What the UK Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse Doesn’t Want to Know
by Brian Mark Hennessy
We need to be clear about this matter. Pope Francis has stated many things in the past about the sexual abuse of children by clerics. Surviving victims of clerical sexual abuse all remember clearly his words in the Vatican’s Santa Marta where he stated to an international gathering that “There is no place in the Church for Clerics who abused children”. They remember his words spoken on his trip to the United States of America: “God weeps”. They remember the day when he promulgated the establishment of a Vatican Tribunal which would hold Bishops accountable for their failure to take action against those clerics within their dioceses who had abused children. They remember his establishment of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Surviving victims of clerical sexual abuse have welcomed every pronouncement that Pope Francis has made in the past concerning his abhorrence of child sexual abuse. Now, however, Victims rightly ask what genuine steps forward have been made by the Roman Curia and the Diocesan Bishops of the world. What future difference will Pope Francis’ latest comment, “Sexual Abuse by Priests is an Absolute Monstrosity” achieve? In truth, most Surviving Victims now have little faith in any tangible change being achieved whatsoever – but is that fair? Is the Pope the problem?
Let us be candid for a moment: there have been some changes. For instance, a fellow Jesuit of Pope Francis, Father Hans Zollner, who is the Academic Vice Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, has made great strides in the education of clerics (including all newly appointed Bishops) in order to illuminate both the psychological and spiritual implications for both victims of abuse and the clerics who abuse them. He has held worldwide symposiums on the issues and has gathered both students and scholars together in Rome to share and spread their ideas and knowledge to the corners of the Catholic World. There are others, of course – and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston who presides over the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children is another example. His major beef has been with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for their ineptitude in the handling of child sexual abuse cases – and starving his Commission of adequate funds. Pope Francis recently made a shrewd and telling move concerning O’Malley when he appointed him in January of this year as a full Board Member of the Congeregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – presumably to shake it up a bit and help O’Malley make some leeway with the Pontifical Commission. Francis also got rid of Cardinal Muller, who severely and unjustifiably criticized the film Spotlight, as head of CDF, and who more recently stated that it was inappropriate for members of CDF to write back to Victims of clerical child sexual abuse who had written to him about their experiences.
Nevertheless, despite the historic retrenchment in dicasteries of the Roman Curia such as CDF, it is a fact that Catholic dioceses and scholastic institutions throughout most of the globe now have clear guidelines on the issues and procedures that are essential for the care and protection of children. We hope, with an appropriate degree of discomforting past expectation, that they will follow the procedures they have so carefully devised. Happily, the lay Catholic Church is miles ahead of their clerics and is holding them to account in the most effective way known to them – leaving church pews and collection plates ever more empty. That is one certain factor that will concentrate a clerical mind steadfastly on the essentials.
To be equally fair, however, and the Pope is right about this also, the entrenched and often pernicious arrogance of “clericalism” still treads upon the stone flagstones of religious houses and monasteries. There are many mitred and scarlet scull-capped heads within the Church that have an entrenched “mightier than thou” view of their dignity. Indeed, within some global religious structures there is both a perverse and pervasive resistance to any change in the “status quo”. Some even rage against criticism and all outside interference. Moreover, some Church institutions have adopted not just a false morality which is misguided by a conscience that is incompatible with Gospel-based Christianity, but they regard themselves as virtually autonomous structures beyond the reach of Pope and Curia. Unconscionably, it is the Roman Curia structures of the Catholic Church that have allowed this to happen by their failure to subject these Church institutions to any form of internal moral audit.
So what are these institutions that, in practical day to day terms, are even beyond the reach of Popes, Cardinals and Bishops – institutions with such a degree of autonomy that they are able to pay smiling and pious lip-service to the Pope, Curia and Canons of the Church, but, still smiling, lend a deaf ear and carry on as if Pope, Curia and Canons hardly exist at all. Quite simply, they are the Religious Orders of the Catholic Church. These institutions elect their own leaders, write their own Rules, interpret those Rules how they wish, have no geographical interference from – nor owe any allegiance to Bishops, Archbshops and Cardinals. More importantly – in practical terms, they are accountable to no one. Yes, upon the foundation of these Religious Institutions, (mostly many years back in history), their “Rule” would have been approved by the Vatican Congregation for the Religious. Then on in, unless something most exceptional and catastrophically irreligious comes to public attention, they will not be monitored in anything they do.
