It was the church hierarchy’s desperation to protect itself that led to these horrors. It must reform – not us
The Catholic church is in meltdown: the appalling story emerged last week of clerical abuse stretching back decades in Pennsylvania, where at least 1,000 children were the victims of 300 priests.
In the UK, a report on the behaviour of the monks at two leading Catholic schools was released recently. That report, from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, details (and believe me, the details are horrendous) abuse over 40 years, affecting perhaps hundreds of children – the true extent of the crimes will probably never be known. As in Pennsylvania, the church authorities tried to cover it up: so in both places, these are double crimes committed by ordained men. First, they abused the most vulnerable young people in their care; and then other ordained men – usually more senior figures – allowed the abuse to continue by seeking to protect, not the children they were responsible for, but themselves and their precious reputations.
And now, after an embarrassing interlude, Pope Francis has spoken out. He has issued a letter – an “unprecedented letter”, we are told. He acknowledges the church’s crimes, he promises zero tolerance (about time) and then he invites “the entire holy faithful people of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command”.
Now, I like Pope Francis. He is charismatic and warm, and seems genuine in his care for the causes a Christian leader should care about. But here, pontiff, I see cardinal red. Because how dare you ask ordinary Catholics like me to atone for the sins of these heinous clerics? How dare you call on us to repent for their sins?
The truth about the Catholic church is that it is not fit for purpose, and it has not been fit for purpose for many years. There was a brief attempt, in the 1960s during the second Vatican council, at reevaluation – and then slam! The door was closed. It’s been run by a self-serving group of misogynistic men for far too long, and now we know they have a shocking number of paedophiles in their ranks. Radical new thinking is called for: those priests in Rome need to look up to the heavens and take in a very big swathe of blue sky.
The biggest horror about asking “the people of God” to repent is this: the church has failed, and failed, and failed again to ask “the people of God” to help it run the institution. It has been all too ready and willing to issue orders to the rest of us – and the miracle is that there are still some Catholic lay people who actually continue to keep some of those orders. Many priests by contrast, as we now know, not only flout the rules but flout them in the worst way possible, by ruining the lives of the most precious people in their midst.
The Catholic church has failed, horribly, to include the very people who could have helped it be a better organisation: its “faithful”. Democracy is dismissed, frowned on, ignored: 50 years ago this year we had a document called Humanae Vitae, that forbade the use of contraception. When the vast majority of western Catholics, in a display of practical democracy, decided to ignore it (the moral position, in mine and many others’ view) it simply buried its head in the sand and said we were wrong. When people like me campaigned and argued for women to be admitted to the priesthood (I am talking about 30 years ago – there are no women who would want to join their ranks now) they told us to be quiet; indeed, debate on the subject was totally shut down by Pope John Paul II. Priests were told not to engage with us on it: I tried it out on a number of occasions, but conversations were brought to an abrupt end.
So it is rich indeed that the pope’s answer to the current troubles is to ask the people to atone for them. He needs to think hard and come up with something very different from all this talk, and indeed from all these meetings with the victims of abuse (we will see that happening again this coming weekend, when he visits Ireland).
Of course it’s good to say sorry: but he’s said sorry repeatedly. Now he needs to do something. The only good news is the miracle that there are still some lay people left in the Catholic church (for some reason all the institution seems to worry about is the lack of priests, when the lack of congregations is a far more critical issue). The proper response to the continuing avalanche of reports on the extent of the abuse is to reduce the power of the clergy – and to call in those who just might be able to give it some help to get back on the rails. In other words: the people of God. Try it, Francis.
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