WHY POTPOURRI DOESN’T HELP THE VATICAN
Some time has passed now since the “Boston Globe” of “Spotlight” fame founded the Catholic Newspaper “Crux”. It was hoped that “Crux” would inherit both the tradition and financial success of reporting on Catholic issues that had launched its parent publication to world-wide renown. Whilst I do trawl routinely through its pages – and it has a readership quorum that clearly sustains it financially – the current “Crux” agenda is not for me. For example, very recently in the middle of September and in Rome, J R Allen wrote the article, ”A Potpourri of Nuggets…” – because there was no “grand narrative” to report from the Vatican. Much of what followed appeared to be anecdotal trivia to fill in the column space. The image that immediately jumped to mind was that of the Emperor Nero playing the fiddle whilst Rome burned for six days and rendered 70% of the population homeless.
Sometimes today, both “Crux” (which I am using as an example and not as the sole focus) and a number of other Catholic news journals appear to lack essential focus and critical reporting and have become merely reflective mouthpieces of the Vatican Fides News Agency. The Catholic Church, however, is much larger than the iconic marbled palaces of Rome and it is essential for healthy debate for worldwide Catholic opinions to flow into the Vatican as well as dictats to come out of it.
For example, one matter that is long overdue is the cerebral Reformation within the Catholic Church Vatican Curia. Currently, it is stuck in the muddy ruts of age-old denial and senility on many issues – including sexuality, child sexual abuse, birth control, celibacy, pre-marital sex and the role of women in the Church – the list is almost endless. Those are all issues in which the Catholic Laity have a rightful voice. The early Church, at least in the first three centuries, was a family where everyone had a rightful say and it should be thus today. Roots are important and should never be forgotten because the continued growth of any tree depends on them.
The “Crux” birth-right tradition was to be in the vanguard of serious debate, but lately it appears to have slipped into the rear-guard position of the Vatican, which it meekly follows at a distance. “Potpourri” was symptomatic of a decline in “Crux” focus and journalism. If it routinely becomes a magazine-type mouthpiece of the Vatican, rather than a platform for vibrant debate on the important issues confronting a Church (which is in a goodly degree of turmoil) it may indicate that the “vision” and “ethos” of “Crux” is being misdirected. The same goes for every other Catholic news outlet.
That would be especially damaging in the broader context that the Roman clerical edifice is unwilling to respond routinely in any adequate way to justified criticism on a range of very serious issues. Some of those issues, for example dangerous levels of over-population in a world with diminishing resources, are not going to be resolved, either in practice nor adequately, by age-old dogmatic Vatican responses such as sexual abstinence or “coitus interruptus”. Nor is clerical child sexual abuse going to be solved by sending clerics to clinics or sanatoriums – or whatever they are labeled – to effect a “cure”. That is still the practice in Italy and many other countries. There is no adequate cure for psychosexual immaturity or dysfunctionality that could risk clerics with a past history of a sexual proclivity for children to be reinstated to positions in which children are accessible. Nevertheless, appallingly, that still happens.
The “Boston Globe” revelations on clerical child abuse stunned America, the Vatican and the world. It was a dramatic moment in the history of Catholicism. This last week, whilst “Crux” readers were engaged in “Potpourri”, Vatican failures associated with the curtailment and management of clerical child sexual abuse had not been dispersed into oblivion. The trauma and suffering of victims remained. It never becomes a figment of their imagination. Those victims, their families, parents and counselors are engaged with it on a daily basis. Sadly, too, the sexual abuse of children in Church institutions continues apace, as does clerical denial and the concealment of crimes and failures to bring the clerical offenders to justice.
Clerical child sexual abuse may be an old story, but it is not a “done topic”. Yet, many Catholic news outlets, not just “Crux”, rarely mention these issues at all today – except in passing in an inch of column space. Nor, within the seemingly impenetrable walls of its subconscious, has the Vatican, in the totality of its separate Congregations, put the essential measures in place to effectively understand, manage, contain or curtail the problem.
