Listen to those sinned against

An underlying theme of the shameful story of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church has been the neglect of the victims. At last this is changing, and next year’s intense study of the whole issue being organised at the Gregorian University in Rome will mark a watershed in the way this aspect is treated. The proposed symposium has the support of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, and will bring together experts and those with pastoral experience in the field.

So far there are no plans to include victims themselves, which would be a loss. It is not simply that they need to be heard as part of a possible healing process. The marginalisation of victims represented a mindset whose origins lay in traditions of Catholic spirituality that emphasised the avoidance of sin and the recovery of sinners through penance and repentance. That mindset implied that the real tragedy of an act of sexual abuse by a priest lay in the defilement of the priestly office by the commission of an act of unchastity, rather than a grave and possibly permanent psychological injury inflicted upon an innocent and defenceless child.

Those with that mindset, blinded by the lesser evil, could not see the greater. It meant the Church, in response to acts of abuse that came to official notice, gave priority to the treatment of the transgressor and forgot about the one transgressed. This was the very essence of the clericalist deformity of ways of thinking and acting in the Church that prepared the way for all the scandals of cover-up, denial and deception.

By no means everyone in the Church has learned this lesson. The Rosminian order has failed to respond adequately to reve­lations of sexual abuse at one of its institutions in Africa. One priest involved was one of the best-known Catholic priests in London, the late Fr Kit Cunningham of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place. Before he died, he even returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace because he felt it had been awarded under false pretences. Those whom he had served and who had loved him in London have found it hard to believe he was capable of such crimes: perhaps the knowledge of his own depravity could have added to his sensitivity as a pastor; it almost certainly lay behind his heavy drinking. It was only the surfacing of some of his victims years later, however, that exposed his true history to public view. The Cunningham case confirms what a unique and essential service to the Church victims proffer, yet it is one that the Church has barely recognised.

One key speaker at the Gregorian event will be Baroness (Sheila) Hollins, the former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists who took part in the pontifical visitation of the Irish Catholic Church. She has played a central role in placing victims at the centre of the Church’s concern. She has said that in her professional experience, men who become child abusers were invariably abused themselves when they were children. This raises the question, urgently calling for further research, into how many priest abusers were themselves abused in childhood (but not necessarily by priests). If this import­ant link in the chain of causality has been missed, that is one more damaging consequence of marginalising the victims.

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