Yet, these Religious Societies, Congregations, Orders – however they describe themselves – have a total number of members close to one million – which is three times the number of the Catholic diocesan clergy in the world. They manage countless thousands of teaching establishments, hospitals, hospices, youth clubs and youth movements – and remote mission stations in third world countries throughout the globe. They undertake these tasks with children and vulnerable adults on trust – but so many of them falsely belie that trust.
In the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse which recently published its findings, of the ten Religious Orders that were investigated, on average about 14% of their total members were alleged to have committed acts of child abuse. In one Religious Order that figure of abusing Religious clerics was 40.4% – and in another three Orders the figures were over 20%. These shocking statistics cannot be extrapolated to Religious Orders throughout the world, but it appears to be apparent that in some Orders, or perhaps in some communities within Orders, the self-indulgent abuse of minors can become “endemic” to an extent that is not mirrored within the diocesan priesthood. There has to be a reason for this. I cannot make judgements and give witness about all Religious Orders within the Catholic Church, but I can make comment about one Order that I know well.
In the case of the Comboni Missionary Order (previously known as the Verona Fathers) who operated the Mirfield Seminary in Yorkshire, England, from 1960 to the early 1980s, the permanent community of male Religious numbered, at any one time, about ten to twelve Religious including both priests and lay brothers – and for a relatively brief period of time also one layman. Those accused of the sexual abuse of the seminarians there totalled 4 Religious priests, one Religious lay brother under vows and one lay teacher. That is a total of six members of staff against whom allegations of child abuse were made. The numbers are not great, but it has been calculated that something in the region of 1000 incidents of child sexual abuse, each incident a crime in its own right, were perpetrated by those few individuals. Most boys remained silent about the abuse at the time, unaware in their immaturity, what was being perpetrated against them. Within that period, however, some 26 reports of abuse, from amongst the 20 abused boys who have made statements, were reported to members of the Order. In the case of one of the priests 10 reports are claimed to have been made, but no action was taken on those reports for three years. That priest was ultimately incardinated in an Italian parish – where, presumably, he had access to more children. In the case of the second priest, the first reports were made in 1965, but it was not until 1969, following continuous reports, that action was taken against him. After a brief sojourn in London, that priest was sent to Uganda (where he organized Catholic boy Scouts) and then he was transferred to a Mission in South Africa. Another of the priests, when discovered was also sent to the Missions immediately upon discovery – and a fourth followed suit similarly.
Curiously, the pattern of the percentage of the number of Religious at Mirfield who were abusing children was between 10 and 20% of them at any one time – about the same as the average 14% reported in the investigations of the Australian Royal Commission. Another feature in common between Mirfield in England and the Religious Communities in Australia where abuse occurred, is that the abuse was often reported at the time, but no resultant action was taken to protect those children from further abuse. In both cases, thousands of miles apart, reports were made, but ignored. Additionally, it is known in both the Mirfield and Australian cases that often further reports were made to more senior clergy further up the hierarchy, but those reports were also ignored. In the case of some of the abuse at Mirfield, it is known that not only the Provincial Superior of the Order was made aware of the abuse, but also the Superior General of the Order in Italy had been informed. Again no action, as it is even laid out in their own Code of Conduct, was taken – and nor were reports made in accordance with Canon Law to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nor were reports made to the Civil Police as they were required so to do under the Common Law Act of Misprision that was current at that time. Finally, many of the Religious clerics against whom a modicum of action was eventually taken to stave off an outcry, were simply moved on to another community where they could continue to abuse yet more children. The clear fact of this evidence is that not only was abuse of young seminarians allowed to continue unchecked for years at the seminary, but another eight priests in the Order at the seminary and hierarchy to whom reports of abuse were made did nothing about it at all. Practically speaking, the whole community was complicit in the abuse for years on end.
The lessons to be learned from many multitudes of investigated cases of clerical child sexual abuse within Religious Communities are legion, but the pervasive themes surround a distorted sense of “self” in terms of what they stand for and their dignity – both as individuals and collectively. There is a Canon which in essence states that the Roman Church must never be brought into disrepute. There has probably never been a Canon more misused than this – but misinterpreted it was to ensure that clerical miscreants were protected. To achieve this aim, attention was focused on whom they needed to protect and what damage limitation was required in order to deflect unwelcome criticism. The tactics they utilized both then and today were denial, silence, suggestions that the victim was the instigator, refusal to accept that any harm was done, demanding the silence of the victim, even the expulsion of victims and witnesses on the grounds that they were unsuitable, sending victims away for psychiatric evaluation and causing them to become isolated. Such behaviour is manifestly a concept of elitism in which the abuser’s status must remain intact and unchanged, whilst the abused is made an outcast and is considered to be unworthy.
