Friday, 6 July 2012

The abuse scandal: what is to be done?

Over at Catholic Soapbox Gavin makes the case for a Royal Commission, in order to get all of the abuse cases out into the open, and stop the seemingly never-ending flood of stories of abuse, parish shuffling and cover up. 


I have to admit I'm not entirely I'm not entirely convinced: how much better it would be if we could reform things from within?

But I'd have to admit that the prospects of that happening do not currently look particularly likely.

The problem seems to be that even in the face of all the media coverage and all the calls for a Commission, the hierarchy and many priests are still in denial about the impact of the problem.  Many seem to see it just as a media campaign to get the Church, rather than a genuine reflection of legitimate concern.

And the continued assertions that Towards Healing is the solution, and the seemingly pre-emptive defence of the priests allegedly involved in the cover up of the latest round of accusations before the case has been properly investigated is not helping.

 Regaining credibility

There are, I think, three key issues that need to be addressed. 

The first is the impact on the victims of abuse.  The continuing stories of suicide and other forms of the impact on lives must continue to appall us. 

The second is the loss of trust in the hierarchy in particular, and priests in general on the part of Catholics.  

And the third issue is the damage that has been done to the Church's moral authority in the community more generally at a time when its voice is needed more than ever to speak up against the pornification of our society.

Can more be done?

I'm not suggesting for a moment that any strategy to address the abuse scandal is going to be sufficient to address victims concerns: the problem has been allowed to fester so long that positions have hardened, and bitterness is deeply entrenched in some.  Nor will it be easy to regain the trust of the laity, because the  reality is that many, myself included, see the mishandling of abuse cases as but one symptom of a much broader problem of lack of transparency and accountability.

Accordingly, I don't believe the solution lies primarily in specific ways of responding to the abuse crisis, though some are certainly needed.

Rather, I think what is needed is a radical recommitment to the Church's prophetic, counter-cultural teachings.  Here are some suggestions.

1.  As part of the Year of Grace, ask each diocese to stage an event each month to pray for victims of abuse, and invite them to reconnect with the Church.

We are a Church of sinners and we should say so.  Let's set aside a day a month for fasting and prayer (perhaps Eucharistic Adoration?) for the sexual sins committed against those in their charge by priests, religious, teachers and parents in the Church.  And find some new ways of reaching out to victims and helping them reconnect to the Church: perhaps one of the newer, younger religious orders could be given the task?

2.  As part of the Year of Faith, launch a campaign to set out the Church's vision for society as a means of getting us to heaven, and the role of priests, families and individuals in achieving that.

We need to recover a positive vision of morality: recover the idea that society exists to help us get to heaven, to help us become more perfect; recover the idea that contributing to the future of society is more important than indulging in the pursuit of passing pleasures.

3.  Restore a commitment to asceticism as a sign of that vision - bring back meatless Fridays, extend the length of the Eucharistic fast, restore some Holy Days of Obligation, insist on confession and Mass attendance.

As signs of that, our bishops should restore some of the traditional disciplines.

A good start would be a standard reminder at each and every Sunday Mass that reception of the Eucharist requires that one be in a state of grace, and that sacramental confession is a necessity where grave sins - including failure to attend Sunday Mass  without good cause - have been committed.

4.  We need to reaffirm that celibacy and virginity are higher states of life, and that the commitments made in marriage, through the reception of holy orders, or through public religious vows are lifelong.

For the last several decades Catholic teaching on the call to virginity and/or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom has been fudged in the interests, allegedly, of not denigrating the calling of laypeople.  We need to get past this false dichotomy and reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church, looking to the model of perpetual virginity offered by Our Lord and Our Lady.  We also need to reaffirm that vocation is a lifelong commitment, not something to be discarded when the going gets tough.

Perhaps all priests (particularly those over a certain age, who went through seminary at a time when the state of moral theology was particularly wanting) could be put through a short refresher course during the Year of Faith (perhaps the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne could design something to be delivered online)?

