The headlines suggest that Pope Benedict XVI, following his meeting yesterday with the two leading Irish prelates concerned, has made a strong and welcome response to the Irish abused scandal. Closer analysis shows how inadequate this suggestion really is. He has spoken of his outrage over the original abuses, and about the inadequate response of the Irish Church. This is nowhere near enough. This is not about just the Irish church, not about responding to specific abuses, nor even about better governance. Reorganising the Irish church, without restructuring the entire Catholic establishment, rules and culture, just won’t cut it. Nor has he said anything by way of apology for his own contribution to the problem, which has been substantial.
Vatican Response to Abuse:
This was his reaction:
“He [the pope] assures all concerned that the church will continue to follow this grave matter with the closest attention in order to understand better h
ow these shameful events came to pass and how best to develop effective and secure strategies to prevent any recurrence.”
The Holy See took “very seriously” the central issues raised by the report, including questions “concerning the governance of local church leaders with ultimate responsibility for the pastoral care of children”.
The pontiff was said to be asking for prayers for the victims of “these heinous crimes”, and said that the Vatican would “develop effective and secure strategies to prevent any recurrence”.
In addition, the Irish Bishops have promised a widespread shake-up of the Irish church structures. (The press has interpreted this as presaging the resignations of more bishops. The bishops disagree, on the grounds that they believe thee have “done nothing wrong”).
Shortcomings in this response
He has responded only to the problem of abuse of children, while victims also include adult men and women in religious houses, and willing partners who have to live in a shared clerical closet.
He has responded only to the problem in the Irish Republic, while the problem is worldwide.
He has responded only with how the church has dealt with the abuse, not with eliminating the root causes.
He says he shares the outrage and shame, but has said nothing about his own share of the blame.
Let’s take these one at a time.
- It is natural that the outcry has focused on the abuse of young children. Let us remember though, that there have also been many other victims. Seminarians and young priests, women in convents, young adult parishioners have all been victims. Their stories have generally been considered less newsworthy, but that does not mean they should be ignored.
- The recent news has focused on Ireland, which uniquely has followed up on a report to the bishops with their own government inquiry into the cover-ups. If other countries were to follow suit, I am sure we would find a similar pattern. Is the Vatican going to wait on more governmental investigations before admitting there are problems elsewhere? A partial list from current news stories of other areas of the world which have also been affected include Fort Worth, where a group of women are suing the diocese; Connecticut, where the diocese has just been through the shameful process of attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep records out of public scrutiny; Australia, where parents are suing a Catholic primary school over abuse by a teacher, and senior staff have been dismissed; and Canada, where a bishop is wanted by police on charges of possessing child pornography. Canada.com has a useful listing of some of the stories from around the world going back a little further in history, including stories from several US states, Australia, Austria, Mexico and Britain, in addition to Ireland. There have been many others.
- The root causes of the problems are well known, and have been clearly identified by those who have studied the problem most deeply. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, an Australian bishop who headed that country’s investigation and response to the problem, has written a book spelling out his findings. (Note that to do so, he first had to resign his ministry.) Robinson’s view is that the three causes are the institutional culture of excessive and abusive control within church structures; the insistence on compulsory celibacy; and personality problems with some individual priests. Many other writers draw essentially the same conclusions, but add obsessive secrecy to the problems of control and power; note that inappropriate methods of selection and training of candidate priests increase the prevalence of men with personality disorders entering the priesthood; and add the exclusion of women and gay men from ministry, to the exclusion of married men, as problematic.
Pope Benedict’s Personal Culpability
Benedict’s apologies to the people of Ireland on behalf of the church are of course welcome, as were his apologies earlier to the people of the US and of Australia, when he visited those countries. But where is any admission on any personal responsibility? He may not have been involved directly in any specific cases, but he has most certainly been part of maintaining and reinforcing all three of these institutional causes. This is how:
As Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man, and since then in his own right, he has played a major part in strengthening the culture of central control from the Vatican, and contributed to systematically undoing the moves initiated at Vatican II toward greater collegiality and shared participation by all. On the problem of sexual abuse, he wrote a letter to bishops when at the CDF, effectively confirming the insistence on secrecy in dealing with all allegations – a requirement of secrecy which has underpinned the problem of cover-ups, which he now decries. This is exemplified in his own papacy by the silencing of respected progressive theologians, and the current investigations into the US religious women.
Together with his predecessor, he has squashed even the attempt to discuss the ordinations of married men or women, even as many national and continental groupings of bishops have made clear their belief that opening up the priesthood, even selectively, would bring many benefits.
By maintaining the pretence that screening out openly gay men from seminary training, he has done nothing to ensure the admission of psychologically well-adjusted man, and by encouraging gay candidates to hide their true natures, may well be leading to an increase of the poorly-adjusted candidates that lie at the heart of the problem.
The Irish singer Sinead O’Connor has said that it is time for Benedict XVI to acknowledge his own culpability and resign. I agree with the sentiment, but not the remedy – his resignation would still not address the causes of the problem. Of course nothing would substantially change these in the short term, but he could at least begin a process.
Here are three things he could do immediately:
- Encourage national churches to begin serious discussion on the case for ordaining women and married men;
- End the restrictions on gay men entering seminaries, and ensure that candidate selection look for psycho-sexual maturity, not sexual conformity;
- Announce a Third Vatican Council, to resume the movement towards greater collegiality and shared responsibility in the Church.
He won’t do these, of course. But they should be the minimum immediate steps required. If he and his Vatican cannot see this for themselves, the rest of us must spell it out for them – and must continue doing so.