No Historical Transparency in the Church?

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While declaring transparency a requirement for a synodal church, the working document for the final session of the 2023-24 Vatican Synod on Synodality gives no promise of transparency around the historical origins of the standard procedure of concealing from Catholic parents the reality of clerical sexual abuse of children in the 20th century – a policy which spiritually traumatised countless Catholic children. How can the church become ‘missionary’ with such a background?

In Genesis we are told that for many years Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, did not know that his own most favoured son, Joseph, had not been killed by a wild animal but sold into slavery in Egypt by his other sons, out of jealousy. (Genesis 37-50

In the Book of Kings we learn that Naboth of Jezreel did not know that when he refused the offer of an exchange of land with King Ahab of Israel, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, would scheme to dispossess and kill him.  (1 Kings 21)

Elsewhere we read that Esther, adoptive daughter of Mordecai and wife of Persian King Ahasuerus, was unaware initially that the powerful courtier Haman was plotting the extermination of her people, the Jews – because of Mordecai’s refusal to show due servility to Haman. (Esther)

Secure in her own garden, Susanna in Babylon was unaware that her beauty had enticed two elders among the Jews there to make a pact to threaten her with stoning to death for adultery if she did not give way to their lust. (Susanna and the Elders: Book of Daniel)

Uriah the Hittite did not know why the men beside him suddenly abandoned him in the thick of his final battle. He was oblivious to betrayal by his commander-in-chief, King David of Israel – who had seduced and impregnated his wife Bathsheba and then given orders that would doom him, despite his own loyalty to the cause of David’s kingdom. (2 Samuel)

Those women who gave birth to sons in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth had no reason to suspect that King Herod would plot their murder soon after hearing of the latter event. (Matt 2:16-18)

A Biblical Focus on Conspiratorial Injustice

Scripture scholars may doubt that all of these tales are historical, but the pattern of literary focus is clear. The authors had a common interest in narratives of high-level scheming, injustice, concealment and victimisation.  The reason for the concealment may often be implicit but always these plotters can be understood as having a common interest in preserving their reputations in the gaze of others.

That is, they all had a deducible interest in ‘saving face’, to use a phrase more often associated with Oriental culture.  

And this heuristic may also be applied to the Gospel accounts of the parts played by Caiaphas, Judas, another Herod and Pilate in the arrest, trials, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Innocence of the Victims

As the anthropologist René Girard has observed there is another common aspect of these narratives.  Their victims, or intended victims, were essentially innocent. Taken as sacred texts they all reveal the God of Israel, the claimed source of all scriptural inspiration, to be on the side of the intended victim or victims.  

Preservation of reputation on the part of plotters is far from being a dated and antiquated fixation – as proven by the outrageous murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, by agents of the Saudi government.  That this is a western fixation also was most clearly revealed by the attempt of the Nixon administration to conceal the origins of the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC in 1972.  High level financial ‘scams’ such as the Enron affair of 2001 and the Madoff ‘ponzi’ scandal of 2008 are apparently inevitable in Western capitalism. Jealousies, plots and betrayals are at the core of western fictional drama, up to and including the current TV series Succession. The tension of these dramas hangs always upon what is known and intended by ambitious or lustful characters and yet concealed, agonisingly, from others who will suffer the consequences.

Unwitting Victims of Reputational Fear

Until 1994 in Ireland Catholic parents generally did not know that the ordained status of men to whom they often entrusted their children did not always make those men incapable of severely harming those children, sexually, psychologically and spiritually.  By now those families who suffered this fate probably know that this phenomenon had been known to church authorities from the end of the first century CE (as recorded in The Didache). 

On December 9th 2009, following the publication of the Murphy report, the Irish Bishops Conference felt compelled to declare that:      

“We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report.  We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church.  The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children.  This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again.  We humbly ask for forgiveness.”1Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009

Since then the international scope of this ‘cover up’ has become more apparent, as has that motivation to ‘preserve the reputation of individuals and of the church’ – made even more poignant by the claim of Fr Gerhard Gruber in 2010 that as vicar general in the archdiocese of Munich he had been pressurised to take the blame for mistakes made decades earlier in the handling of a case of abuse – when Pope Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, had been archbishop of that diocese.2‘Law firm to publish report on handling of abuse in Munich Archdiocese’, CRUX, Catholic News Service, Jan 4, 2022

An Unreasonable Comparison?

