Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Abuse of Children in the Irish Catholic Church

Given my history, I suppose many of those who know it and who know something of my views on the Catholic Church will have been expecting me to post something on this issue. In fact, I had decided not to do so, on the grounds that there are enough sensible people who have been commenting on what has been going in the Irish Church in recent months – and, more heartbreakingly, what has been going on in the Catholic Church for many decades. But, having read the reports of the pope’s statement following his two-day meeting with the Irish bishops, I was so flabbergasted that I felt I just had to comment on it.

The Irish Times reported today: ‘Referring to the sexual abuse of children as “not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image”, he pointed to “the more general crisis of faith affecting the church” and its role in the abuse issue. This “weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors”, he said.

Now, I will admit that I haven’t read the whole statement; frankly, I just don’t have the stomach for it. What I find simply amazing is Ratzinger’s monumental confusion of cause and effect evident in the last sentence quoted.

The reports published in Ireland in the last year, regarding abuse in Church-run institutions (which basically focussed on religious orders) and on abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, were both limited in their terms of reference and their emphasis to the past few decades. But, on the basis of the testimony of older victims, there is no reason whatever to assume that the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children and even more pervasive general cruelty and brutality began in the sixties and seventies. Even a cursory reading of the catalogue of horrors brought to light in the investigations makes clear that there was a major systemic component to this whole issue. The question which arises is how much the structures and systems endemic in the organisation and thinking of the Catholic Church created and protected an environment within which such abuse could be perpetrated in such a widespread fashion?

We are talking of an environment which developed and was perfected when the country still – oh what an irony! – regarded itself as “holy Catholic Ireland,” a country which was repeatedly told by its clerical leaders that it was special because it did not follow the way of godless Britain or the continent, a country in which it was fatal for the career of any politician to question the supremacy of the church (remember Noel Browne?), a country in which state law regarding matters of marriage, sexuality and family was carefully framed so as to completely reflect Catholic teaching. A country where almost every Catholic attended mass every Sunday, where the churches were full for novenas and annual retreats, where the majority of families went to their knees every evening to pray the rosary together. A country in which legislation was introduced little more than thirty years ago to liberalise(!) availability of contraception by allowing the sale of condoms to married couples only.

Indeed, it was only in the context of a “weakening of faith,” a growth in openness with regard to sexual matters, the spread of pluralism, that an atmosphere began to develop within which victims slowly started to gain the courage; no, more fundamentally, acquire the language and concepts with which they could begin to describe their martyrdom. It was only in a society where the dominance of the Church was beginning to weaken that public and civil society was able to hear the horrific accusations and start to bring at least a few of the perpetrators to justice, despite a general lack of cooperation from Church authorities.

Pope Benedict XVI’s comment is an indication of how far removed his world-view is from any honest sense of history of the past hundred years. Given increasing reports regarding abuse in Church circles in his native Germany in the past couple of weeks it would seem that his troubles are set to multiply. I have very little hope that he will learn anything from it; it seems far more likely that he, and the rest of the office-holders in the institutional Church, will retreat even further into their ethereal, fearful, controlled fantasy-world. My sympathy is with the victims, of course, but also with the thousands of honest, hard-working, believing Catholics who somehow go on working within the Church, whether priests, sisters or lay-people. Their leaders, right up to their Supreme Leader, are letting them down very badly.

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