Church's superficial treatment of sex abuse issue must change


RITE & REASON:The approach of leading churchmen to clerical sex abuse issue is reprehensible

THE BISHOP of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, has told us in Belfast that his fellow prelates acknowledged at their Rome meetings in February last year “cover-ups and mismanagement” in their treatment of clerical sexual abuse. He urged the church to repent of its sins and seek forgiveness.

He is to be commended for this and, like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, for locating his plea for forgiveness squarely in the context of a call to repentance.

Genuine penitence requires not only the implementation of adequate child-protection measures (the absence of which gave rise to neither paedophilia in the church nor the relevant concealments), financial compensation to victims, and symbolic washing of feet.

It also requires a clear admission of unpalatable facts about the familial nature of the predominantly clerical sub-culture from which these cover-ups emanated and the manner in which Pope Benedict continues to respond to the issue.

These truths include that the church, contrary to what was said by most of its episcopal spokesmen (before and after, but not during, the Rome meetings of February 2010), did indeed cover up sexual abuse by some of its members, the most notorious of whom included Fr Brendan Smyth and Fr Tony Walsh.

Second, that “the church” was primarily the spiritual family comprising not merely bishops and heads of religious orders, but also priests, nuns and brothers of divergent juristic status, subject, in their professional capacity, to the precepts of canon law.

The all-important issue is whether it is prepared to make amends for its wrongdoing.

Cardinal Seán Brady, Bishop Francis McKiernan, the Norbertine community at Kilnacrott, two Premonstratensian abbots-general, senior Vatican officials, including a papal nuncio, and other religious persons withheld from relevant civil authorities for decades information that might have enabled Smyth’s incarceration and so prevent many crimes he committed against children and minors over almost 50 years.

Cardinal Brady swore on oath in 1975 that he would never disclose to anyone what he knew of Smyth’s crimes.

So too, in similar circumstances, did other canon lawyers, some of whom were subsequently elevated to the Irish episcopal bench.

The Murphy report reveals not only the fact that Archbishop Desmond Connell covered up many of Fr Walsh’s crimes but also that priests of the Dublin archdiocese who were acquainted with particular instances of the latter’s misconduct, chose (as did fellow clergy in like situations throughout the Catholic world) to restrict what they knew to ecclesiastical confines.

The religious family (familia), governed by the authority (auctoritas) of its head (paterfamilias), was the matrix from which many concealments emerged, but what of repentance?

There are, on this score, four obvious grounds for disquiet.

First, the church has refused to acknowledge that it covered up clerical sexual abuse. Its apologists have, almost without exception, either remained silent or insisted that its response to the problem was merely “inadequate”.

It has failed to explore, in a serious way, the causes of these concealments or, in particular, to ask why cover-ups were executed, sometimes in good faith, by people of exceptional intelligence and goodness.

Third, the church continues to deny the very existence of recalcitrant family members who, though not physically maltreated, were, nonetheless, victims of its “mismanagement” of clerical sexual abuse. (Fr Bruno Mulvihill, the Norbertine “whistleblower”, was reduced to virtual penury by his order for disclosing the extent of the church’s cover-up of Smyth’s crimes.)

Fourth, its supreme pontiff, Pope Benedict, has shown great insensitivity towards the feelings of injured parties by not only refusing the proffered resignations of Bishops Ray Field and Eamonn Walsh but also by promoting the beatification of Pope John Paul II, whose treatment of the abuse issue was reprehensible.

Catholics should, of course, forgive and forget – but it would be delinquent to do so while the clerical sexual abuse issue is treated in ways that are superficial, offensive to victims and unworthy of exculpation.

Dr Joseph McBride is a retired senior lecturer in philosophy at NUI, Maynooth