A CHURCH IN TROUBLED TIMES
By Brian Mark Hennessy
A Survivor of Clerical Sexual Abuse
I read in a recent article in CRUX that Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, USA, had said that “not every defeat is a disaster” – and he continued – “Our failure might simply be the work of the Holy Spirit teaching us that we must go in a different direction.” The Cardinal also said that sometimes God wants for those who follow him to “go through a different door,” and that the need for pastoral conversion sometimes stops the faithful from going through that door.
With a characteristic level of obscurity for a Hierarch, Cardinal Tobin was talking about the plight of the Catholic Church following the revelations of catastrophic numbers of incidents of clerical sexual abuse within the Church – and the extraordinary lengths to which the Church has covered up the evil of clerics in their midst and protected them from justice. Most seriously, he was pondering upon how it was that the Church had ignored the very victims of those heinous clerical crimes. He was searching for a new direction, but did not seem very clear where to find the door, that when opened, would reveal the signposts to the land of the solutions and revelations he sought.
My personal simple rule of thumb is simply to go back to the Scriptures – to a world not bowed down by the weight of theological essays derived from obscure texts on the meaning of every word of the pronouncements of the Councils of the Church or the ‘Confessions’ of the Saints. The stories of both the Old Testament and the Gospels are where solutions can be found – and the lessons therein are both simple to comprehend and enlightening. Fundamentally, the difference between that ancient Church and the many-tiered hierarchical structure of Catholicism today is that the Early Church was a ‘family’ of friends who would gather together around a table and they would reach solutions to local difficulties by discussing the lessons that could be drawn from the written heritage that had been bequeathed to them.
If my memory serves me right, the first person to coin the phrase “Catholic Church” at the end of the first Century was Bishop Ignatius of Antioch. That was at a time when Christians met together in their homes, not churches, and the format of the occasion was generally informal, but had its base on the Synagogue with readings and anthems. The clergy were not then set apart from the faithful, but they were one family, often around a shared table, where each could express their thoughts, inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. It was a time of innovation, exciting change – and the spiritual creation of “Christianity”. They would debate and recount experiences and each had a voice as an equal participant. It was a joyous gathering and they all owned it – including the infirm, the widows, the poor and slaves and freemen. The Gospels had not long been written down by then. Paul’s letters had only just been formed into a book. The New Testament was just beginning to take shape. The Divine Office was in its infancy.
This Church in embryo was so popular that it grew and grew – to such a size that Emperors suddenly decided that it could be a threat. The dark days came and Roman Emperors persecuted the Christians. Constantine I changed all that – and the Church was set free again. Yet, even by that time, the Church had managed for centuries to go without any formal Canons to guide it and the dogma was not permanently set in stone until the time of the Council of Nicea in 325. That was a momentous event. The Emperor Constantine pushed for it as much as did the Bishops because he wanted strife within his Empire to cease. Nicea formalised, amongst other things, who were Catholics and who were not – and some former esteemed Fathers of the Church suddenly found themselves outcast and labeled as heretics. The Catholic Church, guided increasingly by dogma – rather than the Lessons bequeathed to them in the Books of the Bible – then persecuted the heretics for a good 1000 years or so. By the time of the dawn of the 20th Century, the Catholic Church had, through the dint of its many Councils, accumulated some 10,000 Canons and countless library archives full of dogma. To be fair, they have greatly reduced the number of Canons. They had to – as so many of them contradicted each other.
So what is this Catholic Church in the 21st Century? Certainly it is nothing like the early Church. For a start, the laity are regarded as having no right of input, nor any genuine intellectual or spiritual enlightenment at all. They have to wait to be asked – and then, it seems, their opinions are just consigned to a filing cabinet in the Vatican. Whoever asks a widow or the road sweeper or the garbage man what they think? If they did ask, would anybody take any notice or give their opinions one jot of credence? Dogma remains dictated by princes of the Church – men like Cardinal Burke – a figure somewhat out of context in the world of today and better suited perhaps to the role of an Inquisitor. He is about as far removed from the Early Church as he is from the 21st Century. In fact, he has an aura of Medievalism about him. Then there is a clergy set apart – but not a clergy that is allowed to think and respond by itself, but a clergy whose minds are enslaved – a clergy that is allowed only to speak the talk and do the walk of the Institution.
It is of little surprise, therefore, that the group, known as the “Mirfield 12” who are alleged Victims of sexual abuse by clerics of the Church have been totally ignored by the Comboni Missionary Order, some of whose priests allegedly abused them.
It is of no surprise whatsoever that not one of the one hundred or so Bishops and Religious Leaders of the Catholic Church in these British Isles responded to a document forwarded to them. It is a document that contained allegations of some 1000 crimes of sexual abuse against UK child seminarians and the details of a hierarchical process of re-victimisation that amounts to discrimination – a crime against humanity.
It is of no surprise because those Hierarchs do not know what to say or do – because they live in the dark room of an establishment where nobody has yet told them what to say or do. Yet if anyone in the Hierarchy thought to ask any layman – they would have a view on the matter.
The Early Church was not like this sad state of affairs. It was free and innovative as it rejoiced in the Gospels and the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Those books contained lessons that talked not of prelates in palaces, not Religious Orders on great estates, nor of a Vatican Bank of enormous accumulated wealth and property assets – and not either of Dogma and Canons. The traditional Religious texts were the Writings of the meek and the poor, of the sick and the vulnerable and of spiritual enlightenment and redemption. Those inspirational writings were the gift of everyone, of both princes and paupers, of both the old and the young, of each and everyone in equality as they embraced one another in the Christian message of joy and peace.
In contrast to Cardinal Dolan, who appears unaware how to respond to injustices heaped on the victims of sexual abuse by clerics in the Catholic Church, Father Hans Zollner SJ, (a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its creation in 2014 and the president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Vatican’s Gregorian University) received a text of a reflection by Fr. Gerry Hefferan that related to a story from Susannah & Daniel in Chapter 13 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The story is well known. Susannah was falsely accused by two old lusting men who were Judges of a crime that warranted death. When they condemned the innocent Susannah, David rose up and protested and was invited to examine the two Judges separately. He proved their stories to be false – and Susannah, the Victim, was saved. Daniel demonstrated that the misuse of authority by the two Judges had the intention of evil in covering up their own crime and laying the blame on the innocent. Thus they were complicit in an act of evil and were guilty of corruption. Susannah had maintained her personal authority even whilst being condemned.
The story distinguishes clearly the contrast between God’s continual love for individuals who are innocent and the church’s damage to people’s lives. The Hierarchy need to have a deeper awareness about the damage that sexual abuse can cause to a person’s spirituality through self-doubt and isolation and shattered trust. That spirituality, that brings healing to self-doubt and isolation and inner suffering, also needs to restore personal authority and identity. Daniel is presented in the Book of Daniel as someone who listens to God. That is the lesson for Cardinal Dolan today. He must abandon the convoluted complexity and contradictions of man-made Canons that emanate from Church Councils and open the door to the rich lessons of Scripture and look in there to discover the road that he seeks. He will find simple stories of simple souls who have an inspired gut-feeling for right and wrong and how to redress any evil in their midst.