Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: The Pope needs to prove that he is on the side of victims

It was not a good week for the Catholic Church, but we have been here before, so is it capable of changing its ways now, asks Brendan O'Connor

Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy and Fr John Keating, of Killeedy, Co Limerick, walking to Killeedy Mass Rock last week where the Bishop spoke on the need for openness. Photo: Keith Wiseman
Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy and Fr John Keating, of Killeedy, Co Limerick, walking to Killeedy Mass Rock last week where the Bishop spoke on the need for openness. Photo: Keith Wiseman
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

You'd have to say the build-up to the Pope's visit is a bit different to the last time. There is a dark irony now to that iconic moment when John Paul II, flanked by Michael Cleary and Eamon Casey, told the young people of Ireland that he loved them. For many, the Catholic Church is now seen, not entirely unfairly, as being, among other things, a vast machine for the abuse of young people, and the covering up of that abuse.

It was not a good week for the Catholic Church or for people of faith.

We learnt of three generations of abuse of children in Pennsylvania, involving sadism, prostitution and the abuse of children as young as three months. There were at least 300 predator priests in the diocese over the last 70 years, and 1,000 victims that we know of, but potentially thousands more.

A spokesman for the Vatican spoke of "shame and sorrow". He said that Pope Francis understands how these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers. The statement also said the church must learn hard lessons from its past and root out this tragic horror. Pope Francis was not quoted in the Vatican statement.

None of that is going to hold much water with the people who have had their lives ruined not just by abuse from priests but by the systematic covering up of that abuse by a church that has nearly always chosen to protect the institution over the child.

None of it will hold much water either with the many Irish Catholics who had their faith and spirit shaken long before now.

Worse again, considering that these men are supposed to be God's representatives on earth, is that no one really believes it. No one believes the church will root this out or learn lessons. Because no one has any reason to believe they will. We have been here before. The church has been caught rotten on many occasions now. And still the pattern continues.

Just look at the experience of Ian Elliott, the former chief executive of the Irish Catholic Church's National Board for Safeguarding Children. Elliott came into the job in 2007, by which time we were only too well aware of the crimes within the church here.

He was told he was pushing an open door in terms of helping the church to deal with these issues. He was told they recognised there was a problem and they wanted to fix it. What he got instead was lip service, very limited commitment and resistance, even hostility from bishops. Elliott is even convinced the church withheld documents from him in the case of the Dromore diocese, where Malachy Finnegan operated.

Elliott, who has worked in this area in many of what you might call the abuse hotspots - Chile and Australia among others - believes it's not enough any more for the church to keep saying sorry. One of the things he says needs to happen now is that canon law needs to be reformed.

Which brings us to another aspect of this. One of the reasons the church is so resistant to cooperating with those who enforce the laws of the land, is that Rome has its own law, which it seems to believe supersedes the laws of the countries in which it operates.

Central to this, Elliott says, is a deference to bishops, which perhaps explains why so many bad bishops were free to operate local empires of abuse and cover-up for so long. The church, Elliott says, claimed he didn't understand their culture. Or perhaps he understood it all too well.

It is bizarre too that it even has to be said by Ian Elliott, that the church needs a culture of mandatory reporting of abuse to real law enforcement, that there needs to be independent scrutiny and monitoring either by the State or by another body. Of course there does. This is how society and institutions operate now. You don't get to police yourself when it comes to abusing children.

At this point, it is almost confusing trying to keep up with the various scandals coming out of the US. You may have been following the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick, an immensely powerful figure in the church and a confidante of popes and presidents, last month became the first cardinal in living memory to have to resign after credible accusations of abusing a teenager 50 years ago and after several more men came forward with allegations too.

Note he resigned. This is part of the culture of the church. McCarrick was not fired. He proffered his resignation. This is how they do it. It's all handled very delicately.

The President of the US Catholic Bishops Conference has now said they will invite the Vatican to conduct an Apostolic Visitation into the McCarrick case. More delicacy.

The purpose of an apostolic visitor is "to evaluate an ecclesiastical institute such as a seminary, diocese, or religious institute and to assist the institute in question to improve the way in which it carries out its function in the life of the church".

Which again brings us back to this idea the church has that it has the answers and it is fit to police itself, perhaps because it alone, understands the culture.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell is the man who barred Mary McAleese and other speakers at the Voices of Faith conference from speaking in the Vatican because of their positions on LGBT people. He is also head honcho of the World Meeting of Families, which is proving a cold house for LGBT families. Farrell not only worked closely with McCarrick for years but actually shared an apartment with him. Farrell claims he was unaware of what was apparently an open secret about McCarrick's harassment of seminarians and others. Kevin Farrell also denies claims about being close to, and knowing about, the exploits of serial sex abuser Fr Marcial Maciel, another man with whom he worked.

All this almost makes the fact that Cardinal Sean O'Malley from Boston has pulled out of the World Meeting of Families because he is dealing with an abuse scandal at St John's seminary in his diocese, seem positively benign. Then again, it is also claimed that O'Malley's office ignored warnings about McCarrick sexually abusing children while he was a priest in New York. O'Malley, by the way, is the Chair of the Vatican's Commission for the Protection of Children. He was coming the World Meeting of Families to chair a discussion on 'Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults'.

While gay people are seemingly not welcome at the World Meeting of Families, Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl was to be a keynote speaker there. At least he was until yesterday, when he withdrew from the event.

According to the Shapiro report into the Pennsylvania scandal, as Bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years, Wuerl transferred priests when allegations of abuse were made, oversaw inadequate investigations and concealed information from law enforcement. Now he becomes the second cardinal to withdraw from the World Meeting of Families.

It's all very depressing for Catholics, who have had their faith in the institution of their church severely tested by these men of God.

For a bit of hope, and a reminder of what a force for good faith and the church can be, perhaps they could turn to the words of the Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy, who reminded us last week that there are, and always have been, very humane and wise men in the church. Leahy said that at this time, it is good for us to recall with a grateful heart just how much the church contributed to Irish society.

But, he said, "we need to acknowledge the dark aspects of our church's history that have come to light especially in recent decades".

He spoke of a clericalism that ended up confusing power and ministry, the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious that did untold life-long damage to the victims, the violent and repressive treatment by church representatives of young people sent to the state's reformatory institutions, the dark experience of vulnerable women in places meant to be residences of refuge.

He also spoke of how cover-ups, wilful or otherwise, and mismanagement "compounded the damage, adding to our shame".

He went on to say, that "to acknowledge with gratitude the good can never eclipse recognition of sin, criminality and evil. In some way, everyone in the church bears the shame of these dark aspects of our history. Few of us can throw stones as if we ourselves were not somehow associated".

Many would hope to hear similar sentiments from Pope Francis next weekend. It would be a start. We do not know if we will hear words of apology to the people of Ireland, but even if we do, it will not be enough. What needs to happen now is that the church needs to let the light in, to stop fighting earthly law enforcement, to stop obstructing, to stop protecting.

Pope Francis, if he wishes to save his church in the eyes of the rest of the world, and if he wishes to prove, as the Vatican statement said last week, that he is on the side of the victims, then he needs to signal that the truth will out, and then, and only then, can everyone begin to move on, and remember the good again.

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