asking about a child-rapist he was still protecting - because it is an affront to Ratzinger's clerical authority.

The authoritarian, unaccountable, reactionary hierarchy that the last two Popes have constructed is beginning to collapse in on itself. It has solved no core questions; it has advanced no deeper, lasting ideas; it has led to the implosion of the Church in Western Europe and forced many American Catholics into a provisional relationship with their own church authorities. Maciel and Williamson are symptoms of this disease. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI are its enablers.