Vatican was much too dilatory in its attitude to complaints


RITE AND REASON: Catholic Church leaders need to accept responsibility for all the victims of clerical sex-abuse, writes Father Seán Fagan.

The Catholic Church is not in crisis, but it is undergoing a major crisis in its clerical leadership, in its organisational structure and in its judicial and administrative procedures.

The church is not the Pope, the bishops and the priests, who are only a tiny minority of its members.

Over 99 per cent of church members are ordinary Catholics struggling to keep their faith and their commitment to Jesus and his gospel. The church is the whole people of God, all equally and infinitely precious in His eyes. But the laity are angry and ashamed at what is happening to their church.

It has always been recognised that priests and religious can sin, but we are nowadays more aware that sexual abuse of minors is one of the most abominable of crimes, and that the victims do not just "get over it" and get on with their lives. Many never fully recover and some are even driven to suicide. What angers us is that so many pastors who should be modelling their lives on the parable of the good shepherd are simply administrators more concerned with "their" church, its reputation and its finances than with the victims whose lives have been destroyed.

Few victims had a visit from a good shepherd to listen to their story and bind up their wounds. Instead, US dioceses spent tens of millions of dollars for the most expensive lawyers and the best public relations experts to protect them from financial loss. In countries around the world bishops settled cases out of court and paid out millions in compensation to victims, which in many cases was seen to be a payment for their silence.

Boston archdiocese last month paid out $30 million to 86 victims of Father John Geoghan. The Pope, in his Holy Week letter to priests last month, referred sadly to the few clergy who by their behaviour hurt the vast majority of good priests. But as top authority in the Vatican and chief shepherd of the universal church, he does not seem to have put any pressure on his civil service to deal with the problem of sex-abuse with any urgency. A particularly striking example of the lethargy of Vatican departments is the plight of the nuns abused by priests in Africa. In February 1994 Sister Maura O'Donoghue, of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, a medical doctor working for the aid agency Cafod, wrote a confidential report on the sexual abuse of nuns by priests in several countries of Africa and submitted it to the Vatican.

She was shocked that it took almost seven years to get even a tiny response. She reported that candidates for religious life needing a recommendation from the local priest were forced to provide sex or were raped in order to receive the document needed to enter the convent.

Some priests recommended sisters to go on the pill to avoid AIDS, and even encouraged them to have abortions when they became pregnant. One diocesan congregation had to dismiss more than 20 sisters because of pregnancy, the fathers in many cases being priests.

When this happened, no special care was provided for the ex-sisters, who had to care for their child alone, were stigmatised, often destitute and forced into prostitution, but the priests were allowed to continue in their posts.

Similar abuses were reported to Rome in November 1998 by Sister Marie McDonald, superior general of the White Sisters, and she mentioned African Sisters in Rome being forced to have sex with priests and seminarians "for help in writing essays". These two reports refer to a total of 23 countries where this kind of abuse is occurring. The abuses were reported to local bishops, and mostly received an angry negative response. The situation was reported to the Papal Nuncio, who did nothing. It was only in the latter part of 2001 that the Vatican sent a priest and three sisters to investigate the situation in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. Church leaders need to accept responsibility for all the victims of abuse.

The victims cannot be dismissed as "problems". They are human beings created in the image and likeness of Jesus.

The first step that needs to be taken is to apologise to them, individually and personally. The harm done to them by "official church personnel" should be alleviated by the church, which too often supports and protects the perpetrators.

Father Seán Fagan, S.M., is a lecturer in the Milltown Institute, and author of Does Morality Change? (Gill & Macmillan,1997)