August 22, 2002
The Church misses the point again
The Church Misses the Point Again
(Written April '02)
Over the past months it has seemed at times that The Church was going through a basic but profound transformation. I had even begun to allow myself to believe that this professed new awareness of the needs of victims of clerical abuse was based on a more human, open and Christian desire to reach out, reconcile and even heal the hurt of many years. Given recent statements from The Vatican and the US Hierarchy following their recent meetings I fear I may have been wrong.
In these meetings Pope John Paul II said “It is true that a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong."
The Catholic Church has had a clear awareness of the reality of paedophile priests for hundreds of years. As far back as 177 the Church labelled pederasts as foes of Christianity and subjected them to excommunication, then the harshest penalty the Church could inflict. It would seem that 2nd century Church child protection policy was more effective latter day Canon Law. In reality the Church has been in a unique position of having in understanding and identifying the problem of paedophilia in a way that the rest of society has only begun to catch up with. The Church’s failure is not simply some bumbling, benign incompetence it is in reality based on its deep fear of any kind of scandal, scandal that might undermine its privileged position and authority. In some cases we see that the Church has even failed to act when they have been clearly advised that particular priests posed a significant danger to children. It seems that The Church only acted on advice that allowed them to do nothing and ignored any advice that would have meant taking clear action, the fear of “scandal” seems to have been more important that the protection of children.
The Pope has made clear that “scandal” is of primary concern to the Church in relation to sexual misconduct by priests and clergy. He made this clear in his recent address to Nigerian bishops in Rome last Saturday in which he said: "Behaviour which might give scandal must be carefully avoided and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such behaviour, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist." It is a shame that in so directing the Bishops the Pope was unable to start from a position that acknowledged sexual abuse above all as a crime and not as a source of scandal.
Once again we seem to be confronted by a Church that at its highest level seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge the depth of its failures. In my own case I have always been able to separate the sexual abuse that Sean Fortune perpetrated upon me from the abuse that I perceive the Church to be uniquely responsible for: the abuse of my spiritual belief, my faith in my Church and my belief that through their ministrations I could be redeemed and saved. It was this faith that they abused when they ordained a man that they had clear reasons to be concerned about; a man that they must have known was a danger to children. It was this faith that they further abused in a cynical and unchristian way when they repeatedly refused to engage with the reality of such abuse and refused to acknowledge in any real way their responsibilities to me and other victims.
Now it seems that the Church is looking for a new target to shift responsibility to. No longer will the church seek to blame the moral decline of society and sexual liberalism that has become so pervasive as to infect “even” the clergy. Now it seems the problem is all about homosexual priests. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops following Tuesday's meeting with the Pope to discuss the current crisis in the US Church Gregory blamed part of the problem on gay priests and a perceived proliferation of gay men in seminaries. "It is an ongoing struggle," he said. "It is most importantly a struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men. Not only is it not dominated by homosexual men, but to make sure that candidates that we receive are healthy in every possible way -- psychologically, emotionally, spiritually."
Apart from being deeply offensive to Gay men this cynical and deeply disturbing attempt to find another target to dump responsibility on will provide little comfort to the thousands of women and girls abused by Priests, victims of the sexual abuse and rape perpetrated by Priests like Brendan Smith and Jim Grennan who’s trauma cannot be explained away by a Church that now seems to want to portray itself as riddled by homosexual priests. It is also clearly offensive to those clergy who may be gay and who serve their ministries well and with integrity to be tarred with the same brush as paedophile priests. That not withstanding the deep offence many gay men will take from the suggestion that they are somehow less than healthy “in every possible way—physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
So again I find myself trying to explain that what I seek from my Church is not an acknowledgement that I was raped by one of their priests, nor an acknowledgement of my pain and that such abuse is wrong (we all recognise that at this stage), instead what I continue to seek is a frank, open and honest acknowledgment of the truth of their part in this tragedy. I do not seek their destruction; I do not seek to humble them in any way. I only want what they taught me was of primary importance: truthfulness and a willingness to own personal failures and responsibility. Instead we again seem to be getting more sorry excuses as to why its not their fault, why they were not negligent or heaven forbid flawed but rather that they were misguided, tricked by professionals and corrupted by an infiltration of homosexuals. It would seem that our only hope lies with The Church here in Ireland and the chance that things truly have fundamentally changed here. Perhaps our Church may prove to be different and more prepared to lead the way. God knows we all could do with some clear spiritual guidance and honest Christian love.
Posted by Colm at August 22, 2002 10:35 PM
The Church Misses the Point
Response: A Catholics Perspective
I have been thinking a lot about this article since Colm posted it. I am replying to it in general terms, as well as commenting on some of the discussion that has arisen in recent days in the newspapers and referring to my own experience, as a child, of abuse by a priest. As there is an understandable reluctance for us to go into a public arena this web space is a good place to articulate our views and possibly generate some debate on the matter from our perspective.
