The long awaited report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has finally revealed the true extent of abuse going on across Ireland for the best part of the last century. The report makes for shocking reading, throwing up many questions regarding the future of the Catholic Church itself. The 2,500 page document reveals massive abuse committed by 800 priests, nuns, monks and teachers. More than 1,000 witnesses testified to abuse in 216 schools and residential settings across Ireland between 1914 and 2000. Ninety per cent of witnesses reported physical abuse while 50 per cent reported sexual abuse. “Acute and chronic contact and non contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated cases and on a regular basis over long periods of time,” says the report.Central to the abuse were the Christian Brothers, which ran most of the institutions for older boys, whilst the Sisters of Mercy supervised care for girls. The report would have been published earlier but for the Christian Brothers taking a case through the courts insisting that the perpetrators not be named. One interesting reference in the report is to the managing of cases “with a view to the risk of public disclosure and consequent damage to the institution and the Congregation.”It is this need to protect the institution of the
Church at all costs that goes to the heart of the problem of the Church dealing with child abuse.The theme seemed to be taken up by Vincent Nichols just prior to his installation as the new Archbishop of Westminster. Archbishop Nichols referred to the “courage” of the religious orders and clergy to “face the facts from their past.” It was no doubt another ill judged piece of Catholic Church public relations spin. He did express his concern for all the victims but the overidding impression created in the media was of a greater concern for the welfare of the abusers than the abused.There can be little doubting the new archbishop’s credentials when it comes to the issue of child abuse and the Church. He took over as Archibishop of Birmingham back in 2000 when the diocese was hanging under a cloud of past abuse. He dealt with the problems in a transparent and accountable way. Archbishop Nichols also oversaw the operation of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA). This was set up in accordance with the recommendations of Lord Nolan, who had been called in partly as a result of the scandal that broke in the early years of Archbishop Nichols predecessor as Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy O’Connor. The recommendations of the subsequent Nolan inquiry were followed pretty much to the letter. Some would argue the Catholic Church in England and Wales went too far. There have been priests accused and removed who may be innocent and the heavy duty regulation could drive some good people away from working with children due to the possibility of malicous accusations being made. The Catholic Church has certainly paid a heavy price for the child abuse scandals in countries like America, Australia and Ireland. Its reputation has been shot to pieces and is only just beginning to recover in some areas. There is though this recurring theme of refusal to make a full heart meant apology to the victims of these horrendous crimes and then make adequate reperation. The need to protect of the institution at all costs seems to continue to hold sway. This tendency was illustrated five years ago when a priest from an order called on the Church to hear the cries of the victims of child abuse. He regretted that the Church had not adopted a more holistic approach to the issue of child abuse, preferring instead to protect the institution of the Church rather than engage more fully with the suffering of the victims. He accused the Church of bringing heathy sexuality into disrepute:”If you do that then don’t be surprised if you get unhealthy sexuality,” he said. After these comments the order concerned was contacted by a charitable donor threatening to withdraw support due to the comments. The priest concerned has now left the priesthood. The Church in Britain and Ireland has now with the latest report and ongoing processes like COPCA revealed much of the abuse of the past and made some reperation. It would be wrong though to think that this is the end of the matter. There is much that has not been revealed to the public still, revered priests of the past who were actually hidden abusers. More of this dirty linen probably needs to come out in public before a genuine cleansing can be said to have occurred. There must be proper apologies made accompanied by reperations for the victims.The Church needs to have a root and branch look at itself. Rather than look backwards and bewailing the lack of people coming forward to become priests or nuns, surely the time has come to question this ministry. What is the role of the priest all about in the modern world? Depending on the parish concerned he may be pastor, social worker or policeman and usually a bit of all three. Why should he not be married or be in a relationship? These are issues that need to be looked at in a proper review of the institution of the Catholic Church. As the events of the last couple of weeks show the Catholic Church is in siege mentality mode. The position is that the institution is always right and must be protected at all costs. This is not right, the institution has in many cases been totally wrong, not least in the instances of child abuse. It must admit these errors make amends, reform and move forward. Failure to do so will result only in its own slow death.