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Control needed, not contrition

While the summary of the findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, published yesterday, proposed a number of useful measures aimed at preventing the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, the overall thrust of the document is defensive.

If yesterday's document is an accurate indication of the mood of the Holy See, the Irish bishops and the superiors of the religious orders, then it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, despite everything that has happened, the leadership of the Catholic Church still doesn't get it.

It is hard to exaggerate the extent of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and religious. Over many decades, in what was an appalling breach of trust, thousands of children were raped by Catholic priests and members of religious orders. The most innocent and vulnerable members of our society were preyed upon by a well-entrenched minority of paedophile priests.

If the extent of the sexual abuse perpetrated by these priests and religious was bad, then the cover-up, in which the institutional Catholic Church, including bishops, were deeply involved was if anything even worse. Until very recently the default position of the Catholic Church when made aware of allegations of clerical sexual abuse was not to protect the victims but the abuser. Paedophile priests and members of religious orders were moved time and time again to perpetrate fresh horrors while their victims were silenced.

Given the extent of the abuse and the Catholic Church's cover-up, yesterday's document comes as a severe disappointment.

While improved training standards for seminarians training to become priests, the compulsory disclosure to the civil authorities of all abuse allegations made against priests, and new procedures for dealing with cases where allegations of abuse have been made against priests -- but the DPP has decided against a prosecution -- are all welcome, they don't come close to addressing the scale of the problem.

Unfortunately, while the document does contain some worthwhile suggestions, it also proposes a number of measures, which if implemented, would represent a major step backwards. Chief among these is the suggestion that seminary buildings be exclusively for seminarians. According to the Visitation summary, this would ensure "a well-founded priestly identity". That strikes us as being very wide of the mark. Far more likely is that it would produce a priesthood dangerously detached from its flock.

As well as segregated seminaries, the Visitation also "insisted" on a reorganisation of Ireland's ecclesiastical tribunals and encountered "a certain tendency" on the part of priests, religious and laity to hold theological opinions "at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium".

Reading between the lines, it is hard to resist the conclusion that yesterday's document was at root motivated by considerations of control rather than of contrition. Until that balance shifts the Catholic Church will not be able to put the abuse scandal behind it.

Irish Independent