Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The attack: where are we now, and what is to be done

A month ago, on 25 March, The New York Times published a slanderous article attacking the Pope.

There were three main claims:

 that Pope Benedict XVI had refused to ‘defrock’ a priest (Fr Murphy) who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, “even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church…”;

 “that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities…” of abuse cases;

 That he failed to discipline priests involved in sexual abuse in his various roles.

The Pope is innocent

All three accusations have been comprehensively debunked in a number of places. But that hasn’t stopped the media continuing this vile attack as if it were true and authoritative - this scurrilous campaign has infiltrated government (see the recent UK debacle), and every form of the media (even the women's magazines I discovered as I sat waiting for the physio yesterday).  It has changed people's opinions - both catholics and non-catholics alike - and not for the better, about the Church. 

A helpful Australian examination of the misrepresentations and outright lies can be found, of all places, at Crikey (and mentioned on CathNews yesterday, albeit indirectly and without a link being provided!).

In fact, examination of the evidence makes it clear that the Pope is not only innocent of the charges, but has actually played a central role played in a behind-the-scenes battle within the Roman Curia between those who sought to cover up the scandal, and those who sought to tackle it root and branch (this week's Catholic Leader has a good piece on this, including some interesting comments by the rector of Brisbane's seminary, a former CDF employee).

But the Church has a case to answer

But the furor has also exposed some appalling cases, some appalling practices. It has demonstrated that there is a real underlying problem that does need to be addressed.

It shown widespread malfeasance on the part of bishops, and at least on what we have seen so far, suggested that until relatively recently, the Vatican was often part of the problem not the solution. And that there are quite a number of senior Vatican officials who still seem to be part of the problem.

Of course we can note that the Catholic Church is certainly no worse than many other organizations, and possibly better than many, in regard to both the prevalence of child abuse and the cover-up of it. Certainly the wave of anti-papal and anti-catholic feeling that has sprung to the surface in recent weeks has left us all feeling horrified and appalled.

But so too has the attitudes and pattern of behaviour on the part of some priests, bishops and yes, the Vatican, left the faithful appalled and horrified.

The sheer affrontery of some of the offenders revealed in the cases that have come out (for example Marciel) is perhaps understandable: they are after all a species of sociopath, of narcissists, adept at being outwardly charming, even projecting an aura of holiness, even while threatening their victims and attempting (and in many cases apparently succeeding) in bribing and blackmailing their superiors.

That some even made it into the ranks of bishops is rather more horrifying but not completely inexplicable given the disastrous state of the episcopacy for much of the last three decades, and the infilfration of the priesthood by homosexuals and many others who should never have been ordained.

Still, how could even the most liberal bishop think that protecting his priests was more important than protecting his flock? How could a senior Cardinal, a traditionalist one at that, possibly think that the alleged ‘father-son’ relationship between bishop and priest could override the protection of the youngest members of that bishop’s flock? How could bishops knowingly continue reshuffle reoffending priests into positions where they could continue to offend? And could so little compassion be shown to the victims?

What is to be done?

In the last few days we've seen a number of reports at attempts that might be made to end this crisis:
    • suggestions that the Pope might announce an apology at the conclusion of the Year of the Priest.  If so, it probably needs to be backed up by some practical measures, the Raven suggests;
    • a renewed focus on the fundamental messages of the Church, with a more serious attempt at re-evangelising the West, backed by a new Vatican dicastery.  Certainly needed, but it will to be backed by some serious changes in approach given the utter failure of the 'New Evangelization' to date; and
    • prayer and penance, and particularly public penance on the part of those who have made poor or misguided decisions in the past in this area.

I do, however, think that more than this is required.  The Vatican Press Office has been talking about transparency and accountability - and we need to see some of it at the diocesan and parish level.  Julie Edwards (no relation) writing on the CathNews blog, calls for an audit of our structures and practices.  I agree.

The challenge of course is to do this in a way that gives proper respect to the hierarchical constitution of the Church, and the commission of bishops in particular to govern their people.  The challenge is how to bring operating practices up to modern standards without giving space to the liberal agenda (given pride of place again by Cath News yesterday in the form of a piece by Bishop Patrick Power).

But I don't think this need be as hard as it seems.  Personally, being a fan of Benedictine spirituality (St Benedict I mean here, though I'm also a fan of the modern Benedict's!), I think the solution lies largely in effective advisory-only bodies, and effective informal mechanisms which bishops (and priests) should be compelled to listen to - but should be free to accept or reject their advice (take a look at the Rule of St Benedict Chapters 3&61 in particular).  The mish-mash of current structures needs a rethink.

Secondly, while the Church is not a corporation or a government department, it is an institution that shares many of their features, and can learn from practices they are required to follow.  Why don't, for example, dioceses publish online the equivalent of an annual report each year, including some basic performance indicator statistics on their websites?  How many seminarians there are.  How many complaints about priests are received each year on what topics, and the proportion accepted and acted on.  How many people were received, baptised, confirmed, married, had marriages annulled etc etc each year.  Mass attendance figures.  The number of hours confession was available.  The number of hours of Adoration performed.  And much more.

Thirdly, the air needs to be cleared.  That does mean a serious, diocese by diocese examination of the record of the past, why failings occurred, and what needs to be done to fix the problems.  That does mean a performance audit.

The question is which bishops will have the courage to start this process.

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