My heart goes out to Catholics in the US, Australia and Chile. Their churches are currently under intense spotlight regarding the resignations of Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Wilson and a group of Chilean bishops, the first accused of abuse and the rest of failing to deal with it as leaders.
As a Catholic living and ministering in Ireland I recognise the same tenor of outrage and hurt in media reports and the same tone of church statements which apologise for ‘moral failure,’ and ‘sin.’ The use of this professional church language seeks to damage-limit and control the narrative. Those at the centre of the crisis and commentators rehearse the possible ‘reasons,’ for clerical child sexual abuse, among them obligatory celibacy, misogyny, theology and, most staggeringly, loneliness. We in Ireland have had this weary conversation ten million times over the last twenty five plus years. It has got us nowhere* and now we face a papal visit which ‘celebrates family’ and does not include a meeting with those who have been abused by priests (not church personnel; not the Church: priests).
Those priests, bishops and cardinals who have abused children here and elsewhere have destroyed the Church in Ireland. They have not done this alone but have been aided by those who covered up, denied or minimised the atrocities they perpetrated. Their caste always trumped the rights of their victims. It became clear a few years into our process of discovery that while the Catholic hierarchy would prioritise safeguarding regulations to the letter and spend millions doing so, it would never ‘get it’ in terms of the changes which would be needed for the Irish Catholic Church to emerge from the ashes. It has not heeded the pleas from so many Irish people, including victims, clergy, the lay faithful, theologians, religious and non-church-attending citizens for real change; for authentic humility, conversion and a deep attention to the action of the Holy Spirit. Instead the Church has continued as before – proud, unyielding, defensive, and hoarding resources, leadership and influence to a tiny group of like-minded men. This approach has cost the Irish Catholic Church its voice in public discourse and in the hearts and minds of the Irish nation. While individual Catholics and communities continue to do huge good and witness profoundly to their faith, the institutional Church is set on a course of anti-witness.
I hope it’s different in other countries. I hope they get it – our experience is at their disposal – but I am not confident. While the pope does not demand resignations; does not demand root and branch change and does not listen and be seen to listen to those whose lives have been devastated by the ‘moral failures’ of his men, local churches will not take a new course. It will not matter what other good the Church does nationally or internationally, it will continued to be defined by this tragedy and will continue to limp along toward obscurity.
*An enlightening contribution which is the exception is Kevin Egan’s ‘Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy report (Dublin: Columba, 2011) which contributed calm clinical responses to the ‘why and how’ questions. I recommend it as a still-relevant read.