Monday, 18 February 2013

The bishops leading us in penance: not enough yet?

The Lent Pastoral Letter of the NSW bishops on the abuse crisis in Australia, in the context of the Royal Commission about to get underway, that I wrote about last week was read out in churches yesterday.

As I commented last week, it seems to me to be pretty good, taking several substantive steps forward in that it acknowledged the evil of what happened in blunt terms, agreeing that more changes have to be made, and committing the church to doing both public and private penance this Lent and beyond.

I suspect, though, that Joshua of Psallite Sapienter speaks for many when he asks why the laity should do penance for the sins of bishops, priests and religious, and suggests that they should be the one's doing the penance, not us.

Who did the crimes?

The Pastoral Letter asks the faithful to offer some Lenten penances for the abuse scandal.  Joshua asks why we should:

But – forgive me, Your Eminence, My Lords – I must ask, why exactly should we, the lay faithful, do penance for the sins of such of our (past) priests and bishops who have been monstrously and notoriously unfaithful, not to say sinful, criminal abusers, co-conspirators in evil, very Judases, rapers of bodies and slayers of souls?

Forgive me – and I do know several of you – but I am rather unimpressed by this no doubt well-meant suggestion that we the "simple faithful" should participate in repenting for what we didn't do: au contraire, it will be not before time when not a few guilty parties in holy orders, yes, and not a few of their innocent brothers who we know should have been a good deal more vigilant and proactive, repent in sackcloth and ashes.

I'd make a couple of points in response.  

First, it is a great work of charity to help make reparation for crimes we ourselves didn't commit.  That's one of the reasons why many pray outside abortion clinics, and make offerings for the other sins of the world.  Indeed, one of the reasons contemplative religious communities exist is to pray for the sins of the world.

And the letter does acknowledge that it is asking us to act to heal wounds for which we are not guilty.

The guilt of the laity

All the same, I'm not sure the laity can claim total innocence in the abuse crisis.  The bishops didn't just act on their own: they often acted on the advice of lay psychologists, therapists and lawyers.  

And it wasn't just bishops who covered things up, but whole networks of people, including (lay) judges, magistrates, police and more.

There are lay teachers who were guilty to, and lay principals who did not act.

And while it is true that the laity were mostly the victims - but not always, other clergy were abused by their peers and superiors to. Many were bullied and threatened into going along with the cover up by means as foul as those experienced by the other victims. And those who did resist are still suffering, mostly in silence, from the consequences of doing so.

And the reality is that the laity often did and do still contribute to the problem.

The laity did not always make it easy for the bishops to act.

I know of a more than a few cases where parishioners have vigorously defended the guilty, refused to believe the claims, and made it hard for the authorities to act.  Indeed, in one case overseas just a few years back that I was peripherally affected by, an internet campaign was launched in support of the priest demanding his return to ministry on the grounds that his placement on leave while the case was investigated was manifestly unfair since he was so transparently a holy man (not the view I'd come to based on my own few interactions with him I'd have to say)!

Moreover, in those older cases, how many parents actually went to the police? How many believed their child in the face of denials? In reality very few, not least because they too bought into the idea of protecting the reputation of the Church.

None of this excuses the hierarchy of course - they are after all meant to lead and govern the Church.

But it should remind us that we too are Church, part of the culture that did and does still prevail.

That said....

Joshua makes the point in response to this, though, that we still aren't seeing enough actual action on the part of the bishops and religious orders:

"The passive virtues are insufficient: valour and action in the cause of right is needed. And prayer and sacrifice should be the business first and foremost of priests, "men who make prayer and sacrifice".

I think when we see real examples of penance on the part of our betters, rather than nice little letters, then the laity will be more inclined to play follow the leader".

I do agree with this.  

Real action... 

We need some actual resignations (particularly on the part of leaders of some of the religious orders, who seem to be the particularly obdurate on this issue), not mealy mouthed denials and refusals to co-operate with police.

We need some genuine outreach to victims, rather than a refusal to get involved.

We need some real changes to the processes being used (though it seems that the bishops are finally recognsing this, as both the Pastoral Letter and this article on the background politics of an apparent rethink on Towards Healing suggest).

And we need some public penance to be done by those who walked with the perpetrators rather than the victims, and made the problem worse, not better.  

The letter does, it is true, invite us to join the clergy on this, not to do it without them.  So where are the Friday Holy Hours in each Cathedral on Friday actually being held?  There certainly isn't anything advertised in the Canberra Cathedral Bulletin (nor anything special advertised for Sydney as far as I can see)!  Joshua is right to suggest that this is something that should be done publicly, not privately. And I'd also like to see the clergy making some substantive penitential gesture around it (such as announcing that they are doing a real fast on that day, and processing into the church barefoot).  

Nonetheless, I do think they are trying, and we should give them some credit for the progress the pastoral Letter represents.

1 comment:

A Canberra Observer said...

I am not sure that they get the idea of responsibility or accountability.

Their (collectiev and individual) silence on a whole range of issues over the last 30-40 years would suggest that this is the case.