For a child who has grown up to understand that the abuser could do no wrong such tactics aimed at the self-preservation of the “community” are devastating. The rejection by and isolation of the victim from the very person they once trusted implicitly and from the broader community at large, becomes, in psychological terms, critically and often permanently damaging. For an Institution, Religious or otherwise, which routinely adopts such tactics for their own self-preservation, there is another dimension to the obvious cruel arrogance of their tactics. That is that they themselves have to unlearn the very basic concepts of their Christian morality and substitute it with a newly learned false conscience that absolves them from the shame and guilt of their cruelty. These practices are the basis of arrogant “clericalism” and it is a rife facet of Catholicism about which Pope Francis has been severely critical.
In comparison with the Religious Institutions, it is fairly well established that the Catholic diocesan clergy of most Countries in the developed world are getting their act together. Admittedly, that is not true in the case of all countries as the less developed parts of the globe, specifically in Asia and Africa, often still have cultural difficulties in communicating the issues related to child abuse. Nevertheless, the Jesuit, Father Hans Zollner at the Vatican’s Gregorian University is actively trying to address these issues.
Notwithstanding his efforts, however, the Roman Curia has a blind spot – and that is the Religious Orders of the Church. Specifically, we are not talking of the historic Religious Orders – the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Dominicans etc who mostly live in closed or semi-closed communities. The Vatican blind spot is the unaccountable conduct of the multitude of Religious Societies that globe-trot the world running missions, schools, medical facilities and youth organizations.
Sadly – and this is not an after-thought, but a deliberate statement – the United Kingdom’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has learned nothing from the Catholic world around them. Rather, they have ignored the facts of the Australian Inquiry – and others – and in investigating only the Diocesan Church structures and one historic “monastic” Order of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom (the Benedictines), they have blinded themselves, as has the Vatican, to the most pressing issue that confronts the problem of child abuse within the Catholic Church. That issue is the autonomous nature of the Religious Societies that roam the globe. Those Societies have total autonomy from the Diocesan Bishops – who are largely beginning to get a grip on the issues and are active in putting robust measures in place to protect children and adequately deal with the perpetrators of abuse.
However, the Superior Generals of the Religious Societies have the same authority over their members as have the Bishops over their diocesan clergy – but they report to no equivalent of a Bishops’ Conference where an Archbishop, who often has a direct input with the Vatican, holds sway. The Religious Societies have only one global institution in which they participate and that is the Union of Superiors’ General at the Vatican in Rome. That Union’s General Secretary, Father David Glenday, was a contemporary of most of the child victims of sexual abuse at the Comboni Missionary Order’s Seminary in Yorkshire England. He is also a former Superior General of the Comboni Missionary Order. He wrote that Order’s Code of Conduct to which that Order merely pays lip service. He was also involved directly in a failure to report an instance of clerical sexual abuse to the Vatican and providing the abusing cleric with immunity from civil prosecution. Considering those facts, he is probably the least appropriate person to be giving guidance to the worlds Superior Generals on matters concerning the sexual abuse of children in Catholic institutions.
By not determining the Comboni Missionary Order to be a “Case Study” in the UK Inquiry and insisting on the presence of Father David Glenday, a British citizen before her Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay is ignoring the lessons to be learned from the modus operandi of the multitudinous Religious Institutions that roam the Catholic Church throughout the world – and who also work within the United Kingdom. Those institutions control 75% of all the clerics of the global Roman Catholic Church. As such, those same global Religious Orders have control over the thousands upon thousands of Catholic educational and welfare institutions that they sponsor and directly administer – and the millions of young Catholics who attend them. A direct consequence of the decision made by Professor Alexis Jay to exclude the Comboni Missionary Order from a Case Study by the Inquiry is that the validity of the IICSA Findings in the Roman Catholic Church Investigation will be numerically reduced to a mere 25% of their full potential. That is unacceptable.