‘Towards Healing’ (2005): A promise that must be kept

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2005

[This article related to a short document published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 2005.  It proposed that the whole Irish people of God would together address the many problems posed by all varieties of sexual abuse of children.  This proposal was never followed through.  It wasn’t even ever discussed with the Irish Catholic people, apparently falling victim to the abiding terror of their hierarchy and clergy about discussing anything relating to sexuality.  So the challenge posed by this problem in wider Irish society remains unmet by the largest denomination on the island.  The promise implicit in ‘Towards Healing’ (2005) still remains hollow in 2014.  SOC]

The Document Towards Healing, from the Irish bishops’ conference, arrived at an important moment. As a Lenten reflection it struck a welcome and conciliatory note of repentance. It included also a powerful appeal for the pooling of the resources and compassion of the whole church community to address the plight of all who have suffered abuse in Irish society.

Moreover, it stated the intention of the bishops’ conference ‘to publish further reflections on other aspects of this painful and complex reality’. It would therefore be both uncharitable and unwise to dismiss the document on the grounds of incompleteness. Far better to place oneself in the same Lenten spirit of repentance and humility, and respond from there – with a view to informing whatever future documents lie in store.

In that spirit we all need to accept fully that the vast majority of those who have been abused on this island have not been abused by Catholic clergy or religious. The scale of the problem of abuse generally, and many of the most lurid media-reported instances, tell us emphatically that power over others is misused by a depressing proportion of all who exercise it – including parents, employers, work colleagues – and adults generally in relation to children.

Moreover, in Ireland’s ‘culture wars’, instances of clerical child abuse have been placed on a special plane of obloquy by commentators anxious to denigrate the Catholic Church as a body, and to deny due respect to the many selfless clerics and religious whose lives are entirely exemplary. The fond and naïve theory that if we can but banish all Catholic belief and personnel from Irish society, all evils will be banished also, has driven many a tendentious media event in recent years.

At the same time, however, it would be an inadequate response to the specific issues of Catholic clerical child abuse, and of the hierarchy’s too frequent administrative failings in dealing with it, if we were not, as church members, to address the fact that abuses of power have occurred in our church also – and to do all in our power to understand and to prevent these.

It is regrettable, therefore, that this document does not repair the failure of all Catholic church pronouncements on this issue so far to state the most important facts about Catholic clerical child abuse. (By ‘important’ here I mean in the context of dealing most effectively with the problem, and of making Catholic children as safe as they should be.)

First, the power exercised by the abusing priest is too often connected with the special status of the priest in relation to the Catholic family, by virtue of the clerical church’s own typical representation of the priest as an iconic moral exemplar. To put this more simply, the child or young person has typically been taught to see the priest as an unquestionable moral authority – as, indeed, the final authority on right and wrong. The Catholic child’s, and young person’s, special vulnerability in relation to the priest has therefore been inseparable from the priesthood of the priest – and acknowledgement of this is long overdue. It is vitally important that Catholic children are taught, for their own protection, that Catholic clergy must not be thought of, or represented to children as, incapable of abusing power and trust, and that all adults must observe the same boundaries in relation to children.

As our most streetwise teenagers now know this anyway, it is foolish of our hierarchy to stop short of saying it. Surely they should explicitly advise that this practical wisdom be systematically taught in Catholic schools, and by parents to their children – in the context of separating due respect for clergy from the malady known as clericalism.

Second, while Towards Healing applauds the media for ‘bringing the sexual abuse of children into the public arena’ it does not seize the opportunity to acknowledge fully the hierarchical church’s own historical tendency to do the very opposite – systematically, and even as a matter of principle, to conceal the phenomenon, often at the expense of other children who might otherwise have escaped life-challenging injury. True repentance requires a full acknowledgement of error, and future documents on this issue must surely fully address this particular error – the error and sin of secrecy in the church.

