“When I went into the confessional, he [the priest] asked me what ‘Father Holmes’ was doing and I told him. His answer was to give me 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and he told me that I was a disgusting girl and I wasn’t allowed to let [Father Holmes] touch me anymore. That’s something I will never get out of my mind – him turning his back on me and not helping me.” (name changed)
My quote is from the report of the Australian Royal Commission on child abuse, which has recently been published. I have to tell you that it is a a sad document for any Catholic who loves the Church, and a triumphal document for those who don’t.
It is a very lengthy report and I must admit that so far I have only had time to skim through the Executive Summary, although I paid close attention to the issues which have been examined in the Catholic Press. It seeks to look at the degree to which the cultures and operations of the Church may have contributed to the many years of widespread abuse which was never brought to light.
While I do not necessarily agree with all the factors which are considered I have no doubt that the structures of the Church contributed extensively to the scandal, and so to the damage done to the young. Unfortunately those structures are not substantially different throughout the Church. It would appear that the Commission was prompted by the extent of abuse in Australia but, if lessons are to be learnt, they will be pertinent throughout. As The Tablet put it in their Christmas issue: “Investigation after investigation, including in the United States and Ireland, has identified a culture in which protecting the good name of the Church came first, the welfare of transgressing clergy second, and the protection of the children a long way third.”
Among the issues noted was the strongly hierarchical nature of the Church. This seem to have led to its ability to conceal bad news and to disregard ’whistle blowers’. It also created a system of protection for individuals perhaps, at one level, as a means of avoiding scandal. But what was happening was not only an internal question, it was against the civil law. Canon Law is certainly criticised. It would seem that the one person whose needs were not properly addressed was the child who was being abused. In civil hierarchies, such as the army, facilities for individuals to protect their rights, even of the most junior, are provided.
The Commission used an interesting phrase: ‘cognitive rigidity’. This refers to an inability to question whatever rules and doctrines apply. In such an atmosphere nothing changes. Instead of the Church providing the secular world with an example of how just organisations should behave, it is positively medieval by comparison.
The Commission recommends that celibacy should be voluntary. I do not accept that celibacy in itself is a cause. But it seems possible that any group of celibates would attract a higher proportion of damaged personalities. This suggests that greater care is needed in initial selection. A further recommendation is that the seal of the confessional should not apply in child abuse cases. There would be an obligation to report. Leaving aside the broader issues of the seal, removing it would, I believe, be counter productive. Nevertheless it remains odd that in this one aspect of society an underage individual can report a serious breach of the law against their person, and it be taken no further. I can understand why civil authority is critical. Perhaps an obligation to offer help outside the confessional might be an alternative.
But, and it’s a big ‘but’, it would be a mistake to think that sorting out this shocking issue will solve the problem, and we can go home to tea. It is simply an outcome of an organisation which is lost within a failed culture. It is true that Vatican II went a long way towards outlining aspects of needed reform, but on the ground it is a long, long way from achieving it. Back in July 1964 (Clergy Review), Donald Nicholl (described in his obituary as “one of the most widely influential of modern Christian thinkers”) used the phrase émigré de l’intérieur to describe the Catholic who has to settle for being a second class citizen in a kingdom that does not have first claim on his heart. That’s 54 years ago, and counting.
The Commision’s executive summary is at https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/preface-and-executive-summary.
I addressed this general issue in 2016: (“Bad apples or bad barrels?” Find it through ‘search’). It was accompanied by an excellent discussion in which John Nolan, Nektarios, and others, were active.