That is not to say that there is not a willingness on the part of some in the Vatican to drag the Church out of its historical blindness on such issues, but the action of just a few is clearly not gaining ground against the entrenched, generational myopia of clerics not used to being under daily, critical scrutiny and re-assessment. Yes, procedures exist, Canons remain in place, Diocesan Child Safeguarding Rules are held by all, statistics are published for public consumption.
That is all good, but in the corridors of the Vatican Curia Congregations, the age-old historical culture and pervasive clerical mind-set remains intact – as does a defiant reluctance to bare the breast and own up, with humility, that their greatest sin has always been and remains to this day one of arrogance. That arrogance was never more publicly evident than when Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller publicly defended his Congregation’s policy of refusing to reply to the letters received from the Victims of child sexual abuse. That is not ancient history. It was in February of this year!
What that incident tells us is that for the impersonal Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican Curia each new letter from a Victim is merely a statistic. It is placed in a growing pile and it is not valued with a response. I can relate to that personally. It is over eighteen months since I forwarded them a document that had calculated that something in the region of 1000 crimes of sexual abuse against child seminarians had occurred at the Comboni Missionary Order’s seminary at Mirfield in England. My expectations of some action were high for my volunteer courier was none other than the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster who had placed that powerful and revealing document (indeed I considered it to be “explosive”) with them “by hand” personally. There has been no response – it clearly did not give rise even to a low, plaintive “whimper”.
There is an emotional dimension for parents also in this debate – not just the victims themselves. When I eventually told my eighty-year old widowed mother of the abuse that I had undergone at that seminary, the reaction was shock, dismay, remorse, confusion, helplessness and disbelief. It was such an emotional and physical response that I had to leap to her side to steady her, sit her down, comfort her and reassure her. She then mourned for the passing of my father, whom she assured me would have confronted that Order and immediately withdrawn me from their “care” – “if only he had known”. I wished at that moment that I had never told her.
Historically, the Laity of the Catholic Church has always been overlooked by the Vatican Curia. All rules and edicts have been handed down for observance – often with the threat of serious interdicts for any failure to comply. However, the Laity of the Catholic Church out-number clerics by about 1000:1 and, hence, has on tap a staggering amount of collective brain power, energy and good will. Moreover, probably unbeknown to most of the Laity, under Canon Law itself, both clerics and laity are regarded as “equal”: “Flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christ’s faithful”. Indeed, in the early Christian Church both slave and master sat around the same table in the breaking of the bread. For one and a half millennia now – they have been excluded. So from where did the arrogance of clerics spring?
That begs the question also, “How is it that Clerics make the Rules about how our child victims and their child-abusing clerics are managed?” The Laity have not been asked in any meaningful and fully inclusive way about the formulation of the Rules to deal with it and curtail it. Most likely, nor has the Vatican Curia, historically, believed that they needed to ask the Laity anyway. Hopefully, a most recent Vatican announcement by Cardinal Gracias – to the effect that more Lay involvement in the issues of the Catholic Church is to be sought – might be the start of a reversal of the historical “Fortress Vatican” obsession.
Alarmingly, a recent Australian study* of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has compiled the findings of some twenty-six commissions, investigations, judicial probes, and academic research from around the world. It has warned that there remains a grave potential for abuse of children to continue unchecked in the estimated 9,600 orphanages that the Catholic Church still runs. Worryingly, the report also states that there is no sign at the Vatican level of Religious Leaders answering why abuse has happened on such a scale and why they have reacted so poorly. In that context, the authors of the report, maintain that at some time in the future more shocking levels of the abuse of children will be unmasked.
*(Professor Cahill and theologian Dr Peter Wilkinson: Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church)
The Catholic Church, like any global organization (whether political, religious or commercial) does not have all the world’s wisdom on tap. It is a vulnerable, human organization that imperfectly seeks to represent “Goodness” in this world. Thus the realism of critical, powerful and far reaching “alternative voices” is essential to keep the Vatican on track so that it can again move forward. Left to itself an isolated Vatican will become not just short-sighted and “tone” deaf, but both blind and “stone” deaf.
It is particularly essential that all Catholic news outlets, continue to project critical challenges on the issues surrounding child sexual abuse to organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church – which because of its historic claims of being a major moral force in this world – have lost the most credibility. The media should not fear recrimination because it is not the “Faith” of the Catholic Church that is under fire in this debate. The debate is something more humanly tangible than “Faith” and it gives the Laity the right of liberty to be critical. What is at stake here, is not the Vatican’s coveted monopoly of Gospel interpretation, but it is the universally held ethical essence of “Morality” and of “Truth” and of “Justice”. Full and open discussion of issues relating to those core values is vitally essential for the stability of the Catholic Church – let alone a World Order that is increasingly subject to the rampages of the instant global communication of unethical ideologies which have alarming claims of being the new normality. Before we tackle those new issues, however, we must tackle the old reality.
The issue of the clerical sexual abuse of children has demonstrated just how vulnerable the Roman Catholic Church is to its “mightier than thou” arrogance and it has literally “fallen from grace” as did Adam. It has been expelled from Eden and no fig leaf can now hide its nakedness. In many respects the Vatican Curia has been blinded by its own adherence to history and tradition and it does not recognize how shockingly and unacceptably Medieval it remains. To maintain any semblance of occupying the “high ground” in a world, increasingly aware of universal rights – and simply to be seen to adhere to its own principles such as Matthew’s Gospel, “And why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother’s eye, but not considerest the beam that is in thine own eye” – it needs to re-examine its own soul.
More precisely, what that means in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which is often drowning unconsciously in its own incomprehension of its waywardness, is that that institution must reflect upon and eliminate its unacceptable and damaging practices that amount to “Immorality”, “Insincerity” and “Injustice”.
It is the immorality, insincerity and injustice of silence, of a failure to listen to victims, a failure to respond to victims and of a failure to demonstrate unchallenged ownership of each specific crime that takes place within the totality of Catholic Institutions.
of secret proceedings for accused clerics and religious – of proceedings that routinely exclude victims, witnesses, the public and the press from hearings – and of proceedings which publish no findings.
of secret proceedings that bind victims and witnesses who are admitted to them by oaths of perpetual silence on pain of threatened interdicts and excommunication from the Church.
of a failure to punish criminal clerics and religious appropriately and in line with the reasonable, common and universal expectations of the processes of civil laws and civil punishments, but instead routinely provides clerics found guilty of crimes with ecclesiastical or civil pensionable retirement.
of a failure to prevent clerics and religious found guilty of child abuse from all future interaction with children, of a failure to impose automatic interdicts upon abusive clerics and religious and of a failure, in many cases, to subject them to the process of defrocking.
of a failure to bring to account all clerics and religious who seek to conceal reports of crimes of any cleric or religious of any rank – whether they are priests, nuns, brothers, Bishops, Abbots or Superiors General in the Catholic Church.
of the failure to bring to account all clerics and religious who seek to hide within their walls those who have committed crimes against children – and who conspire to move those clerics or religious, as soon as discovered, to an alternative locations so to ensure that the legitimate processes of civil arraignment are forestalled or prevented.
of the failure to notify to civil law authorities or Child Safeguarding Organisations, as appropriate, those clerics who are known to have committed offences against children and against the civil law of the country in which they reside.
That Litany of failures – and, regrettably, many more not mentioned here merely for lack of space – constitutes the immoral, insincere and unjust failures of the Catholic Institutions. These are the failures for which the voices of both the people of God and no God in this world demand a re-birth – a true and “in depth” fundamental “renaissance” of Catholic Institutions and the minutiae of their “modus operandi”.
That Litany of failures is nothing short of a list of the standard features of feudal, monocratic structures – and are more akin to the control tactics of the despotic Medieval Monarchs and Roman Emperors of bygone history than a spiritually refreshing flower of hope for the future in a desperate world that is thoughtlessly rushing towards self-extinction.
The media voices, which comment on the Catholic Church, must engage in debate and re-iterate failures unceasingly and vigorously to the Catholic Church for the public good. Humoring readers with “potpourri” because there is no grand narrative from the Vatican news outlet on the day is not just frivolity, but it is a dangerous state of detachment from reality and it will quicken the demise of Catholicism as a moral force for good.
Brian Mark Hennessy.
Blog: Comboni Missionaries – a Childhood in their Hands