“THERE IS NO PLACE IN THE CHURCH FOR CLERICS
WHO HAVE ABUSED CHILDREN”
(By Brian Mark Hennessy)
With penetrating clarity and absolute authority, Pope Francis gave a speech in Santa Marta in 2014, and said that, “there is no place in the Church for clerics who have abused children”. His words rang loud, chiming bells of hope in my mind that here was a man who understood in his heart how pernicious and evil it was for an adult to abuse a child. When I now think back on his words, I feel somewhat amazed at how momentous they appeared to be about a matter which was so downright obvious to the vast majority of people in the world – and not just to parents – but to most adults who had ever given it a thought – and, of course, to the countless children who had been abused! On reflection, my surprise – and even inner joy at hearing him say it – was down to the simple, sad fact that I had never ever heard a Catholic Cleric, let alone a Pope, say it before in such a blatant and brazenly obvious way.
Pope Francis has said many other things since that time in the early few years of his papacy that have had a similar effect on me – and I presume he has prompted a like reaction in many others. It has given many hope that the Pope, who has the leadership of the Catholic Church in his hands, is truly on the path of change. This matters – not just for the Catholic Church – but for the moral guidance of many others in the world also. It suggests, in addition, that this Argentinian, non-Curial, diocesan prelate is now listening, not so much to the dogmatic, scarlet-hatted prelates that frequent the old palaces of the Vatican Curia, but to the Christian men, women and children in the streets – the people with whom he is much more familiar – and the streets he identifies as the place where he also belongs. He, and not the Curia “Old Guard”, understands that the laity are suffering the burdens of centuries of dogmatic indoctrination that has sought to compel them to live constricted and at times almost un-natural lives. The Church has historically dictated to them consistently and without offering any alleviation for their plight in the face of distressing circumstances that were not of their making. It has burdened them with demands on the decisions they make at times of misfortune – and warned defaulters of unpleasant retribution for failures.
To get his message across, the Pope has had to talk directly to his flock and over the heads of the Curia and their traditional, strictured, theological interpretation of dogma. This has been a most effective operation – for the Pope knows that his Curia dogmatists are a “turn off” in this modern age. The last thing the laity needs is a message, accompanied by the severe penalties of damnation and the eternal Bosch-like fires of Hell, which the dogmatists unstintingly attach to any failure to comply. The Pope recognizes, but the Curia do not, that for countless multitudes in this world, the achievement of the perfection postulated by theoretical dogma is often both incongruous and incompatible with the realities and the daily hardships of basic survival. Those realities are a way of living that the Curia Old Guard, imbibing and sleeping in their princely palaces, do not comprehend because for the most part, quite probably, they have never had to face and nor endure those hardships for any time much longer than a brief, afternoon pastoral visit.
Hence we now have discussions with the laity, un-envisaged before the arrival of Francis, about divorce, abortion, homosexuality and communion – and so on. Francis understands that life is a journey and that true perfection is unattainable for most. His simple message to his flock is to keep walking, even to limp and to crawl, down that road that points to perfection as best they can, within the circumstances of their individual lives, and with the constant aim, rather than any real expectancy being placed upon them, of reaching the destination.
It is regrettable, given the above, but quite unsurprising, that some of the Curial Princes of the Church are fighting a rearguard action against both the Pope and the faithful to whom he appeals. The old heads in the Curia are unaware that the vast number of the informed and educated of those admiring throngs of Francis believe that they have an undisputed and inalienable right to be able to discern what is right and wrong for themselves. Yet, the Vatican “scarlet hats”, for the most part, remain entrenched in the past and there are many of them, it seems, who are most reluctant to end their traditional ability to dictate, to scold, to ex-communicate and to damn. Who would relinquish such power, that has been invested in them for centuries, over the many millions of their followers in the world? Without the dogma-subjugated, vast throngs of believing faithful throughout the history of “Peter’s Pence”, who would, in the future, continue to fund the princely lifestyle that those prelates enjoy? The wearers of fashionable scarlet socks know that it was the big sticks of “dogma” and “everlasting fire” that maintained the Curia princes in a lifestyle of luxury in the past. So in their unwitting minds the faithful must continue to be subdued by their incomprehensible, doctrinal interpretations of “God’s Law” and kept in line by the fear of excruciating punishment. Only thus can the masses be denied the exercise of their own right to discern good and bad for themselves.
Unfortunately, for these intellectually sterile, reptilian relics of history at the Vatican, it may be an unpleasant surprise to know that the informed and educated laity both know and assert that their soul and their conscience belongs to them and to nobody else. The greater number of the faithful – which is the world’s abject poor who wearily struggle through life wondering how they will feed tomorrow the large numbers of children that they bore yesterday, in accordance with Church Rules, are forgotten. They, remain down-trodden and often de-humanised by miserable circumstances in both the foul-flooded slums and the rain-parched deserts of the world today – as did their forebears in the inescapable biblical, sore-bandaged, leper colonies. They act, for the most part, in accordance with necessity and the ungracious rules of survival rather than dogma. There is a disconnect, therefore, that has not yet penetrated the minds and the luxurious style of life of the Vatican cascades of isolated, enclaved male dignitaries that arrogantly tell the rest of the world how to behave. Thus, the Curia is, collectively, the downside to the hopeful words that the Pope utters day by day.
