What Happens when the Vatican Wheels Grind to a Halt?
By Brian Mark Hennessy
(Note: Prior to the publication of this article on the Mirfield Memories site, approval was sought from the German Jesuit, Father Hans Zollner, who is quoted within the passages below. Father Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors created by Pope Francis in 2014, is academic vice-rector of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome and head of its Institute of Psychology. Father Zollner has expressed his agreement to the publication of the comments attributed to him in the text of the article below.)
Hardly a day goes by when I do not read something hopeful from the Vatican on the issues surrounding clerical child sexual abuse. For instance, maybe one day Pope Francis says something encouraging to the press corps – then hopeful comments are issued from Vatican sources at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the effect that Bishops who cover up abuse will be held accountable. On another day we hear that Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Chair of the Pontifical Commission on Child Sexual Abuse has rebutted some lesser Vatican Official who stated that Bishops do not need to report sexual abuse to the Civil Authorities. Then a Vatican Spokesperson says that both child abuse – and the attempts to cover it up by Bishops and Religious Superiors and protect paedophile clerics from legal civil actions – is now considered actually to be a “crime” (after twenty centuries since Christ said “suffer not little children to come unto me for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”). Now and then a Bishop is defrocked or a Cardinal is put out to grass. We might even be tempted to conclude from these utterances that the Catholic Church is in transformation. Perhaps we might one day have to concede that the Church has come a long, long way from the old days of cover up, denial, falsehood, silent stonewalling and the denigration of Victims as “money grabbing liars”. We might even have to admit that the days are gone since when their callous impulse was to give greater consideration to the protection of the criminal, paedophile clerics in their midst rather than extend a hand to the suffering Survivors of those same paedophiles’ abhorrent, indulgent and self-gratifying crimes. Sadly, such natal signals of change rarely, in practice, become hard, universal, identifiable “modus operandi” within the Catholic Church. Indeed, there is little evidence of change outside of the limited bounds of the Vatican State – and a little circumspection is required. We need to reflect a little longer before we can make such hopeful predictions. Perhaps, more accurately in practice, we are induced to believe that visible, concrete change is actually happening – whilst the only change is nothing other than the rhetoric – a form of turgid, soporific grandiloquence to dull our minds to the reality that nothing has changed at all.
The Jesuit, Father Hans Zollner, said something significant to our very own Mark Murray (a Comboni Survivor) just a week ago in Rome. Father Zollner, summed the Catholic Church quite precisely when he said: “There are many churches within the Church”! This summation was acutely accurate – for whilst these days the Vatican says the right things (most of the time) – the response of the “other churches” is often either markedly different or non-existant. What else would explain the continued total lack of response by the Comboni Missionary Order to the countless allegations of abuse of child seminarians at their seminaries at Stillington, Mirfield and Elstree in the late 1950s to the early 1980s? In all some 1000 individual incidents have been enumerated – and each one was a “crime” in its own right. The apparently inscrutible Comboni Missionary Order are pathologically unable to admit, acknowledge, comment or apologise to the Victims of that horrendous endemic abuse within their establishments. They refrained from an opportunty to categorically deny, admit or comment upon the allegations within a document even before the worldwide distribution of that document in which the allegations were made in May 2015. They hold the view, it seems, that total silence allows them to hide behind the veil of a significant degree of inscrutible “unaccountability”. The closest they have ever got to admitting that the abuse (that living members of their Order are perfectly well aware of and have historically admitted) was when they were forced to respond to the British press after a civil suit against them was settled out of court. They then stated that: “if” the abuse ever happened, it was so long ago that they do not believe that the “truth can now be established”! Well, I, for one, know the “Truth” of the abuse that happened to me because it did happen to me – as do all those other children, now men, who were similarly abused know of the “truth” of the abuse inflicted upon them. I have said to the Comboni Missionary Order before – and I repeat it here – “Truth” is not the monopoly of clerics because they wear a white collar around their necks! The Comboni Missionary Order are in denial because they are in their own little conceited, egocentric and narcissistic world – which is leagues apart from the reality of the real world. They are in their “own little church”. That little church exists in their own little minds – and it seems that the church of their own little minds is inpenetrable and impervious even to the discourses of Popes and Vatican Congregations. Despite the Vatican’s hopeful pronouncements, the wheels of change of the Vatican wagon, if there is one, have ground to a halt and are bogged down in the mud at the gates of the Comboni Missionary Orders’ establishments at Sunningdale, Rome and Verona – and none within those gates are willing or able, it seems, to give that wagon a push over the threshold.
