Pope Francis has announced that he is setting up a committee to advise him on how to respond to sexual abuse within the Church. There is a large amount of scepticism in many quarters about such a move, for there have been so many other meetings before this and they have produced so little. So why should one more committee make any difference?
I am more hopeful than the sceptics because I think there is a new factor here, and that new factor is Pope Francis himself. He has shown a willingness to face unpleasant aspects of the Church and a determination to change what needs to be changed that I have not seen since Pope John XXIII. So I am more than happy to work with his initiative and to support him in any way I can. Under his leadership I would far rather give wholehearted support to an initiative that may produce nothing than not give support to a movement that might seriously and genuinely confront all aspects of abuse.
There are three things that have to be done in overcoming sexual abuse: deal with the offenders, assist the victims, and identify and remove any factors within the Church that have contributed either to abuse or to the poor response to abuse. The Committee will need to look at all three.
Before being ordained a bishop, every candidate is required to take a special oath of loyalty to the pope, and I know that bishops take this oath very seriously. So I would like to see Pope Francis write a personal letter to each bishop in the world and say to them,
“The people of the world, and the Catholic people themselves, will never believe that the Church is truly serious about confronting abuse as long as no action of any kind has been taken against any bishop, no matter how badly individual bishops may have responded to abuse. I know that there are a million different degrees of both hard-heartedness and compassion in this field, so I have looked for an objective criterion with which I am confident the Catholic people of the world would agree. I believe I have found it in this: If a minor has been abused because of an action or decision you took, or an action or decision you should have taken but did not, I want you, in accordance with your oath of loyalty to me, to submit your resignation from office to me within the next month, for this would mean that you had been truly, if indirectly, responsible for the sexual abuse of a minor. I am confident in stating that the Catholic people of the world do not want bishops leading them who have been a true cause of abuse.
“Furthermore, from now on, I wish to include under the oath of loyalty in a specific manner all aspects of your response to sexual abuse. If you deal firmly and openly with all offenders and if you do everything within your power to assist victims, you will have kept your oath. But if you do anything to hide offenders, shield them from civil authorities or allow them to continue to be a threat to the young, or if you in any way treat victims as though they were threats to the good name of the Church, or if you fail to show them compassion, you will have broken the solemn oath that you took before God. I ask you to conduct a serious examination of conscience on this matter and I will accept the resignation of any bishop who decides that he has failed seriously. I cannot insist on this, for I do not wish to make a present statement retrospective in its effects, and I am aware that my predecessors did not speak in these terms, but I ask you to give the most serious consideration to what I have said.
“I realise that these are dramatic steps, but I believe they are essential if the Church is to be freed from the intolerable burden of abuse. Bishops may well feel the need to issue a public statement concerning why they are or are not offering their resignation, but that would be no bad thing.
“I also ask that each diocese nominate a series of persons to whom complaints of abuse can be made. They should not be priests or anyone in authority, but lay persons who are capable of listening with intelligence and sympathy. Unless this exists, a bishop simply does not know the extent of the problem in his diocese, and is certainly in no position to say that he has no problem.
“I have spoken of bishops, but leaders of religious institutes must also consider these matters.”
I have recently written a book (For Christ’s Sake) suggesting some of the causes of abuse and I shall not repeat that material here. The only comment I wish to make here is that there are certain matters that directly involve the very credibility of the Church. To say that celibacy is the total cause of the problem is as naïve as saying that marriage would solve all problems, but the question of celibacy must be put on the table for discussion. To refuse to allow the matter even to be discussed, as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict did, is to lose all credibility from the outset. A celibacy that many priests experience as unwanted, unaccepted and unassimilated has its obvious dangers. Equally, the absence of women from any positions of authority, with the consequent totally masculine ethos of authority cries out for discussion. The idea that priests are somehow up on a pedestal, above other people, “ontologically different”, has certainly contributed to abuse. There has been much comment on dealing with offenders and reaching out to victims, but the Committee absolutely must tackle this question of the causes of abuse.
I thank Pope Francis for this initiative and wish it well.
Geoffrey Robinson, Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney