PAUL COLLINS. Catholicism’s Year from Hell

Without a doubt the last twelve months have been Catholicism’s annus horribilis and, let me assure you, there’s still not much light at the end of the tunnel.

2018 was the year in which the abuse crisis came to a head and it has absolutely stymied the pastoral governance of the church. At first it was seen as an “Anglo” problem, but then reports of abuse appeared in Europe, Chile and other parts of Latin America. After several years of underestimating it, Pope Francis woke-up to the problem after he was deceived by church authorities in Chile and was forced into an abject apology in mid-2018. Now convinced it is a worldwide problem, he called presidents of bishops’ conferences to the Vatican last week for a three-day summit on transparency and abuse. What happened?

Even before things got underway, two anti-Francis cardinals, Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller, claimed that the whole problem was that priest-abusers were all gay. “The plague of the homosexual agenda,” they wrote, “has been spread within the church, promoted by organised networks and protected by a climate of complicity and a conspiracy of silence.” There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, said these cardinals “are renowned for this kind of critique, which I…simply reject out of hand.” Spot-on!

Then there was Theodore McCarrick. A week before the summit, the pope expelled the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington from priestly ministry (he had already resigned from the college of cardinals), after he was found guilty of abusing seminarians and under-age boys. Next came Frédéric Martel’s book In the Closet of the Vatican, published the day the abuse summit began. Martel claims that the Vatican itself is riddled with closeted gay priests. While clear that there’s no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, Martel says gay priests cover for each other and fear exposure.

It’s obvious Francis wanted the bishops to realise that this was a worldwide problem, not just confined to the developed world. Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias emphasized that “there are cases all over the world, in Asia, in Africa.” This was an important comment because in both places there is a strong tendency for bishops to pretend that this is only a “Western” problem. To drive the point home the summit opened with recorded testimony from five abuse survivors from across the world. The woman from Africa told the bishops that she had been abused from the age of 15 by a priest, who forced her to have three abortions. “I feel I have a life destroyed,” she said. This confronted the African bishops present, who are perhaps most in denial.

For me the most significant aspect of the summit was that three women from Nigeria, Italy and Mexico were invited to speak. They were by far the most interesting speakers and none of them minced their words. They were the “stars” of the show and I think their participation signaled a modulation in church attitudes. When a man like Mark Coleridge, whose experience of the Vatican means he can sniff the slightest change in wind direction, says that the bishops “have been our own worst enemy,” you know that influential people in the church are getting the message.

There also seems to have been an attitudinal shift in Vatican media. There has been something of a clearing out of the old guard and the fact that all the sessions were open is a good sign. One of the women speakers was Dr Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican journalist who has been covering the Vatican for many years. She knows the place back-the-front and she told the bishops that any form of cover-up is “contemptible”. She told them to be “proactive” with the media. When abuse comes to light, tell the story honestly. “Be transparent.” The media, she said, was not the enemy of the church, but that journalists were not going to accept church obfuscation. In the end, she said, “silence is far more costly than telling the truth.”

Alazraki also highlighted the need for women in positions of real authority. Using the image of the maternal role of the church, she said that “as a mother the church should care for her most vulnerable children” and when this doesn’t happen “an abominable crime” is committed. Essentially, she was saying that if women and mothers had had genuine authority in Catholicism, the abuse crisis would have been confronted much earlier and the damage limited. Clerical priests as single males are detached from children because they have none of their own.

One key issue facing this “global emergency,” as Coleridge calls it, is the accountability of bishops and how this is going to be enforced, especially on the recalcitrant. Pope Francis envisages a church where authority and governance is devolved downwards to the regional level. But evolving structures that respect local cultures and conditions, while at the same time discipling bishops who fail to confront and deal with the abuse crisis is going to be difficult, and will require intervention from higher authority. Some say this should be the metropolitan, the senior archbishop of the region or nation. Others say that’s too close to home. Mark Coleridge argued that there should be a Vatican office with oversight of this issue throughout the whole church.

In the end, the critics are right. There were no practical, down-to-earth rules and regulations issued, no zero tolerance decreed. But what the critics don’t get is that in a world-wide organization like Catholicism what you can do in one culture is much more difficult to do in another. Yes, those cultures have to be hauled into line. But I discern a subtle shift in attitude and that gives me just a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

Paul Collins most recent book was Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018).

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8 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. Catholicism’s Year from Hell

  1. P.Boylan says:

    The Vatican’s continued failure to take serious action on ending clerical sexual abuse matters demonstrates catastrophic moral and legal negligence. Before Pope Francis’ papacy, Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote in 2010, ‘Extrapolating from the understated John Jay College figures of 10,667 victims in the US, the ‘endemic’ abuse in Ireland in boys’ institutions over many years, the emerging figures (e.g.50 of Malta’s 850 priests are regarded as child abusers, and paedophiles generally have multiple victims) and the predicted toll in Latin America and Africa, the total molested youth in the Catholic Church over the past thirty years i.e. on the Ratzinger/Benedict watch – could well be in excess of 100,000.’
    As the largest provider of education in the world – the universal Catholic church failure to urgently act on significant concrete safeguarding measures is staggering.
    Just as staggering is the Bishop Accountability report on the leading bishop of Brazil’s episcopal conference, Cardinal da Rocha overseeing the world largest Catholic population (172.3 million) has no published abuse policy.
    http://www.bishop-accountability.org/bishops/summit/#Colombia

