On behalf of victim-survivors: the church has to own this worldwide scandal

Oct 14, 2020

Some of Jesus-men have turned from fishing to lives of crime.

Yet silence reigns in the corridors of power. Reputations have been shattered – bishops compromised under a cover of secrecy and denial. Those entrusted with the delicate care of Jesus’ little ones have facilitated the dreadful activities of depraved clerics. The victims who dared to raise their voice were disbelieved – punished for speaking up. Offenders have been allowed to grow old in crime and in death they have escaped justice.

The very existence of the majestic institution on the hill is threatened by hurricanes of scandals and recriminations. This is a crisis that the church as a whole has to own. Numberless faceless people, in the grip of depression and shame, have died by suicide, leaving their loved ones to grieve, and to wonder why so little has been done; why the institution can continue to teach, to preach, to speak with authority, to advise, to bind consciences and hope to be heard, not mocked; why their bishops and priests are not held accountable; why they remain apparently impervious, strangely silent and unassailed – and their property, their churches and schools untouched, their institution still functioning as usual, still endowed with significant tax concessions.

In the face of tragedy and crimes of diabolical proportions, the routine of daily church life continues. The cogs and wheels of the institution are still turning. Priests put on their seasonal vestments to celebrate the liturgy of ordinary time – but the times are far from ordinary. The Gospel continues to be announced – whatever the Good News might be today – but the words seem strangely empty. The daily seasonal routine grinds on. Meetings in the parish hall; masses in the church; money is collected; the dead are buried; the Pope speaks to us from Rome; the bishops make statements to be published in the diocesan rag; religious classes in the local school; a sermon preached; a candle lit in a dark corner of the local church; rosary beads blessed. But in the face of such horror is it possible to pretend that the times are still ordinary and that Christmas should be celebrated as usual?

The old institution is tumbling headlong into a dark hole. Any bishop or experienced parish priest who thinks the situation will repair itself and we will all return to normal, that the repercussions of clerical sexual abuse and of the protection of offenders have not penetrated deeply into the fabric of their institution, is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

The officers of this institution have to become proactive – and soon. Drastic measures are called for. Deep reputational damage has been sustained, largely caused, though not exclusively, by men already dead – men resting peacefully in their graves. The roll-call of offenders and their protectors is long, but the litany of victims (most of them faceless and nameless) is breathtaking.

The ghosts of predators, protectors and victims (living and dead) continue to haunt the crypts and belfries of our ancient institution. But there is no pleasure in listing the offenders and describing the sins of the clergy. God help us, the harvest is vast.

What might it take to cure the paralysis? May I make a few suggestions to assist those in charge? Pope Francis seems to get most of the important issues confronting our world. He has such a warm, self-effacing style. His wonderful encyclical letters, addressed to the world, to bishops and clergy, to the faithful and the infidel, spell out the deplorable condition of the natural world and our human society. He continues to challenge all of us to a concert of action – now. He understands. He gets it. His latest letter, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), is another bottler.

But there are two important issues he does not seem to get – misogynistic attitudes and practices in his church; and the open wound of clerical child sex abuse, clerical immorality and criminality, and his bishops’ and his predecessors’ diabolical policy of coverup and protection. Both are affecting his organization while the world looks on in amazement.

Francis has to look inside his institution and draft one of his stunning letters about clerical pedophilia, the cover-up and inside protection racket, the papal and local secrecy, the policy of preferring the soiled ministries of his ordained men over the welfare of Jesus’ children and of sacrificing innocent lambs on the altar of ecclesiastical reputation.

The world is not convinced that our Pope gets the extent of the devastation caused. I hope that somewhere in the a back passage of the Vatican a cleric is pounding away on his typewriter to produce a papal letter explaining the Pope’s position, expressing his abhorrence of the filthy mess, reformulating his position on the sexual urge and ecclesiastical power, and making practical suggestions to heal the wound, provide pastoral care for the victims, root out the offenders and return to the Gospel message.

