Time for the Church to focus on the victims
March 23, 2010 – 6:19AM
The Pope’s letter to 15,000 victims of Irish clergy abuse, while expressing his shame and remorse along similar lines to his apology in Australia and US in 2008, falls well short of the mark. While it rebukes Irish bishops and lower ranking officials it makes no mention of any sanctions against them over their “grave errors of judgment” in not responding to sex abuse allegations. He suggests that the church’s own laws, properly applied, should lead to the expulsion of clergy who sexually abuse children. However, the scale of this scandal would suggest otherwise. The church is facing a burgeoning crisis in countries all over Europe, including in the Pope’s native Germany and most recently in Brazil.
This letter also fails to address the role of senior Irish clerics, or most importantly, the Vatican’s own accountability. It would appear that the Church’s policy has helped to protect sex offenders in its midst while failing to prevent further crimes or appropriately care for victims. What appears to be a systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by the highest echelons of the Church is arguably the most morally reprehensible crime of all. The Church has for many lost its moral and sadly, its spiritual authority.
This apology is a long-overdue attempt to unlock the conspiracy of silence and secrecy, which protects perpetrators and perpetuates abuse both inside and outside of the church. However, the church is still not tackling its ultimate responsibility for the horrendous harm suffered by countless victims. It has not demanded the resignations of those spearheading the cover-up or committed to bringing all of the perpetrators to justice through the criminal justice system. The policy of the church has effectively put the lives of scores of children in danger. The scale of the harm generated is only now coming to light. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of children’s lives have been impacted and so have those of the adults they have become. As this situation has now reached tipping point, undoubtedly many more victims will now find the courage to speak out.
The impact of abuse does not stop when the abuse stops. The human brain is not fully developed until a person is in their 20s. When a child is abused in those crucial developmental years it affects every aspect of their development, arresting their emotional maturation and their ability to make empowered and informed choices. When the perpetrator of that abuse is a person in position of authority and trust and in this case a spiritual leader the damage is potentially even greater. When a child discloses, or for that matter, an adult, it is crucial for them to be heard, validated and supported. It takes incredible courage to overcome the inappropriate shame and self-blame survivors feel in speaking out, especially when tackling an institution with the power and authority of the Catholic Church. The failure of the Church to embrace its victims and provide a truly pastoral response has further compounded the damage to victims.
It is time for real reform and that must begin at the very top of the Catholic Church, with a review of canon law. Canon law seemingly has failed to establish clear and transparent mechanisms for dealing with sexual abuse within the Church and this failure has allowed those crimes to continue unabated. The Pope again failed to clarify whether the church considers secular law a higher priority than canon law in dealing with sexual abuse within the Church. In past decades, as the number of victims coming forward increased, the church closed ranks seeking to protect the institution and its clergy. It failed to put proper boundaries in place to contain the inappropriate behaviour of offending priests and so protect the innocent in its care. This papal letter has failed to reassure victims and other concerned parties that effective changes will be put in place and will be enforced to fully protect children in the Church’s care.
The Pope’s letter does not call for the resignation of the head of the Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who swore two child victims to oaths of secrecy in 1975, so ensuring their silence. Cardinal Brady has sincerely apologised for his mistakes of the past and asked Irish Catholics for forgiveness. However, he has stated that he will only resign if the Pope asks him to do so. Yet the Pope has not called for his resignation or for that of others at the top of the Church in Ireland.
Three Irish government-ordered investigations published from 2005 to 2009 documented how 15,000 Irish children were raped, molested and suffered systemic abuses at the hands of priests in their parishes and by nuns and brothers in boarding schools and orphanages.
The investigations, undertaken by senior members of the judiciary, ruled that Catholic leaders protected the Church’s reputation from scandal at the expense of children. In fact, Irish bishops did not report a single case to police until their hand was forced in 1996 after victims began to sue the church. The Pope has suggested that the Irish Bishops involved didn’t understand the scale or criminality of child abuse until recent years. However, the investigators found cases in which Catholic officials in the 1960s had reported school employees to police for abusing children, showing they understood even then it was a crime. This further abrogation of responsibility does little to appease the anger of victims or show real commitment to change.
The Pope has stated that priests and religious workers guilty of child abuse must answer for these crimes before properly constituted tribunals. It is not clear whether he means that they must surrender themselves to police and face justice through the channels of the criminal justice system. This needs to be clarified. It is reassuring to see that Germany has taken a stand by saying that all cases of child sexual abuse within the church will now be referred immediately to the police.
Pope Benedict XVI, who served as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, has yet to speak about the hundreds of abuse cases emerging in Germany, which are now affecting two-thirds of diocese there. He approved the transfer of a priest accused of child sexual assault for treatment instead of informing German police. This priest was subsequently reinstated and went on to allegedly abuse more children. In 2001, while a cardinal at the Vatican, the now Pope wrote a letter instructing bishops worldwide to report all cases of abuse to his office and keep Church investigations secret under threat of excommunication. The Vatican insists the secrecy rules serve only to protect the integrity of the Church’s investigations, and should not be taken to mean the Church should not tell police of their members’ crimes.
With scandals burgeoning in Italy, Switzerland, Austria, The Netherlands, Poland and Brazil in addition to previous crises in Canada, the US and Australia, it is time for fundamental change. And it is high time the Church’s priority shifts from institutional risk minimisation and protecting sex offenders within the church and focuses on protecting children and dealing with the needs of the victims.
Dr Cathy Kezelman is chairwoman of Adults Surviving Child Abuse.