Following hard on the heels of worldwide reaction to the Academy Award-nominated film Spotlight, most of it pretty negative and condemnatory, the Catholic Church was under more duress this week after the papal advisory commission on sexual abuse all but collapsed amidst internal strife.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is a 17-member panel of lay people and clerics, of whom two members have been actual victims of abuse. One of those, Peter Saunders, head of Britain’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood, who was invited personally by Pope Francis to join his Commission, has been asked to take a ‘leave of absence’, after fellow members cast a majority vote of no-confidence in his membership, citing his ‘difficult’ attitude.
For his part Mr Saunders is refusing to step down, and has demanded a meeting with Pope Francis to discuss what he sees as the shortcomings of the commission. Reports suggest that Mr Saunders had been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the commission’s bureaucracy and concern with debating canonical rules at the expense of real progress on child protection.
“Someone in the commission said, ‘You know Rome wasn’t built in a day, don’t expect the Church to change overnight’,” Mr Saunders told The Daily Telegraph.
“My response was, ‘It only takes a few seconds to rape a child and that child’s life is changed forever.’ We know abuse is rampant. We need more action now.”
For its part, a commission member said that the group was “deeply committed to the protection of children” but that its objective was to advise not investigate. Whatever the detail of this dispute, the attempted ousting of Mr Saunders is extremely bad news, as the presence of a victim on the commission lent it considerable credibility, as surely Pope Francis understood when he appointed him.
We cannot know the day-to-day difficulties faced by the commission, but surely it ought to have been an exemplar in the treatment of victims, including those chosen to participate in their discussions? If, like me, you’ve already seen the film Spotlight, this latest controversy will be disappointing and un-nerving, as it echoes just how fraught and perilous are the efforts to expose and deal with this darkest chapter in our Church’s history.
In particular, Spotlight recounts the Boston Globe’s landmark investigation into systemic clergy abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, an exposé that set in motion a whole landslide of such dreadful revelations around the world.
In 2001, The Boston Globe hired a new editor, Marty Baron. Baron met Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, the editor of the Spotlight team, a small group of journalists writing investigative articles that took months to research and publish.
After Baron read a Globe column about a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, who said that Cardinal Law (the then Archbishop of Boston) knew that a priest, John Geoghan, was sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop him, he urged the Spotlight team to investigate.
Initially believing that they were following the story of just one priest who was moved around several times, the Spotlight team began to uncover a pattern of sexual abuse of children by priests in Massachusetts, and a mass cover-up by the Boston archdiocese, with Cardinal Law implicated directly in a scandal involving some 90 priests.
Like most people the film left me shocked, angry and bewildered. All the more so because this was my Church, and this was a situation that The Universe team itself has had to confront for the past two decades.
For me personally, the scenes where otherwise hard-faced, tough investigate journalists struggled to come to terms with what they were uncovering brought back many painful memories of a very similar news room at The Universe in the mid-1990s, when the national secular press first began to run such stories here in the UK, and we were all trying to figure out how we could respond, and what a Catholic newspaper ought to be saying in reaction to these shocking revelations.
Quite simply there were no guidelines to cover such a circumstance, and there was precious little advice either. Most of those we turned to were either too shocked to comment, or were in complete denial.
(One needs to remember that we’d all just sailed through the insane and unregulated years of British tabloid fantasy stories and unchallenged falsifications, so perhaps we were all a bit slow to believe that such appalling stories about our beloved Church could have any basis in fact.)
For the Universe staff this was a truly challenging time – we had on the one hand an obligation to report the facts about the Catholic Church as they happened, without fear or favour; yet were we to repeat allegations that turned out to be false, how on earth could we ever reinstate the reputation of any maligned priest?
Given that The Universe had sailed unruffled through the previous decades on a ‘bright and breezy, family-based’ news brief, it was the gut instinct and advice of some to simply ignore the whole thing, regarding it as ‘too dark’ and well beyond the brief of the publication.
In the end we took a rather different view, as we all felt that history would judge The Universe on what it had, or indeed it hadn’t, reported of the increasing furore that surrounded us all.