It is difficult to see how the church leadership can do this without acknowledging the reason that lay Catholics must still typically look to the secular media, and to other secular institutions, for a full revelation of the abuse problem within the church. This is the absence of structures of accountability within the church itself, of personnel empowered and employed to represent solely the interests of those to whom clerical power will inevitably sometimes represent a danger – that is, the Catholic laity, and, especially, Catholic children.

In light of the four-decade failure of the church leadership to implement what was clearly implied by the documents of Vatican II, this is an especially serious shortcoming in Towards Healing.

To establish this we need only quote Lumen Gentium Article 37:

Like all Christians, the laity have the right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the word of God and the sacraments from the pastors. To the latter the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered-indeed sometimes obliged-to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.

Mustn’t the repentance of our hierarchy fully address a failure that has turned out to be a critical factor in the development of all Irish church scandals since 1992: the absence of non-clerical agencies within the church that could have fully and effectively represented the interests of lay people and their children? Wasn’t it essentially the absence of such structures that ensured that it was solely to external secular structures that Catholic laity could look – and must still look – to seek full disclosure and redress?

There is another overpowering reason for making this point now. The call from our bishops in Towards Healing for a massive effort from the whole church community on behalf of the abused represents an enormous organisational challenge. What is the scale of the problem of all kinds of abuse in every diocese? How are we to determine this? What resources are already available? What will be the implications of a continuing decline in numbers of ordained clergy in addressing the issue? What new skills and aptitudes will be required? What educational resources will need to be deployed? How should this impact upon Catholic education and culture generally? Who is to co-ordinate all of this?

These and many other questions now demand attention. The absence of church fora in which these, and other issues could be discussed by ‘the whole church community’, is a stark inhibiting circumstance right now. The arguments for permanent diocesan and national synods or conferences are now more than compelling – they are irresistible.

Hopefully, a new administration in Rome will take the opportunity to address this problem immediately. Pope John Paul II’s call in September 2004 to American bishops to establish “better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility” should be seen as a green light in Ireland also, where relations between laity and hierarchy have suffered an almost equal shock over the very same issue – the maladministration of clerical child abuse.

To continue to ignore or deny the need for radical organisational change in the church would be to raise the most serious questions about the sincerity of the so-welcome spirit of repentance in Towards Healing. It would be another disaster if the document turned out to be nothing more than a diversionary stratagem, designed to blur and fudge the issues with which it deals, and to postpone addressing the issue of accountability within the church. Disillusionment over that too would be an even greater tragedy than everything that has happened so far.

To obviate any suggestion that Towards Healing seeks to distract the focus of Catholic concern away from clerical child abuse, the Catholic hierarchy must surely also make a far greater effort to show their concern for those whom it has alienated, especially victims of such abuse. It is not reassuring that when in February of this year I asked the Catholic Communications Office if Irish bishops had any idea of the scale of that alienation, or the proportion of those abused who had been reconciled with the church, I was given an answer that implied that the victims’ need for privacy precluded any such assessment, and paralyses even our ability to poll our own members. Future documents on this theme, and the proposed whole church response to abuse in Irish society, must surely address the need to convince the ‘whole church community’ that we care deeply about , and hope someday to be reconciled with, our alienated brothers and sisters. At present it would be difficult to find conclusive evidence that our church leadership has not simply preferred to forget them.

It is not reassuring either that Irish bishops still appear unable to discuss such issues freely with their people. For over a decade now no Irish bishop has felt able to come before a representative gathering of his flock to answer questions on these issues. A shepherd who is patently wary of his flock cannot inspire confidence and trust – and this inevitably impacts upon his authority also.

It follows inevitably that while Towards Healing must be welcomed as setting a new direction for the Irish church, many lay people remain to be convinced that Irish bishops generally possess the corporate will, and the clarity of thought, that are needed to lead us emphatically out of the present wilderness. It will take more than a single aspirational document to move the Irish church out of its present, dangerous, inertia.

However, the coincidence of Towards Healing with a change of pope presents an unprecedented opportunity to address all of these issues – and especially to accord to Irish lay people the dignity of full partnership in restoring the moral prestige of the Irish Catholic Church. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

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