As a result of the ongoing abuse scandal it seems to have become open season on the Catholic Church worldwide.
Most recently this saw a leaked Foreign Office memo discussing the possibility of Pope Benedict opening an abortion clinic, attending a civil partnership ceremony, apologising for the Spanish Armada and having a brand of condoms named after himself. The explanation for this memo, that the intention was not to amuse but part of a blue sky thinking exercise, conjures up vistas of people in holes continuing to dig.
Prior to the Foreign Office contribution came the initiative from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins to prosecute the Pope during his visit to Britain in September for crimes against humanity over child abuse.
This latter action has the feel of yet another publicity seeking trick from two individuals who have never been slow to take any opportunity to have a go at people of faith generally and the Catholic Church in particular.
The interesting point arising from both of these events is that they reveal how far the reputation of the Catholic Church has fallen in such a short time. Not so long ago, such ideas would never have been thought let alone put down on paper and in the case of the prosecution proposal potentially enacted. Who knows what the standing of the papacy will be come September, if the abuse scandals continue to roll on across the world?
What is crucial at this juncture is to define between those secular critics of faith generally, who will take any chance to have a go, and people genuinely concerned about what has happened who seek the best outcome for all concerned - especially the victims.
The response of some Catholics has been to seek to shoot the messenger, pointing out that those raising these issues are opposed to the Church. It is all a secular conspiracy. These individuals have about as much credibility as those secularists using the crisis and its victims to settle old scores against the Church.
The media coverage of the scandal does seem to some degree to be drawn from people emanating from the two polarised extremes. Recently, this has developed on the critics side into something of a pack mentality with the overarching aim being to “get the Pope.” This broad brush media approach has also sought to simplify things down to the unhelpful and inaccurate shorthand that all priests must be abusers.
The real objection in all of this is that the authentic Catholic voice is not being heard. It is Catholics who in the main have been abused. It is Catholics who now, via their collections and ongoing support, are paying out compensation for the abuse committed. Yet somehow, particularly in the British media, Catholics have been denied a voice to articulate their own concerns.
To put it bluntly if anyone is going to prosecute the Pope it should be Catholics not the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.
It is important here to differentiate between what has happened over abuse in Britain and Ireland. When abuse hit the headlines in Britain a decade ago, Lord Nolan was called in to investigate and make recommendations. His report was enacted, to the degree that some may consider that child protection procedures have gone to such a level that they dominate the Church agenda to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that there must be abuse here going back years that has not been revealed and that much more will come out. It is fair to say though that the level of abuse and cover up is not the same as has occurred in Ireland and other countries. Ironically, this may be because Britain has been so hostile to Catholicism for so long.
It was though a relief recently to see the Bishops Conference of England and Wales make a direct apology to the faithful over the abuses committed. They spoke of these “terrible crimes, and the inadequate response by some church leaders,” the suffering of those abused and the need for reparation. “We recognise the failings of some bishops and religious leaders in handling these matters. These, too, are aspects of this tragedy which we deeply regret and for which we apologise. The procedures now in place in our countries highlight what should have been done straightaway in the past. Full co-operation with statutory bodies is essential.”
The statement was uncompromising and uncomfortable to hear read out in Churches across the country. It was afterall admitting that many of those revered by Catholics countrywide had committed crimes and abused the most innocent of our people. It was a heinous crime that must shame all Catholics.
How serious the bishops are about addressing the question of abuse will be seen over the coming months. The benchmarks will be how victims are treated, what processes are put in place to discover other abuse and what happens to change the structures of the Church.
It is afterall the authoritarian hierarchial structure of the Church that has allowed this abuse to occur. The laity also need to grow up and take responsibility. There must be structures of accountability that become filled by grown ups who will hold those working for the Church to account.
These though are matters for Catholics. Let’s remember that as Irish Catholics it is our Church. We put in the plate, our children attend the schools. It is for us to sort out the problems, not those seeking to make cheap points at our expense.