May I make a number of other suggestions which might give Francis and his local bishops some bones to chew on as they plan their attack on the enemy within? They might think of establishing a special feast of Jesus the Victim, of Jesus the Avenger, of appointing a patron saint for sexual victims of church officers (and suggestions?) and of promoting devotion to Mary Mother of Victims. They might cancel all triumphant and byzantine-renaissance-style celebrations in the Vatican and in the dioceses throughout the world for a period of, say, 12 months or maybe five years.

Do away with extravagant papal masses incorporating Baroque choirs and heavy, gay, colourful vestments; construct a toned-down Easter celebration that focuses for three days on redemption, suffering and service; cancel Christmas and Santa Claus; no canonizations for some significant period; no meetings of cardinals in all their regalia. You get the drift.

They might consider an addition to the colours of liturgical vestments and a special monthly feast day to commemorate the Martyrs and Innocent Victims who down the ages have suffered from persecution and sexual assaults. The new liturgical colour would be a dirty ashgrey as a sign of Lenten repentance. Humble prostrations in sack cloth, with public weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. A wailing wall constructed in Vatican City and those dioceses where criminal offences have been committed by clergy and religious. A memorial sculpture designed by a gifted local artist to be erected on parish land where children have been abused – in the parishes where Mgr John Day served, or Gerard Ridsdale, or Peter Searson, or Jim Fletcher, or Denis McAlinden, or at the school where Brennan and Denham taught, or Rex Brown at the cathedral in Armidale, Vince Kiss in Wagga Wagga – wherever.

Commission a poet of renown to write a series of lamentations, a musician to compose a series of dirges to be proclaimed in churches and spiritual gatherings, addressing the pain, the destruction, the horror, the confusion, the scandal experienced by the faithful, the families and the victims. A special series of cleansing rituals available for use in the parishes, schools, the cathedral churches and at church central.

The bishops could arrange for the drafting of a modern rite of exorcism addressing evil powers and spirits in our midst, with readings, prayers and blessings to bring comfort to suffering victims and their families. Perhaps a victims’ chapel in a silent corner of every church where victims and members of their families could go to reflect and pray.

Victims should be at the centre of the institutional response. And the welfare of victims and their families should receive regular mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Sunday masses. Remember the 3 Hail Marys we used to recite at the end of Mass – for the conversion of Mother Russia. The so-called traditionalists among us might like to re-install this practice and offer the Hail Marys for the gift of clerical chastity, for our broken priests and brothers, for peace and the gift of forgetfulness for victims of clerical abuse, and the gift of integrity and transparency for our misguided leaders. Remember also the Nine First Fridays and devotion to the suffering Sacred Heart. There’s a lot to think about.

A dedicated website should be set up to disseminate information on the topic of sexual abuse, on the obligation to report assaults to secular authorities and how to do it, on how to seek help (pastoral and emotional), how to make a claim for compensation, who to approach to obtain assistance in crafting a detailed statement etc. Each diocese should appoint an episcopal vicar to accompany victims and their families on their journey.

The Vatican and diocesan archives should be opened so that victims and members of their families can discover for themselves what the authorities knew of pedophilic practices in the organization and when they knew. Moves should already be afoot to identify by name and demote those who have been involved in cover-ups and protection, and to sack offenders. There must be some heads to roll somewhere in the world.

A revamped theology of priesthood might allow a simple ceremony of de-ordination and de-commissioning to emerge. Honorific titles should be removed posthumously from the archived records of dead offenders. The institution should be prepared to name and shame offenders in its midst and not leave that task to the press or websites such as Broken Rites. I presume that behind the scenes, many questions are being asked and maximum efforts being made, involving social scientists, PR experts, ethicists and moral theologians to rework the official church line on human sexuality, celibacy, transgender issues, on power structures within the church, on clericalism, the selection and training of candidates for the priesthood, the seal of the confessional and many other issues.

A secular society and a Royal Commission should not be left to do all the heavy lifting – to ask all the awkward questions, to prescribe the medications and recommend the surgical procedures. The institution has been missing in action, paralyzed by a lack of imagination, by incompetence at the top and a mad belief that if they keep their heads down, the whole mess will eventually go away.

The church has to own this worldwide scandal.

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