All priests and religious could be required to wear a clear sign of their state of life when in public, viz at least a clerical collar for priests (and preferably full soutane), and (real) habit for religious.

And perhaps they could then make, say at next year's Chrism Masses in the case of priests, a special public (perhaps written and placed on the altar?) reaffirmation of their rejection of sin and occasions of sin, commitment to their special call of holiness as models for us all, and above all commitment to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.

5.  Introduce some genuine accountability and transparency mechanisms in each diocese, nationally, and at the level of the Vatican

The bishop, it is true, needs to be the final decision-maker in his diocese in our hierarchically constituted Church.

But he will surely make better decisions if he first takes good advice.  That advice should come not just from his fellow priests, but also from lay people with experience and wisdom.

And having made a decision, there is scope to be a lot more upfront about the reasons for those decisions.

More generally, we need to get past the mentality of quietly 'retiring' bishops and priests without saying why, when they have in fact committed serious sins of commission or omission.

We need to know that people have been held accountable for their past actions or failures to act.


R J said...

The first Australian government (whether state or federal, and whatever party forms it) which has the intestinal fortitude to make the current church-subsidy nexus conditional upon a genuine moral clean-up of the "filth" (the present Holy Father's term) will win the next election, and the election after that, and the election after that.

Australia's Catholic bishops, and I imagine its Protestant and Jewish leaders also, continue to dwell in a culture of taxpayer-funded entitlement. In this culture - to quote Kipling's famous verse - "all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins." Well, the Greek and Spanish ruling classes thought on similar lines, until they got mugged by economic reality earlier this year.

An Australian politician capable of actual leadership (and of such a politician there is not the smallest sign on the current horizon) would say to the antipodean Catholic episcopate:

"Harden up, princesses. Your entitlement culture is in the same condition as Monty Python's famous parrot. It is dead. It is off the twig. It has kicked the bucket. It has rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. If you keep whining to me about your 'rights' to 'State Aid', I will simply retort: 'Cry me a river,' given how perverts in Ireland's and Belgium's parishes (to say nothing of Australia's) used State Aid for their own nefarious purposes.

"This is your last chance to prove to several million voters - many of whom are now capable of making, on Facebook and Twitter, very insulting but entirely legal remarks at your expense - that you are not the mere socialist parasites which the average Australian non-Catholic believes you to be. You are not getting one red cent of public money for your schools until every last kiddy-fiddler in your ranks is locked up and the key thrown away. Deal?"

How long would it take before the bishops, confronted with this fait accompli, would respond (with whatever reluctance): "Deal"? I reckon five minutes, at the outside. Some of us learned as early as our primary school years (even if today's politicians have yet to perceive the elementary fact) that every bully - episcopal or otherwise - is, at heart, a coward.

Kate Edwards said...

Please folks:

1. No name calling, just stick to the issues and arguments.
2. Please avoid anything that might be construed as legally actionable - just a matter of being careful about wording.

I've received a couple of comments that contain really important arguments I'd like to be able to publish but can't without editing them, and I've decided not to be in that game!

If I've rejected your comments, feel free to resubmit after self-editing (and contact me offline if you need the text of your original comment sent back to play with).

Peter said...

R J, why do you not make the same demand about State school teachers and the adminuistrators thereof, where the problem is far greater?

In fact for the last 15 years at least, a child at a State school is statistically far more likely to be abused than a child at a Catholic school, and the abuse is more likely to be concealed by those in authority.

A Catholic priest who abuses anyone is far more likely to be identified, reported to police, reported in the media, charged, tried, convicted and to receive a heavier sentence than a layman of the same age etc who committed the same offence.

Yet the media go on endlessly about the tiny part of the problem found in the Catholic clergy and all but totally ignore the 99.9+% of child abuse which is committed by others, as if abuse only becomes a problem if it's a catholic priest doing it.

Sean said...

Speaking about legal issues, the Herald on Saturday published a letter accusing all Catholics of supporting child sex abuse. Can anything be done about that?