For me, the saddest point in the film Spotlight was at the very end where three screens were needed to show all the places in which the local Church had managed cover ups of incidents of sexual abuse. The question asks itself: how could the Church of God, one of whose marks in holiness, oversee such cruel debaucheries, ensuring that the evil could continue over the decades? In search of an answer I am going to ask you to pause for a moment. I want you to imagine a nightmare.
The time is the 1970s. You have a son in his 20s whom you love dearly. He is a faithful Catholic and, being a charming and popular person, he has been very successful in youth work. One day you are visited by the distressed mother of a 12 year old. With great difficulty she explains that her boy has been interfered with sexually by your son. Of course you can’t believe her, but you do feel it necessary to ask your son. At first he denies it but his uneasiness makes you probe. Eventually it all comes out: the incident has happened, although he describes it as merely horseplay, your son has apparently never done anything like this before and he is overcome with shame. It’s the first time you have seen him cry for ten years. He assures you that nothing like that would, could, ever happen again. And you believe him. Is your next move to march him smartly down to the police station?
There are very good reasons to do so. Sexual abusers, for all their contrition, are prone to repeat the offences; that is why we keep a national sex register so that other children are protected. And the damage of sex abuse can be carried by the victim for life. But in the 1970s these dangers were not generally known. Archbishop Murphy O’Connor, explaining his mistake in posting an abusing priest to further pastoral duties, did not know in the 1970s, so why should you?
And, you have a second motive. You have a public position: perhaps as a head teacher. Will the publicity rebound on you? Outwardly, people may sympathise but inwardly the association is there: what sort of parent were you? Perhaps the school board would wonder about your suitability as a head teacher. Shame does not discriminate.
If you would nevertheless report your son, you will have good reason to condemn some bishops’ actions in the 1970s. But if you would have kept quiet, hoping the situation would fade away, you will understand that even bishops deserve to be judged in terms of their good faith at the time rather than through hindsight. How do we want the Almighty to judge us? But that does not excuse the continuation of abuse as the facts became clear and the extent of child abuse widened.
Yet there are considerations here, too. The situation becomes increasingly difficult as a bishop realises that he has several priests who have offended and some re-offended, and many children have been damaged. You realise that this will be an immense scandal, and the costs of putting it right may bankrupt the diocese. Even then, you should have faced the music for the sake of the children. But to do so would have been heroic. How entitled we are to expect heroism in others even if we are heroes ourselves?
The bishop is between a rock and a hard place. And one rock is especially jagged. It is called the pontifical secret. Briefly, Canon Law prohibits reporting abuse to the civil authorities, under pain of potential excommunication. In 2010 (2002 in the US) reporting was permitted where the civil law required it — but this does not apply to countries like Italy or Poland where there is no civil requirement. Having been intended to give protection similar to other forms of professional confidence it acted, and acts, as a cover up. Throughout many years reporting was effectively prohibited by the episcopal oath of obedience.
Don’t misunderstand me. What happened over the decades was outrageous: evil people escaped their deserts while innocents were grossly damaged when they were entitled to loving protection. And there has been great scandal causing huge damage to the Church. But it wasn’t a plot. Bishops may have been ignorant, careless, and occasionally cowardly to a point of wickedness. But for the most part they were just like you and me – trying to do what they thought best in impossible situations. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist, taught that bad apples come from bad barrels. In this case the bad barrel was an old system, no longer fit for purpose, and perhaps still not fit. Let’s not put the blame too readily on the apples.