Child abuse has rocked the Catholic Church over recent years, particularly in Ireland, whose bishops were recently summoned to Rome to discuss the matter with the Pope.
The Pope left little doubt of his disapproval, declaring that sexual abuse of children by clergy was “a heinous crime and grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image.”
There has been a steady trickle of abuse cases in Britain, over recent years where the heirarchy reacted quickly, first bringing in Lord Nolan, then acting to put his recommendations into practice. There is now a massive process involving Criminal Record Bureau checks to ensure that those working with children can be trusted. An incredible amount of time is taken up with these processes. Despite this work though, there remains the fundamental question as to what sort of institution it is that produces a situation whereby its employees cannot be trusted around children?
There have been expressions of remorse, some apologies and compensation paid but no examination as to why it happened. No fundamental change to the structures of a Church that in places continues to abuse. To many, especially the victims, it seems like a damage limitation exercise.
The child abuse scandal is just one problem with the institution of the Catholic Church. What is needed now is a new process, maybe a Vatican III, to look at the present crisis.
Everything needs to be put on the table for discussion. A historic look at the question of child abuse, the nature of ministry and what the Church should look like in the future.
The questions need to go beyond whether there should be male or female priests to the very nature of the ministry of priesthood. If there is to be subsidiarity in the church, with power and influence flowing to all levels, as outlined in Vatican II, then maybe the role of priest needs to change. At present, it seems only conducive of authoritarianism with the individuals holding most powers to themselves. The limited qualification for the post, namely being male, clearly attracts the wrong type of people.
Priests need to become more pastoral – something between a social worker and a shop steward – able to empower and inspire as well as support people. The priest today is often a ritualist who sees his role only as that of policeman.
The argument over women priests is largely a distraction. If the Church opened up to women priests tomorrow, then the day after there could be as many authoritarian female figures as there are male ones today. The whole ministry of priesthood needs to be re-evaluated.
At parish levels there needs to be some genuine formation of people so that they have an adult and mature understanding of what it is to be a Catholic and Christian. Too many today have a very juvenille understanding because they have had no formation. How many, for example, know of Irish priest and Columban Father Sean McDonagh’s theological reflections on how the world has formed over 13 billion years?
A more adult Church population that understood its faith could also lead to people taking up serious roles on bodies like parish and diocesan councils. A democratisation of the Church at all levels would help ensure that the tendencies for one or more individuals to take power and abuse it was less likely to happen.
The role of Catholic schools is another subject that needs to be brought out into the open for discussion. The schools should be a key component in formation and the promotion of an adult understanding of the faith. For much of recent time the Church has been on the backfoot defending its right to keep the schools against an onslaught from government and some media. It has largely succeeded in this due to the academic and disciplinary records of the schools. Lots of people want to get their children into the schools because of the good exam results and discipline. This at parish level has bred a wholly dishonest process whereby people attend mass purely to get their children into the schools. When the children leave the schools themselves, they leave the Church until they come back with their own children wanting them to go to the schools. This is creating a transitory church in many areas with its roots in sand. Does the church hierarchy cling to the schools in the present form because they know it gives them a power with government and a way of keeping church attendances up? This is hardly right and is another area that should be up for debate at a Vatican III type process.
The social teachings of the Church need to be brought to the fore. These teachings were fundamental to Vatican II and provided much of the early energy for implementation of the teachings of the Council in countries like Latin America, Asia and Europe. Much of this work has continued but is marginalised. Working for social justice would bring the Church into the real world. It would be a way of reconnecting in the future. This could be unpopular with some but the Church is not supposed to be the province of those who want create their own fiefdoms and hide away from the real world. It was this mentality that helped breed the Church that has harboured child abuse for so many decades. What is sure is that the Church needs a serious look at all elements of its existence. It is time the issue of child abuse was properly examined with the Church accepting responsibility for the wrongs done in the past. It then needs to look at the institutional reasons as to why this occurred in the first place and act. Real light needs to be allowed into the institution. A Vatican III could, if organised properly, examine these problems and others bringing forward a blueprint to re-engage many in a Church genuinly committed to justice in word and deed.