  2. Patricia Boylan says:

    The Vatican’s continued failure to take serious action on ending clerical sexual abuse matters demonstrates catastrophic moral and legal negligence for more than 100,000 children worldwide.
    Before Pope Francis’ papacy, Geoffery Robertson QC wrote in 2010, ‘Extrapolating from the understated John Jay College figures of 10,667 victims in the US, the ‘endemic’ abuse in Ireland in boys’ institutions over many years, the emerging figures (e.g.50 of Maltas 850 priests are regarded as child abusers, and paedophiles generally have multiple victims) and the predicted toll in Latin America and Africa, the total molested youth in the Catholic Church over the past thirty years i.e. on the Ratzinger/Benedict watch – could well be in excess of 100,000.’
    As the largest provider of education in the world – the universal Catholic church failure to urgently act on significant concrete safeguarding measures is staggering.
    Just as staggering, the leading bishop of Brazil’s episcopal conference, Cardinal da Rocha overseeing the world largest Catholic population (172.3 million) has no published abuse policy.
    Bishop Accountability report
    http://www.bishop-accountability.org/bishops/summit/#Colombia

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    I am just beginning (to read) Potiphar’s Wife. Thank-you, Judge.

  4. Kieran Tapsell says:

    The big problem with making bishops accountable for past cover ups is the rule of law and one of the most fundamental principles of every coherent legal system: no one can be punished unless they break the law, and even less for obeying it. This principle is rightly found in canon 221 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Royal Commission found that the pontifical secret applied wherever there was no applicable civil reporting law, and that is the situation in most countries, including most States of Australia, at least until they adopt the recommendations of the Royal Commission. A bishop who covered up in any such a jurisdiction has not breached canon law. He has obeyed it by complying with the pontifical secret. At the recent summit, Archbishop Scicluna announced that the pontifical secret will be abolished for child sexual abuse – something recommended by the Royal Commission. It might then be possible to prosecute a bishop for “negligently” not reporting abuse to the civil authorities under Pope Francis’s letter, Like a Mother, but while the pontifical secret applies, no one can be found to be “negligent” for covering up because canon law required it. A far better way would be to require mandatory reporting to the civil authorities under canon law as recommended in 2014 by two United Nations committees. Then a bishop’s obligations will be crystal clear.

  5. Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

    Thank you, Paul. The conviction of Cardinal George Pell on five offences of child sexual abuse announced today, reportedly due to be taken into custody tomorrow 27 Feb before sentencing in March (subject to any appeal), will surely reinforce a sense of urgency. It is disturbing to hear some Church commentators referring to the Church as a large ship that takes time to turn around; Church hierarchs have been happy to use their excessive and unaccountable power to achieve quick results when it serves their purpose. The pope could take two simple steps today: 1. Appoint progressive women to head half the curial dicasteries and 2. Require every diocesan bishop in the world to implement now the longstanding default requirements of canon law to establish a diocesan pastoral council and conduct a diocesan synod (or assembly). In Australia, step 2 is a no-brainer in preparation for the Plenary Council 2020/21. Step 1 would begin an immediate cultural change through the long-missing benefits of gender balance informing Church decision-making.

  6. Ed Cory says:

    Yes, and it just got worse. While an appeal is foreshadowed, the conviction stands in the meantime, and perhaps afterwards. But can Francis, or the Church, wait for the necessary years for all the appeal processes to conclude? I am not speaking for decisions relating to Pell himself, but for Church administration and governance.

    Individual cases are not necessarily the best justification for reform, but this is just the latest high profile case involving hierarchy in senior positions. This case adds to the pressure for action, for overcoming the difficulties, or sidestepping them if they cannot be overcome. Perhaps there is a case emerging for a ‘balkanisation’ of the current universally applicable canon law, at least in some respects?

    I find myself surprisingly emotional at the breaking news, even though I like many others have known of it since it broke overseas. For me, the earth is moving, and not in a nice way.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      ‘I find myself surprisingly emotional at the breaking news, even though I like many others have known of it since it broke overseas. For me, the earth is moving, and not in a nice way’. I’m in exactly the same position, Ed Cory. I’m kind of shattered, not by surprise, but by the feeling that everything is collapsing around us, that it’s ultimately the fault of the church hierarchy, and that there’s plenty more horror to come. Worst of all is the rejoicing in the general community. Rather like the French Revolution – the mob wouldn’t have tolerated priests, nuns and brothers being sent to the guillotine if they felt the Church was on their side, the side of the poor. We’ve brought this on ourselves by allowing ‘the Church’ to be conflated with ‘the hierarchy’. Of course that’s what they think themselves, even now.

      • Ed Cory says:

        There is a good chance this verdict will be found ‘unsafe’ on appeal (regardless of what other technical legal defects may or may not exist)(See Frank Brennan’s article in Eureka Street). Should that occur, the circus will go into overdrive. No doubt you are right about more to come though.

        I am not sure that ‘the faithful’ have conflated the hierarchy with ‘the Church’ (I know you were not using this term, I am reinterpreting your comment). They do their own thing is my feeling, and let Rome do its. The gay marriage vote, attendance at confession, remarriage after divorce, all are signs that overall ‘Catholics’ are doing their own thinking. I think that is why, generally, parish life is largely unaffected (at least up to now). They may not like what has happened, but as long as they can go to Mass on Sunday, and otherwise exercise their faith at a personal level, they are satisfied and will not rock any boats. I think this docility is what our bishops are counting on.

        The mob? As long as our house is in order, what do we care about the mob? Oh, wait, our house is not in order…

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