Is it unreasonable to compare this ‘cover up’ by churchmen with the plots and plottings of scriptural archetypes such as David, Ahab, Jezebel, Haman, Caiaphas and the Herods? Were those who practised concealment of clerical sex abuse of children ever truly aware of the scale of suffering they were visiting upon the innocent? Did they ever intend that suffering? May they not even have had worthy motives and been oblivious of serious injustice or harm?

All of these questions are plausible – and yet some may be asked also of some of the scriptural plotters, if mitigation is our intent.  For example, given King David’s symbolic importance to Israel, might he not have been justified in sacrificing one man, Uriah, to avoid demoralisation of the nation in time of war? And mightn’t Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate truly have had similar thoughts in the case of Jesus the Galilean troublemaker?

Why So Little Learned in Two Millennia?

Was a span of almost two millennia not truly sufficient to educate churchmen in the consequences to victims of childhood or adolescent sexual abuse? When it came to ending the cover up, did the church truly need to depend upon secular lawyers, police, courts, media? When it came to their ‘learning curve’ on the impact of sexual abuse on children should churchmen truly have needed the advice of secular psychology and psychiatry, when they had Jesus’s own stern warning to guide them? If so, why on earth condemn secularism and the Enlightenment?    

However plausible may be the attempts at mitigation of the cover up of clerical child abuse, it will always remain true that many children globally suffered totally unexpected and unimaginable horrors from these abuses. That much of this could have been prevented if the episcopal magisterium had shown corporate wisdom, courage and transparency ab initio, rather than corporate dedication to the protection of its own reputation, will also always be true – and the people of God truly deserve an historical accounting for this failure.

The Cover Up of the Past  

So far, instead, even after almost four decades of revelation, the cover up still extends backwards into the distant past. For example, no one knows why or when it was decided, with apparent unanimity by the magisterium, that Jesus’s own emphatic condemnation of the betrayal of childhood innocence (Matt 18:6) was irrelevant when considering whether ordained abusers of children could be retained in ministry after a first provable offence. Why was this most emphatic teaching of Jesus ignored, when the context of his only recommendation of celibacy (Matt 19:12) suggests that it was probably intended merely for those who could not contemplate life-long marital fidelity?  This obvious reluctance on the part of the current magisterium to consult and reveal the full Vatican and wider church record is a barrier to the ‘reckoning’ on clerical abuse called for by the Irish national synodal synthesis of August 2022.

Administrators’ Dilemmas 

Inevitably we must guess that it is still the situational dilemmas of administrators that delay a final reckoning. They need to reflect on that scriptural record, recalling where the Trinity’s sympathies always lie – as well as the prophecy of Simeon that the life of the child Jesus would reveal the hidden thoughts of many.  When Christian historians of the future tell this story, will they not also be stressing the innocence of the victims and the reputational fears of the powerful ordained?

Apart from this need to ‘clear the air’ on the handling of clerical abuse there is another reason for urgent closure. The teaching authority of Catholic bishops everywhere – especially in regard to sexuality – has been rendered null for many by this disaster. Irish bishops have still not revealed the reason for their failure to sponsor and publish reliable research on the widespread failure of Irish Catholic schools to develop a practised liturgical faith among their alumni in recent decades3See Faith Formation and Fear of Shame, The Furrow, 2017. This too is an unnecessary mystery suggestive of fear of self-embarrassment via the likely results of any such research.

Lack of Clarity on Sin

The clarity of the church’s teaching on sin is another serious issue. No one who pays any attention can be unaware that serious differences exist between the understanding of sin as prioritised by Pope Francis or, for example, Cardinal Robert McElroy – and sin as seen by the pope’s highest-level opponents, for whom the ‘no parvity’ principle in regard to all sexual rule-breaking is apparently as true and unshakeable as the Creed.

