Reform of Catholic Church must come from the top

Clerics in denial about abuse should learn from failures in Ireland and US

In the wake of the synod on the protection of minors, it is clear that there is a massive task ahead for the Catholic Church worldwide even if progress has been made.

But two tasks are crucial. Firstly, the areas of the world that are still half in denial need to learn from the failures here in Ireland and in the United States. Secondly, the areas where good systems are in place now need to work on accountability for bishops. For that to happen, it is essential that Vatican processes become more transparent and accountable.

At last August’s World Meeting of Families, an Irish bishop ministering in the developing world told me how hard it was even to get sexual abuse of children on the agenda of his bishops’ conference. It was being dismissed as an Anglophone or a European problem, a grim indicator of how delusional many bishops still are.

There were some echoes of this at the synod's beginning, for example, in a Crux interview with Ghanaian Archbishop Philip Neehman. He said the issue of clerical sexual abuse was "very, very minimal" in Africa. The only redeeming factor is that, despite his views, he is to the forefront of training child-protection officers and implementing guidelines in his own diocese.



However, participants at the synod, including women religious, spoke of slow but real progress over the four days. For the first time at a synod, the entire board of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), a representative body for leaders of women’s religious orders, was invited. They were often the sole female voice in the discussion groups of bishops but seem to have had a disproportionately positive influence.

Sr Veronica Openibo from Nigeria was one of the three women to address the synod, and she did not hold back, speaking of the "atrocities" committed by the church. The synod also heard prerecorded testimonies of victims, including a young woman who was abused from the age of 15 by a priest and forced by him to have three abortions.

Over the course of the synod, Sr Pat Murray, an Irish Loreto sister and UISG executive secretary, described a process where bishops from the developing world moved from being sure that clerical sexual abuse was not a great problem to being worried because they had no idea of the extent of the problem.

This may seem like very little. But one very valuable aspect of the synod has been allowing other areas of the world to learn from our appalling mistakes here in Ireland. Sure, our child safeguarding system, which consists mainly of lay volunteers, is considered to be the gold standard and these volunteers deserve praise for a thankless task.

But the greatest service we can give the rest of the world is to share with them how long and painful a road it was to get here, how many victims were unnecessarily re-traumatised, and how often the reputation of the church was prioritised over children and families.

Before the Synod, in a frank interview with iCatholic Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke of undertaking wide-ranging consultations with victims of abuse, one of whom said to him "everything you've done positively has had to be wrung out of you [ie the church]."

If the rest of the world can learn from our sad history, what took decades in Ireland can happen much more rapidly elsewhere.

It would be a tragedy if our painful pattern was repeated across the world, with wave after wave of people revealing not only the most heinous crimes committed by priests and religious but also cover-ups and, sometimes, the coldness of indifference.

As a survivor said at the synod: “You are physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith.”

Code of conduct

In addition, the challenge for countries which have made some progress is not to become complacent but to pursue the question of accountability at higher levels. While pointing out that civil criminal procedures also apply to bishops, Archbishop Martin has spoken of the need for a clear process and code of conduct for bishops within the church as well. For example, teachers have a code that specifies what offences may incur sanctions and what may incur dismissal. They have clear structures whereby allegations are processed.

He believes that an analogous system would be helpful to bishops and religious superiors because at the moment the court of public opinion often holds sway instead of a just and transparent process.

For example, from this writer’s point of view, dismissing the formerly high-ranking prelate Theodore McCarrick from the clerical state was absolutely correct. However, it would have been infinitely better if everyone knew what procedures were applied and what emerged in terms of who knew what, and when.

The reform that has taken root here must blossom everywhere. Ireland can lead the next wave of reform by pioneering accountability structures for our own bishops. But ultimately, if the church is to have any credibility, it must be matched by radical, irreversible reform from the very top of the church.