For a Catholic paper to engage with this dialogue was utterly new, and highly sensitive, ground. In some instances we found an initial denial of any wrongdoing, even when it was evident there had been collusion in protecting those who were abusers.
In some cases this was a reflection of a deeply-held principle that an abusing priest was a ‘fallen comrade’ who was far more in need of the spiritual repair that the Church could best provide, than the cold, ungodly hand of secular justice that such perpetrators unquestionably deserved.
At the other end of the spectrum we were confronted with well-intentioned individuals who, at the first suggestion of a scandal, threw themselves, or rather the hapless accused, on their swords before even the full facts had been secured. In this instance, a reputation, once blemished would have been impossible to reinstate.
Back then, the inability to comprehend and deal with such a catastrophic scandal led to both a denial of justice for many victims, and a summary hanging for more than a few innocent accused.
Two decades later, as I watched the Spotlight film, you can’t help but ask myself: how much has changed?
The Spotlight film-makers made the undeniably powerful point that not only has Cardinal Law so far escaped justice for his part in covering up the systemic abuse in his archdiocese, but in fact he probably holds as much power and prestige today as he did in Boston – after the scandal he was moved to become archpriest at the magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and today is living in relaxed retirement in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, a Renaissance palace in Rome.
Plus ca change, you might think, but for its part the Church is adamant that things have improved utterly. After all, we now have strict and measurable new protection procedures in place, and incredibly rigorous assesment mechanisms for any new candidates to the priesthood.
In essence the message is that, back in the heady and socially turbulent 1960s, we let a few bad eggs under the wire, but they’re gone now so it’s time to put all that darkness behind us and move on. Isn’t it?
Unfortunately, no. Erecting a higher fence does nothing to address the root cause of the threat and the core question hangs as heavily as ever – how did an institution dedicated absolutely and utterly to love and human kindness, and above all to the protection of the young and innocent, create a situation where it was possible for such a large number of individuals to act in such an evil and despicable way?
Like it or not, that is the question on the public mind, and the one we’ve still not addressed sufficiently. Not only is that a failure of the institution, but it is a profound betrayal of the many devout and excellent priests we are privileged to have, and of the faithful who have continued to support our Church through this catastrophe.
Until we can answer that very troubling question, our credibility, both in the public mind, and that of our own faithful, will become ever more flawed and fragile. More significantly, if we can’t identify the root cause of this malaise, we can never say with any real credibility that it will never happen again.
Some have argued that celibacy was the problem; for others it was the highly flawed and idealist regime of our old seminaries, or the changing forces of social change. A very senior Church figure with experience in this area once told me that he thought the nub of the problem was “too much power” in the hands of individuals.
I think that may have been part of it, though probably it was more to with ‘isolation’ than ‘power’ – we had this strange view in our seminaries that we could welcome all and sundry in through the doors, but the rigorous five year regime would break and either rebuild those innocent young men into perfect, universal priests, or spit them out as rejects.
Yes, the seminary system broke innocent and very young men down and rebuilt them into idealised functioning model priests, but it also sent them off into parishes – and the world – without any meaningful support, regular communication or subsequent supervision. Each functioned as an island unto themselves. Add in to that untrammelled power and perhaps the seeds of destruction for some were sown.
When I look around today at the many local parish priests I meet across the UK, it amazes me that some are able to carry on at all, such is the extent of the personal isolation they have become accustomed to. Gone are old support mechanisms of regular laity involvement, organisational support and clergy representational groups.
Ironically, the present clergy shortage and general decline in many parishes, much of which is undoubtedly a consequence of the abuse scandal, is forcing us all to re-evaluate the role and place of our remaining clergy, and how we support these unique men who are all too often left in unduly vulnerable and isolated positions.
There’s also a recognition, too, that we the laity, have our part to play.
I do hope that, for the sake of us all, and the future of our Church, we do come to understand how this terrible crisis was able to happen, and that it teaches us to cherish our hard-working, and devout parish priests, who continue to sacrifice so much of their own lives to bring us the faith.
• Joseph Kelly is the CEO and Editor of The Catholic Universe.