I am a practising Catholic somewhat unusual, given the nature of my own story, but that is my choice. I am sad to say I agree with the essence of the article Colm wrote which yet again confirms, yet again, that the Church, at the highest level in Rome, by dismissing past errors as ‘misguided’ seems more concerned with avoiding further scandal than looking inwards to confront its own failures. As we all know, the institution of the church has been seriously remiss in its management style in the past and continues to operate within its own rules and in secrecy.
Colm refers in his article to the fact that everybody at this stage knows the abuse was wrong and that acknowledgement of his own abuse is not what he seeks, rather a ‘frank, open and honest acknowledgement of the truth of their part in the tragedy’. The institutional church has never been open in its operations and this poses difficulties for them now. They have little expertise in this area and flounder when faced with it. However I live in hope. In the editorial in Reality Magazine this month Fr. Gerard Moloney writes the most honest piece of journalism I have read on the subject of clericalism. Donnacha posted up extracts from it on to the website. It is inspiring and explores the real issues. Fr. Moloney has always been forthright in his views. He states that ‘clericalism is the cancer at the heart of the church’ and writes extensively on how clericalism needs to be rooted out. Perhaps some meaningful debate can generate from his editorial. As well as this, I am hopeful the independent commission will begin its work and realise results. The terms of reference look good but I think that they require expansion to include more of us, the abused to be represented as we can make a significant and relevant contribution to the process itself.
Everyone agrees the abuse was wrong and Fr. Michael Cummane writes, in his recent opinion in The Irish Times, that the public are ‘bored’ of the subject matter. In truth he has a point. However, regardless of how boring it may be to the public, the Church itself needs to be reminded constantly of how its complacency and inaction in the past caused so much pain. Our stories matter and need to be heard by the hierarchy and their advisors regardless at what stage of our lives we choose to tell them or how often they are said. Otherwise a stasis will occur and nothing will change fundamentally.
The perpetrator of the crimes committed on me, and many like me, Fr. Brendan Smyth was allowed to roam free, despite his known propensity to abuse children. He had been treated for paedophilia BEFORE he met me in 1969. His managers knew this and ‘handled’ it by moving him around, thus spreading his evil. To me, a layperson, the answer seems simple. A priest is reported of wrongdoing in its worst form…the most evil of acts…to abuse and rape the innocent. What part of this story could ever be seen as acceptable, on any level? There was enough concern raised about this man early in his career and yet he had so much freedom to abuse children for over thirty years. Any priest, who stood out at the time and complained, was shafted and sent out into the wilderness. Fr. Moloney’s comments: ‘Clericalism thrives on power and is sustained by it. It is a strong believer in accountability- but only accountability upwards, not downwards’. These remarks are so pertinent in relation to many of our stories. We could have been spared but for the pervasive culture of clericalism that existed in the past and is still present within the church today.
To balance out the argument. There are many excellent priests and religious within the Catholic Church. They too have been seriously hurt by the widespread abuse stories and are looking to their leadership for guidance. They, too, need help and healing. There are so few of them now and can often be targets of suspicion themselves, many reporting they live in fear. Despite what happened to me, I harbour no personal bitterness against them. As a practising Catholic, I support them in the good work that they do. Cardinal Connell invited me, one of the abused and one of the faithful, to come forward on the 14th April 2002 in his letter at Sunday Mass. Following this invitation I went to my local curate who has been the epitome of compassion and love and understanding. I am lucky because I know others have not had this experience. I am glad the Cardinal asked me to come forward. At last finally I and others like me can begin the process of personal healing.
However, there are a few questions I would like to ask the Cardinal, and I plan to write to him in due course. Some of the questions I would like answered are the following: Having come out now where is the healing centre to help me and others reconcile the truly awful abuse that we endured as children? Where can I document my personal story so it is preserved, with dignity, and in confidence and where it can be revisited by history to ensure this never happens again? What plans does he have to research the effects of the abuse on the survivors? How does he intend to invite those alienated from their Church to return and receive the healing they desperately need? Why does the counselling agency have a name that is so difficult to spell and access thereby putting up more barriers for the distressed? (Faoiseamh.what does this mean?). We the abused can advise him how to make the changes towards an inclusive church. He cannot in fairness change history but he can influence the future by making a real effort to lead the way to restoring faith.
Finally, thanks to Colm and his friends who bravely work tirelessly on our behalf to find answers to so many unanswered questions. Thanks to the one in four web site, which offers so much support to all of us. It really helped me at a time when I was at my lowest ebb. In conclusion, I want to be part of a Church with a management approach where open and frank debate can take place. I would very much like the emphasis to centre on healing and rebuilding a Church that was founded on faith hope and love. These are in short supply at the moment. It is true what Colm says at this point in time ‘we could all do with some clear spiritual guidance and honest Christian love’.
From a very ordinary Irish Catholic