This may prove an interesting week for Catholics. The new film Spotlight is being released in Britain. It is based in 2001 when the Boston Globe began to investigate the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. I have not seen the film and so I rely on an articles published in The Catholic Herald (22 Jan) and The Tablet (23 Jan). Were it a poor film it could be overlooked but it has been nominated for six Academy Awards, and both magazines broadly confirm its approach.
It would seem that there was a conspiracy to manage the whole paedophile issue in this by, for instance, moving priests from one post to another – and avoiding any possibility of the situation being made public. “The film portrays the Church as a powerful, silencing organisation with superficially affable, eloquent enforcers.” One observer, close to the situation, describes it as a “culture of secrecy that tolerates and even protects paedophiles”. He estimates that half of priests are not celibate and that as many as six per cent of all priests may have been at some time involved in sexual activity with minors. It is more than a few bad apples”.
None of this comes as a surprise to us. We have read several accounts – for example, from Ireland – and have been shocked and shamed. But now perhaps we are at a perspective distance which allows us to ask ourselves some important questions.
We find it difficult to get our heads around paedophilia. Like any form of sexual irregularity we cannot understand its attraction if we are not ourselves drawn towards it. But the numbers involved suggest many possible factors: the immaturity of priests who have in some way abstracted themselves from normal life, the huge emphasis on the vileness of sexuality which might in itself be tempting, the attraction of celibacy for certain homosexuals, that strange syndrome whereby people with “virtuous” status rationalise their shortcomings as somehow owed to them to even the balance.
But we might think that the worse sin was not sexual but the abuse of power. A priest is in a position of power – particularly with regard to the young, and they have many possibilities of wheedling and threatening which not only succeed but ensure silence. It is in fact a sort of rape – and all the worse for the young person who happens to get some pleasure. His or her reward is an extra dose of guilt.
Some people will claim that the worst sinners were those in episcopal authority. Whether or not they approved, they were prepared to let it continue and spread. We might excuse them initially because they were naïve: suppose you caught out your brother in such an activity. Would you immediately walk down to the police station and turn him in? Or would you first try to sort it out strictly within the family? After all, if you accept that your brother had been depressed, was terribly repentant and ready to swear not to repeat such an offence, would you not want to believe him? It looks like a better outcome than the shame and scandal brought on him and the family.
But, by the time the bishop is aware that his optimism is unjustified, it may be difficult to reverse gear. Probably there are a number priests in the diocese who have already been moved around to avoid scandal. If it all comes to light he will be held indirectly responsible for each case. The parents will be prowling around your palace and the potential bill for damages is growing larger than the wealth of the diocese. Above all, there will be huge scandal, and you can be sure that headquarters, which has done little enough to help or guide so far, will leave you up the creek without a paddle.
I am told that paedophile situations are by no means unique to the Church. I have no figures but I understand it is as common in school systems and youth organisations. But most cases occur within the family; I could repeat stories from my time as a Catholic marriage counsellor which would make you cry. But I am still left with the question why the Church with its high values, staffed by those who surely intended to devote their life to Christ, should have harboured such vice. Of course in any organisation there will be a few bad apples. But if so many apples are bad, perhaps it’s a bad tree or, at the very least, a potentially good tree which has been cultivated by a careless and ignorant gardener.
Tell me if my analysis needs correcting, and tell us how you analyse the situation.
I drafted this piece for last week, but we were overtaken by the Zika issue. I have now seen the Spotlight film, which is indeed excellent. It is uncomfortable for Catholics to watch, but I would suggest obligatory. You could have heard a pin fall throughout the cinema. The only sound was my adult convert wife spitting blood. Almost the worst moment for me was the end when three screens were needed to list all the places around the world in which the local church had maintained a similar cover up of clergy paedophilia. I was in no doubt that there is something badly wrong in the Church which allows these things to happen. Can we nail it (or them, if there are multiple reasons) down?
Monday this week: I read in Global Pulse an article headed “Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who is president of the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University, says cover-ups and denial are still too prevalent in the Church.” He concludes: “What does it signify for the Church’s self-image, for instance? What is the significance of a priest, a ‘man of God’, who administers the Sacraments but is at the same time a perpetrator?”And so the story is scarcely over…