Moreover, a document highlighting the facts of this horrendous abuse at the Comboni Missionary establishments within the United Kingdom was forwarded to every Bishop in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland – from whence the sexually abused child seminarians were offered up by hopeful parents to the care of the Comboni Missionary Order. There was not a single response from those Bishops – except one – who asked what he was supposed to do with it. Clearly, “it” was not their problem. They had their own little Church in their own little corner of Britain – and “it” was nothing to do with them. I sent a copy of the document also to the heads of all the Religious Orders in Great Britain – to the abbots, hierarchs and provincial superiors who were, likewise, overwhelmingly silent as they crept around the cloisters of their own little “other world” churches. I even sent the document to the Bishops’ Conferences throughout the world – targetting most specifically those countries where the Comboni Missionary Orders were active. Silence was the loud reply – to use a well worn phrase. Furthermore, a copy of that same document was sent to the majority of the thousand or so ordained priests of the Comboni Missionary Order. I had three responses. Two of those clerics, who admitted that they had not read the document, decried it as false. The third – just one out of the many, many hundreds of clerics of the Catholic Church, from Cardinals to lowly priests in mission countries, who were in receipt of the document – said that he had actually read the document slowly, as his English was imperfect, over a period of three hours “and he felt ashamed”. I treasure that response from that humble, enlightened Christian man because he was the only cleric I encountered who was connected to the Church of the Gospels – and he had the spiritual grace to recognise the light of the “truth” of that document. He alone had made all my efforts to inform the clerics of the Catholic Church of the immense suffering of the Comboni Survivors of child sexual abuse seem worthwhile. Eventually, at the hand of a Cardinal – whom I had long badgered into action – a copy of the document reached the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That was six months ago. They have not responded – because they, most certainly, are another little church – the ramparts of which – I am on the outside.
As the Jesuit, Father Zollner, implied, these little churches consider themselves to be independent. I deduce that they proceed according to their own distorted sense of dignity, rules, philosophy and erroneous interpretation of the meaning of the Evangelists’ Gospels. They do not listen to nor heed what the Vatican says. They are autonomous. Thus there is no central Vatican control over their thinking and conduct. The Pope has power and influence over them in theory only – because they – within their little minded church – have decided not to be held to account by him. In practice, the Catholic Church is captainless and rudderless and constantly in tension – as all their little churches pull in different directions. Whilst the Comboni Survivors have always had a hope that the Catholic Church would eventually get a grip of the Comboni Missionary Order – I reluctantly admit that I think it never will – because the structure of the Catholic Church has shown itself to be incapable of doing so.
That begs the questions – what happens when the wagon wheels of the Vatican come to a halt – and what hope is there for the Comboni Survivors? The Catholic Church has failed them. There is no global, functional, just, auditable, accountable, victim-friendly, avenue open to Survivors of clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church – and, therefore, their only hope of a just hearing is in a constant recourse to civil action. Such action will not affect the mindset of the Comboni Missionary Order. There is no hope of that – but, ultimately, the Comboni Missionary Order should be aware that “Civil Action” will impoverish them. Indeed, that is what has happened and is continuing to happen. They know it themselves already – for the level of donations to their “mission” diminishes month by month. For further proof of the direction in which they are heading, the Comboni Missionary Order need only to look to the state of the Catholic Church in the United States. There, Catholic parish congregations are turning away from financially supporting their priests and bishops. This is the result of those clerics’ denials, their cover ups, their inaction against and protection of paedophile clerics – and their constant recourse to the justice system to avoid changes of statutes of limitations for the Victims’ civil pursuance of justice for the crimes committed. They are, as yet, unready for meaningful Christian dialogue with the Survivors of clerical Abuse – and for taking the caring steps needed to ensure that each and every victim is heard and provided with justice and closure. The dioceses of the US Catholic Church face widespread bankruptcy.
Eventually, financial bankruptcy will be the only lesson from which the Comboni Missionary Order will learn also. They seem to be able to cope in their little church mind with their moral bankruptcy, but their financial bankruptcy will be their turning point. Then, to rebuild their little other world empire of their minds – they will have to learn the fundamental lesson that rejecting the pleas for real dialogue with victims, denying and covering up child abuse and protecting paedophiles doesn’t pay their bills. If they don’t ever get to understand that– then they will, eventually, cease to function – and even cease to exist. Distasteful as it may seem, the Comboni Survivors will be doing the Comboni Missionary Order a favour, therefore, in terms of the eventual survival of the Order, to assist the Order in their headlong dash to a Cretaceous-like extinction at the point of financial bankruptcy. That can be achieved by the Comboni Survivors through civil legal action, continued maximum adverse publicity and other forms of direct action. One such action would be to let their donors know that the Comboni Missionary Order is spending their hard-earned weekly wages on doing everything conceivable to hide the truth of their history of child abuse, of their failure to report child abuse to the civil authorities – and their historical protection of and moving of paedophile clerics to third world mission countries where they could continue to abuse untold numbers of other innocent children unchecked. Thus, parodoxically, the Comboni Missionary Order should be grateful that, where they themselves have failed so manifestly to understand the reality of their diminishing chances of continued existance and its causes, the Comboni Survivors are willing to put considerable efforts into enforcing the lesson upon them.
There is a short-cut of course. The Comboni Missionary Order of Verona , Italy, can consider aligning itself to the Christian principles of the Gospels. I suggest also that, rather than remaining enclosed within that little church of their own little minds, they study the distant proclamations and principles of that other Church – the eclectic, universal, Catholic Church of Pope Francis, who was, after all, elected as their Supreme Pontiff. (It was on 13th March 2013 – in case they missed it)! It is a Church to which they appear to have forgotten that they belong, but can I assure them it does still exist. Whilst they are at it, the Comboni Missionary Order would do well to study the ernest undertakings and pronouncements of Cardinal O’Malley who was appointed by their Supreme Pontiff to chair the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. This Vatican based Church, of which I talk, has much to say – including that the cover up of child sexual abuse and the protection of paedophile priests by Religious Superiors – both at Provincial and Curia levels – is a “crime” that warrants dismissal from the clerical state.