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Why abusers are still priests

The Catholic church fears acutely the indignity of a priest in the dock for child abuse

During the second television election debate, the issue of the forthcoming Papal visit was discussed. All three leaders stated that they disagreed with the Pope on some issues, such as stem-cell research but they all welcomed his visit. In the light of the Catholic church’s record on priestly abuse, perhaps they should have been less enthusiastic.
The Catholic leadership is in confessional, public confessional, mode. Sincere statements ‘deeply acknowledging our own guilt’, have described ‘sinful acts’ of child abuse as ‘bringing shame on us all’ and promises have been made that such ‘scandals’ will not re-occur. Recent Vatican guidelines have gone further. Catholic priests accused of abusing children should always be reported to the police and face the courts. Across the globe however, few priests have ended in courts and none have been handed to the civil authorities by the church.
Over the centuries the great religions have integrated the wisdom and insights of generations into their teaching. They offer love to the loveless and hope to the desperate. They provide idealised visions of chastity, marriage and the family. They offer permanence to lives rocked by change, uncertainty and death. They understand ritual, the imposition of order to give meaning and pattern to life. They provide colour and carnival to relieve bleak, joyless lives. (Some of course, Islam and Calvinism, eschew colour and project bleakness and joylessness as virtues.) That accumulated wisdom is integrated differently by each of the great religions into its specific mythology but perhaps most successfully by the Roman Catholic church. It knows what is essential to its survival. It has adapted to change but always slowly and cautiously.
The Roman church, ministering to primitive needs, understands human behaviour better than any psychologist. It understands the awesome mystery of power. Its key ritual, the mass, centres on that proclaimed miraculous act, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, which it claims can only be administered by a priest acting in the person of Christ.
Great religions are more than an aggregate of ideas and practices. They are human institutions, resting on hierarchy and authority. The structure may have a democratic form, as in Presbyterianism, or rest on state appointment as in Anglicanism, or centre on a self-electing elite as in Catholicism. It matters little. All religions require to manage and control their property and members. Control requires complex organisational structures, the leaders of which develop their own self-interest. What differentiates the Catholic hierarchy from all others, the limited exception being the Anglicans, is that it exclusively comprises priests invested with a very particular authority.
Catholics view the priest as called by God, the essential mediator between man and God, uniquely empowered to act in the person of Christ and set apart from the rest of mankind by grace and spiritual excellence.
It is the special nature of the Catholic priesthood which is at stake in this public implosion. If the priesthood is a sacramental office called by God, it is held irrevocably from ordination. That role is threatened if priests, allegedly called to a sacred office, transpire to be paedophiles. They may be abusers but, in Catholic doctrine, they remain priests. If the special nature of the priesthood is under question so is the credibility of the entire church hierarchy.
The Catholic church has never been comfortable with civil jurisdiction over priests. In the Protestant tradition there is no issue with ministers being subject, beyond their church functions, to civil law. Catholicism is different. Part of the debate centres on the role of US and Irish bishops, dealing with such matters by ecclesiastical discipline. The oaths of secrecy imposed on child victims of Irish priests protected that system of internal discipline. The Catholic church in America knew of abuse by Lawrence Murphy, a priest who was moved several times to avoid scandal. It neither handed him to the civil authorities nor tried him in church courts. The ultimate instruction not to proceed to canonical trial came after he wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger (now the Pope): ‘I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood’.
The Catholic church fears acutely the indignity of a priest in the dock for child abuse. The special grace and spiritual excellence of priests would be exposed as a sham. If the fallibility of such priests were on public display, how secure would be the greater infallibility on which Roman authority rests? Roger Collins, in his panoramic history of the papacy, ‘Keepers of the Keys of Heaven’, summarises precisely the issue: ‘John Paul II’s almost silent reaction to the various scandals of paedophile abuse by members of the clergy and the attempts by some of their bishops to protect the perpetrators in Europe and the United States that were uncovered in the later years of his pontificate betrayed a clerical mind-set reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The clergy are by their ordination set apart from and above the laity and not answerable to secular justice’.
For an organisation committed to the confession of sins, the Catholic church has never been quick to recant its own. In 1632 Galileo was imprisoned and the Copernican view that the earth circled the sun was declared heretical, verdicts not reversed until 1820. On priestly abuse also, change will come slowly. Internal church discipline will be tightened. The laity and those outside the church will hear little but lax priests will disappear to carefully guarded retirement homes. A new asceticism will emerge. The church conservatives will be strengthened. Once Benedict has died and can no longer be embarrassed, the church will admit its errors in somewhat clearer detail than today.
The major impact will be an accelerating decline in the church’s influence in Europe and North America. France has less than 10% of the population attending church. Even in the Irish Republic, attendance at mass had declined from 90% in 1973 to 48% in 2001. These figures will plummet further. In Europe and North America, secularism and evangelical Protestantism will both be strengthened. Catholicism’s remaining power base will be the third world. Despite the recent Vatican statement, one thing is clear. If any paedophile Catholic priest ends in a civil court anywhere in the world, it will be despite the actions of the Catholic church and not because of them. The Catholic faithful have every right to a visit from their spiritual leader. That a man with Benedict’s record on priestly abuse is welcomed by government is another matter altogether.
In the aftermath of the publication of the above article, two contrary pieces were published by Scottish Review. They can accessed here:
[click here] for Brian Fitzpatrick’s reply
[click here] for Catherine Czerkawska’s reply