Those quiet, unseen Curia “dogma-worms”, secretly munching away at the paper piles left to rot in Vatican “in-trays”, leave me with an uneasy feeling that for them, the whole of Christianity is just a game of theatrical charades. It is a scene complete with its Cathedral stages, its saints, torture, blood, haloes, rites and rituals, its candles and incense, its colourful, richly embroidered, swirling costumes, its promises and its threats, its pledges and betrayals, its dogmas and its stories of angels and devils – and of purgatory, heaven and hell. It is a stage of unending drama upon which, in their minds, the curtains will never be drawn. Yet, that is a dangerous misconception for, whilst they stand still in glorifying in their eternal, fantasy world, the real world is transient – here today and gone tomorrow – and ever-changing at an alarming and increasingly hectic rate. Thus, their reluctance to deal judiciously, decisively and with alacrity with urgent matters such as the contagion of clerical child abuse within their realm has already seen, and in the future may well see a further and irreversible shift in their former fortunes. The more tardy they are in putting right the wrongs thet they have committed, condoned and hidden – the more rapid is the decline in their relevance. They sit on their fumbling hands in peril of being consigned to a chapter in the annals of history – fittingly entitled, if Edward Gibbon can be resurrected to complete his task, as: “Part Seven – The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church”.
We return, therefore, as we must, to add to this dire picture the Curia’s specific failure to provide any consistent, visible, coherent, practical outcomes to what Pope Francis said so early on in his Papacy: “There is no place in the church for clerics who have abused children”. The Comboni Survivors (known originally as the Mirfield 12) have written endlessly to prelates of the Catholic Church to act on the commitment of Pope Francis to rid the Catholic Church of all clerics who have abused children. The survivors of child sexual abuse in the seminary of the Comboni Missionary Order at Mirfield, Yorkshire, England have compiled witness allegations to some individual 1000 crimes of child sexual abuse in a volume of near 200 pages – and that evidence includes the facts of the protection of a living, allegedly paedophile priest. This volume was distributed to all the Bishops of the British Isles and to Bishops’ Conferences throughout the world. Cardinal Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster took a copy by hand to Rome and gave it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He confirmed to me, bless his scarlet socks, sash and cap, that he had done so.
The allegations of the crimes of this paedophile priest have been buried by the Catholic Church for nigh on half a century since the Order were first aware of them. Their immediate reaction was to send him to the Missions in Uganda to get him out of the way. He stayed there for decades (hopefully he was not abusing even more innocents) until he was finally brought to account two decades ago at the insistence of one of his Victims. His admissions at that time – downplayed and reduced in correspondence to the victim as “inappropriate actions” should have been reported to the Vatican immediately. Yet, even after admissions of wrongdoing those two decades ago, the Order has continued to give him sanctuary from full investigation and arraignment before a civil or canonical court. The priest remains wanted for questioning about crimes against a child by the West Yorkshire Police in the United Kingdom. The UK Crown Prosecution Service has sought his extradition on a number of occasions. It is believed also, that the Order never reported him to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at any time in the past fifty years and so it is certain that he has never been brought before a Vatican Canonical Court. If he had been, he would have been defrocked long ago and cast out as the criminal he is alleged to be. Even then – that would have been a lenient outcome – for he would probably have received a pension from the Order (provided in their Rules for such miscreants) and also escaped the long prison sentence that any civilian court would have imposed upon him for his alleged heinous crimes.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have had the information regarding this priest, provided by the Comboni Survivor Group, in their hands for almost a year. Within the text of that document it is detailed with clarity that this living priest of the Comboni Missionary Order, who is alleged to have committed crimes of child sexual abuse in the guise of religious rituals against a young seminarian, then aged 11 years, has had no action taken against him by the Order. Almost the last words heard uttered by the Order about this priest were, “We all make mistakes!”, as if that casual, verbal shrug of the shoulders should both be the end of the matter – and the signal to the Victim that it is time for the wretchedness that has excrutiated and brutalised his psyche since childhood should now, in a flash, be forgotten. Life is not like that.
I do not expect that Pope Francis has ever heard of this case that I have related, but his Curia officials most certainly have. They have neither acknowledged receipt and nor responded. This is not just abject discourtesy to the Writer, the Victim and the Comboni Survivor Group, it is also a grievous sleight both to the Cardinal Archbishop who took the trouble to present it to them – and to the clearly expressed will of Pope Francis. The Curia is sitting on its hands – as it has done for centuries – and, therefore, they are not just a part of the historical problem in cases of child sexual abuse – they are also the current problem. Their inaction, believe me, reflects their declared independence from anything Pope Francis says and does. His Church is in the Curia’s hands. Our only remaining hope is that Pope Francis reads this blog – and then diligently undertakes the much needed firing and hiring process within the Curia. Pope Frances must ‘have done” with words of benevolent encouragement – and reveal his skills as an incisive surgeon.