“… the sins of the flesh are not the most serious. The gravest sins are those that are more angelic: pride, hatred. These are graver.”4‘Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Greece’, Catholic News Agency, Dec 6th 2021 So insisted Pope Francis in December 2021, when asked about the admission by a French archbishop of an affair with an adult woman. If the ‘angelic’ sin of pride is indeed graver than lust, what about ‘the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church’ identified by Irish bishops as a cause of the cover-up of sexual abuse? Wasn’t it David’s pride that prevented him from owning up to his own affair with Bathsheba – and then led to the far greater sin of murder-by-proxy?

The Catechism is seriously lacking an extended and culturally relevant treatment of both pride and covetousness – even while the problem of clericalism has been identified by Pope Francis as that desire for superiority, attention and honour55 Of the many times Pope Francis has warned against clericalism’, Kathleen N. Hattrup, Aleteia, 23rd August 2018 that the Catechism does identify as a feature of pride6Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, ‘Pride. Defining covetousness as ‘modelling your desires on what your neighbour has’ would also allow the magisterium to see and reject the desire for social superiority that fuels all social ambition, including the rampant desire for celebrity. Secularism sorely needs an explanation of inequality – and pride and covetousness are ready to hand.

Sin of Pride Embedded in Clericalism

Or at least they will be when the magisterium has clearly seen these sins as fundamental to the cover up of clerical sexual abuse, and confessed them frankly as embedded in clericalism and ecclesiastical ambition. Pope Francis’s courage in opening up this debate needs the support of all bishops in the pursuit of a ‘reckoning’ – a telling of the complete truth of the hierarchical church’s own sins.  

When it happens this telling will involve a full exposure of the historical record, and the sooner the better. Scripture lauds the anointed King David while telling us the worst that he did. Jesus’s own mitigation of the offences of his persecutors – ‘they know not what they do’ – can be applied also to the cover up of clerical abuse but we need, urgently, the full story – whatever may still impend – if the church is to overcome this disaster in the time of any of the generations now living.

It took decades for Jacob to learn that his most favoured son was still alive, but at least he lived to see Joseph again, now greatly honoured, in Egypt. In knowing that Catholic churchmen at the highest level can visit the most appalling suffering upon innocent children, out of concern for the reputation of ‘the church’ – and can collaborate to hide this problem until exposed – don’t we Catholic people already know the worst?

As stated by the July 2024 Instrumentum Laboris for the final session of the Vatican Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October 2024:

“A synodal Church requires both a culture and practice of transparency and accountability, which are essential to fostering the mutual trust necessary for walking together and exercising co-responsibility for the sake of the common mission.”7How to Be a Missionary Church, Instrumentum Laboris for Second Session of Universal Synod of Synodality, Oct 2024, P.32, Article 73

Despite this statement of principle there is no sign whatever in the document of a realisation that continuing secrecy about the recent past is an insuperable barrier to trust – and so also to communion, participation and mission. How are we to take the call to transparency seriously if secrecy is still to be maintained around the greatest scandal the church has ever suffered?

Never in the long history of human shepherding have so many sheep been lost by so many shepherds – but apparently we are never to know why.

Notes

  1. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009
  2. ‘Law firm to publish report on handling of abuse in Munich Archdiocese’, CRUX, Catholic News Service, Jan 4, 2022
  3. See ‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’, O’Conaill, The Furrow, 2017
  4. ‘Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Greece’, Catholic News Agency, Dec 6th 2021
  5. ‘5 Of the many times Pope Francis has warned against clericalism’, Kathleen N. Hattrup, Aleteia, 23rd August 2018
  6. CCC, Glossary, ‘Pride
  7. How to Be a Missionary Church, Instrumentum Laboris for Second Session of Universal Synod of Synodality, Oct 2024, P.32, Article 73

(Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Oct 2023 edition of The Furrow, under the title A ‘Reckoning’ on Clerical Abuse? Challenge and Opportunity.)