A few years ago at a Catholic parish in east London they built an impressive new pastoral centre.
Various parts of the building were dedicated to former parish priests
The hall was named after one parish priest and a stained glass window after another.
All of these priests were and remain revered men. It came as a surprise then when I spoke to a friend who as an eight year old in the 1950s was beaten by the parish priest at that time. In fact on one occasion he went home and showed his mother the rings on his back from the latest beating. She went up to the Church and punched the priest concerned. Nothing ever happened about the attack. Strange then that now to find the biggest part of the new centre, the hall, is named after that same priest.
He is now long dead but his reputation is that of a good god fearing man. There must be many similar cases that remain undiscovered. Priests were held with great reverence, nowhere more so than in countries like Ireland, where Church and State were virtually intertwined.
The Pope's recent letter to people in Ireland is the most fulsome apology offered so far. He adopted a humble approach in addressing the various different parts of the Catholic community: victims and their families, abusers, parents, the young people of the country, priests, bishops and the faithful generally. He could have gone further, for example publicly supporting Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who has adopted a truly moral line on abuse and paid the price. He is been reported to have been ostracised by many priests and abused by others.
The letter is a start but it should then lead to a much wider root and branch process. The worry is that in addressing this letter so directly at Ireland it is almost trying to cast abuse as an Irish problem. Ireland had distinct circumstances so needs a unique remedy.
Abuse in Ireland is particularly bad but it is only symptomatic of something that appears to be happening across the universal church. The reports of abuse from Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Mexico and Brazil prove that this is an institutional problem, not an Irish one.
Nowhere it seems will the institution come to grips with what has been done to its children. This maybe because it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the most senior church men of today, like Cardinal Sean Brady, were covering up in the past when this practice was going on.
In England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was hit early during is time as Archbishop of Westminster in a child abuse scandal that went back to his days as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton. There he had overseen the movement of paedophile priest Michael Hill to the post of chaplain at Gatwick airport. 12 years later Hill was jailed for five years for 10 assaults on children.
Then there is the role of the Pope himself, who was Bishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich between 1977 and 1981.During this time he approved the transfer to his archdiocese of Peter Hullermann, a priest who is accused of abusing boys, on condition that Hullermann undergoes weekly therapy. Unknown to the future Pope, Hullermann was assigned to a parish and eventually given a suspended prison sentence for sexually abusing children. Later Cardinal Ratzinger went on to become the enforcer as Prefect for the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith for Pope John Paul II. In this role he issued a directive urging bishops to keep accusations confidential.
The situation with the Catholic Church has parallels with that of police officers caught up in the miscarriages of justice. Many were intricately involved in the original flawed investigations, only to have risen to senior rank at the time these were revealed in the courts. It was too much to expect such officers to resign or admit complicity, instead an elaborate damage limitation operation was mounted that enabled them to keep their careers and pensions. The victims of the miscarriages of justice though did not see justice done. The same type of thing could be unveiling itself in the Catholic Church.
What is really needed is a truth commission type process across countries to look into the abuse claims past and present. This would have to include some independent component, not mendacious but parties who could be truly objective.
Prosecutions should follow in some cases but in others where the person is dead for instance just the revelation would help some people move on.. Those who have covered up must at the very least step down from office. Compensation must be paid.
There also needs to be a serious look taken at the nature of ministry. The limited qualification to become a priest, namely being a celibate male needs to change. The structures that have allowed abuse to flourish must change. It is not good enough to expect an apology and some reparation to be sufficient – things cannot continue as before. The Church must be democratised and made accountable to its own faithful.
The voice of Catholics must also be heard. There has been a lot in the media, particularly in Britain, from secularists who already have an agenda against the Church. For them the abuse scandal is just another chance to have a go. Yet is Catholics in the main make up the abused. They have been lied to and today continue to fund the compensation payouts for paedophilia through the weekly collections.
It will only be a comprehensive process such as a truth commission followed by radical change in the structures of the Church that can save it. To continue with a damage limitation exercise that seeks to patch up an institutionally failed organisation will only hasten its demise and cause more suffering in the process.