In my own defence

Brian Fitzpatrick and Catherine Czerkawska are right (SR 245/6). Paedophile abuse occurs in many institutions, not only the Catholic church. I never said anything to the contrary.
It is a wee bit unfair however of Brian Fitzpatrick to speak of ‘the more obvious howlers in Mr Wood’s article’ and then accuse me of accusing the Catholic church of opposing all aspects of stem-cell research: ‘Leave aside for the moment the inconvenient fact that the church does not oppose stem-cell research but just certain forms of that research’. What I had pointed out was that in the party political debate on TV, ‘All three leaders stated that they disagreed with the Pope on some issues, such as stem-cell research’.  Now why, I wonder, would Mr Fitzpatrick make such ‘an obvious howler?’  Why such a misrepresentation? Perhaps to blacken my central argument which he studiously avoided.
I certainly do not deny that abuse has occurred in education, the sphere in which I work. If abuse is uncovered, or even suspected, in schools, the school management is obliged to inform the police. Evidence would be handed to the police and if such a case came to court school management would testify against the abuser. To do so would be a duty, to the victims and to society, which we would not shirk.
I did not suggest that priests are more likely to abuse children than any other group in society. My simple statement, rebutted by neither Brian Fitzpatrick nor Catherine Czerkawska, is that the Catholic church has never handed to the police the evidence they held on abuse by a priest nor given evidence in court against a priest even when they fully understood the extent of the priest’s abuse. Far from doing so, the Catholic church has protected priests by hearing evidence from victims under a vow of secrecy and dealing with the matter internally. Murphy may have been dying but the US bishops continued to shield him from the law.
It is also true that there was once a time when such matters were dealt with by individuals, by society and by the law in a much less rigorous fashion. Catherine Czerkawska is right in that statement also. Such historical laxity neither justifies what happened in the past nor makes today’s exposure of abusers any less valid. Experience taught us to believe that in most cases children claiming to have been abused are telling the truth. Brian Fitzpatrick asserts that John Paul II’s tardy record on this matter was a reflection of his Polish experience where false allegations by the Communist regime against priests were common. That neither excuses John Paul II’s willingness to believe the priestly abusers and disbelieve abused children nor the Catholic church’s systematic denial of such abuse, in the United States, in Ireland, in Malta and elsewhere.
The Catholic church’s failure is not a reflection of individual weakness. It is systemic. The crisis facing the Catholic church may indeed be common to many institutions. It is the Catholic church’s instinctive denial of priestly abuse and its failure to hand over its abusers to the civil authorities which marks its failure.
These two articles were first published in Scottish Review  on 29 April 2010 and 18 May 2010: and

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