Monday 19 August 2019

Colm O'Gorman: 'The Vatican has told lie after lie on abuse: now we need the plain truth'

The Catholic Church's summit on sex abuse had fine words - but no concrete actions

'Last weekend the world's media was abuzz with coverage of what we were told was an
'Last weekend the world's media was abuzz with coverage of what we were told was an "unprecedented summit", a moment of real change. How wrong they were.' Photo: despositphotos

Colm O'Gorman

Over the past 25 years, I have come to understand that the more monstrous and blatant the lie, the harder it can be to perceive, most especially if the deceiver is a revered individual or institution.

I can find no other explanation for how the Vatican and successive Popes have been able to peddle mistruths about their deliberate global cover-up of the rape and abuse of children and vulnerable adults right across the Catholic world.

Many, myself included, hoped that Pope Francis might be radically different to his predecessors, but it has become clear, that at least on this issue, the deceit continues under his Papacy. Last weekend the world's media was abuzz with coverage of what we were told was an "unprecedented summit", a moment of real change. How wrong they were. What we got instead were some fine words, but not a single concrete action that honestly acknowledged the cover-up led by the Vatican or introduced enforceable rules to protect children across the world.

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In truth, it was clear that the summit would not see significant change before it even began. The Vatican announced the summit last September, during an especially torrid period for the Vatican and Pope Francis himself, as the evidence of abuse and cover-up began to mount against more and more senior members of the church hierarchy, including senior figures at the Vatican. Within a few months, the Pope and the Vatican began to downplay expectations. It seemed clear at that stage that perhaps the only thing that would prove to be unprecedented would be the fact that the meeting happened, and not any outcome that might flow from it. However, a few developments in and around the summit are worth examining, not as signals of change, but rather as proof of how little has actually changed. Take, for example, the statement issued by the Vatican on January 15, setting out the purpose of the summit. In the statement, a spokesperson said: "The church is not at the beginning of the fight against abuse. The meeting is a stage along the painful journey that the church has unceasingly and decisively undertaken for over 15 years."

Think about that for a moment. The Vatican wants people to believe that it began its "fight against abuse" some time around 2004. It reminded me of earlier suggestions from the Vatican that knowledge of the child abuse within the church was a relatively recent development. There are numerous examples of senior Vatican figures seeking to deflect from the issue by suggesting that it was a case of a few ''bad apples'' or of the ''corruption of western society'' that was now infecting even the church and its priests.

Senior church figures, at the national and global level, said repeatedly that the emergence of the child abuse issue was a surprise to them. That the church, like the secular world, had only become aware of it in recent decades as studies of the prevalence of abuse and its impact emerged.

Pope Francis appeared to suggest that himself during his closing speech to the summit. Only in relatively recent times, he told us, has the sexual abuse of children become the subject of systematic research. He spent much of his speech pointing out that most child abuse happens within families, which is of course true, but which has nothing to do with the cover-up of such abuse by the church.

It seemed to me to be a clear attempt at deflection. Abuse happens everywhere, he appeared to say, and the Vatican, like everyone else, did not know about it or understand it until relatively recently. Which is a blatant deceit.

The first laws to deal with sexual crimes perpetrated by priests were introduced, not 15 or even 100 years ago, but 1,700 years ago, in the fourth century, by the Council of Elvira. The modern-day rules that set out how cases of the sexual assault of children by priests were to be managed were first set out in 1922. Those rules required absolute secrecy and for cases to be managed internally. They were updated in 1962. They required that all involved in cases - victims, accused clergy, church investigators and any witnesses - were to be sworn to absolute secrecy, and that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was to be informed of every case of an allegation against a cleric and would decide how to proceed in each case.

Those rules were reaffirmed in a letter sent by Pope John Paul II to every bishop in the world in 2001. At that time, the head of the CDF was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. I revealed all of this in a documentary I made for the BBC's Panorama in 2006. The Vatican and senior church figures denounced the film and denied that these rules applied to abuse cases. Last weekend, speakers at the summit exposed that lie when they acknowledged that the Pontifical Secret was applied in such cases.

In the late 1940s, the Vatican approved the establishment of a religious congregation, The Servants of the Paraclete, whose purpose was to treat priests with psychosexual problems. The congregation opened up treatment centres around the world, including one in Gloucestershire in the UK. That clinic treated many of Ireland's most notorious paedophile priests.

In early 1950s, the head of the congregation told the Vatican that it was not safe to return priests who had abused children to ministry even after treatment as they would be highly likely to reoffend. So more than 60 years ago, the Vatican understood the psychosexual nature of paedophilia. It knew that treatment was important, but that even after treatment, reoffending was likely if abusers were returned to ministry.

Yet for decades and to this day, bishops, cardinals and popes have tried to tell us that they were ignorant of even the existence of the issue until recently. Lie, upon lie, upon lie.

At the same time as they ignored the need to protect children from clerical rapists, they did act to protect themselves and their wealth. From at least the mid-1980s on, bishops in countries across the world took out specific insurance policies to protect themselves against the costs of damages that might be awarded against them in cases brought by victims of paedophile priests.

Decades later, as scandals emerged in Ireland, the US, Australia and across the world, bishops in those same dioceses denied that they had any knowledge of the prevalence of sexual abuse and of its impact. Lie, upon lie, upon lie.

For decades, the Vatican pretended the rape and abuse of children by priests did not happen. In time, as tens of thousands of such cases emerged, it could not maintain that particular lie. It then denied the cover-up, but when I and others forced investigations that exposed that lie, they could not maintain it either. Now they admit the cover-up, but deny their role in it. This despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the net continues to close on the Vatican itself. This week its third most powerful official, Cardinal George Pell, was convicted of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16. He committed the assaults in 1996 and 1997. Pope Francis elevated Pell to his position as Vatican Treasurer in 2014. He did so despite long-standing complaints about Pell's management of abuse by priests in his native Australia.

Pell's conviction raises another serious question that Francis must answer, of course. What precisely did the Vatican know about allegations of abuse against Pell and given the requirement that all such cases be referred to the CDF, when did they become aware of them? Did Francis elevate him despite knowledge of such complaints or concerns? After all the deceit, it is beyond time for some plain truth.

Colm O'Gorman is the founder and former director of One in Four. He is currently the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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