Category Archives: Priests/Bishops

Cultures of Death: Pope Francis, Apology and Child Abuse

It was long overdue, but Pope Francis’s letter of condemnation and apology regarding the abuse of children by Catholic priests did sent a few ripples of comfort and reckoning.  He conceded that the Church “showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them”.  He acknowledged the “heart-wrenching pain” of the victims who had been assaulted by the clerical class, and the cries “long ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.

“With shame and repentance,” went the Pope’s grave words, “we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”

What is left hanging in the air is any system of defined accountability, one characterised by an ancient institution mothballed by secrecy and obfuscation.  In the pointed words of Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, “Statements from the Vatican or Pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is, and how all must be held accountable.”

The Pope had been given a prompting this month, a nasty reminder he acknowledged in his note.  “Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless as time goes on we have come to know the pain of the many of the victims.”  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had made a near 900 page grand jury report investigating clerical sex abuse of minors public, a digging enterprise spearheaded by the Pennsylvania state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.  The grizzly bounty came to 301 accused priests, with some 1,000 victims throughout the state, and even then, it only covered six of the eight dioceses in the state.

The details read like chillingly lurid pornography: a priest in the Diocese of Erie who “fondled boys and told them he was giving them a ‘cancer check’”; a priest in the Diocese of Allentown who impregnated a 17-year-old and “forged another pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate”.  What also accompanied such acts of molestation was the divine remit: victims were assured that their sexual provision was part of a broader Godly purpose.

The exploits of some of the accused resemble catalogues of brutal overachievement.  Rev. Edward R. Graff, who served in the diocese of Allentown for 35 years, could add scores of victims to his repertoire. Much of his conduct was executed on the premise that he was “an instrument of god”.

After the abuse comes the vast apparatus, the doctrinally directed cover-ups that warn of continuing offending behaviour while still keeping matters bolted and in-house.  The report notes the point.  “What we can say, though, despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability.  Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.  For decades.”  Within the church itself, church officials received protection and succour. “Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”

Matters have been particularly heady in the field of child abuse accusation this US summer.  Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned his cardinalship after accusations of abuse from adult seminarians and children.  On the other side of the planet, one of the Vatican’s highest ranking officials, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, is busy battling charges of historical sex abuse.

Resistance to prodding from the secular world remains trenchant in some branches of the Church. In Australia, despite the passage of legislation breaching the sacred seal of the confession, priests have openly stated that they would sooner go to prison than reveal the contents of a penitent’s confession, even if it discloses instances of child abuse.  Church business remains resistant, defiantly so.

To that end, the shaking measures of legal action may be one of few mechanisms to ensure accountability.  Criminal prosecutions have tended to rarely succeed; issues of evidence and the passage of time often condemn them.  Civil lawsuits, as Timothy D. Lytton of Georgia State University argues, might have more prospects of success.  This, however, will face bars imposed by the statute of limitations. “Unless lawmakers across the country pass reforms to extend or suspend the statute of limitations in their states, I believe that the church will never provide a full accounting of the scandal.”

The language of Pope Francis can be misconstrued as healing and resolving.  It does neither.  The Church sprawls and continues to exist with its own rationales, its basis of functioning. It was the world’s first operational corporation, its crimes and infractions as much to do with that logic than anything else.  Until its approach to the powerful clerical class is reformed, the abuses will continue in the shadow of misused divinity.

The Catholic Church in Resistance

The tradition is represented as noble, the confiding link between confessor and penitent, a bridge never to be broken, even under pain of death.  Taken that way, the confessional is brandished as the Catholic Church’s great weapon against the wiles and predations of secular power.  The State shall have no say where the priest’s confidence is concerned, for all may go to him to seek amends.  “The sacramental seal,” goes the relevant code of canon law, “is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for the confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

Those points certainly have merits, even if these seem a touch faded after the sex abuse imbroglio the Church has found itself in.  Confession, which functions as a barometric reading of Catholic guilt, has developed its own succour and relish, an ecosystem of ritual and understanding resistant to the prying of the criminal law.  Not merely does its ironclad protection provide a dispensation from the laws of the land in certain troubling cases; the confession, in effect, serves as an economy of ordered guilt, reassurance for the next binge of sin. To remove it, or at the very least heavily qualify it, would be an unsettling challenge to a distinct Weltanschauung.

The process effectively permits all – including erring priests – to engage the process from either side of the grille. Historically, the process also imperilled children.  Pope Pius X, in decreeing in 1910 that confession should commence at the tender age of seven, permitted an army of celibates access to vulnerable, and in certain instances titillating flesh.

Legislators troubled by the enduring force and fascination with the seal of the confessional have gotten busy, most notably in Australia.  This was prompted, in no small part, by the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. “We are satisfied,” went the Australian report, “that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt.”

One recommendation specifies that institutions “which have a religious confession for children should implement a policy that requires the rite only to be conducted in an open space within the clear line of sight of another adult.” But the members of the Royal Commission went beyond the spatial logistics of the confessional.  Institutional jolting was required.

Each state and territory government, argued Commission members, should pass legislation creating “a criminal offence of failure to report targeted at child sexual abuse in an institutional context”.  This, it was suggested, would extend to “knowledge gained or suspicions that are or should have been formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.”  The law would also exclude existing excuses, protections or privileges.

Despite treading delicately, such recommendations were not merely matters for demurral by the Church, but considerations to be sneered at from the summit of spiritual snobbery.  President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart reduced the matter to one of neat sophistry veiled by religious freedom.  “Confession in the Catholic Church,” he reasoned in August last year, “is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest” being “a fundamental part of the freedom of religion”.

Hart’s protestations did not go heeded in the South Australian legislature, making it the first in Australia to legally oblige priests to report confessions of child abuse from October 1.  Omitting to do so will result in a fine of $10,000.  Bishop of Port Pirie and acting Adelaide Archbishop Greg O’Kelly, much in Hart’s vein, saw the move as having “much wider implications for the Catholic Church and the practice of the faith.” Such comments could only come across as archaic and insensitive, given the conviction of his predecessor, Archbishop Philip Wilson, for concealing child sex abuse.

More to the point, the remarks by Bishop O’Kelly are brazenly selfish, permitting the priest an all-exclusive gold card for reasons of amendment, “that the penitent actually is sincere about wanting forgiveness, is sincere about wanting reparation”.  The conspicuous absentee here is the victim, always abstracted, if not totally hidden, by matters of the spirit.

While accounts such as John Cornwell’s, whose stingingly personal The Dark Box makes the sensible point that abolishing the confession and its lusty pull would essentially address the problem, the Church is already finding fewer penitents.  In a sense, it is already losing the appeal, the allure, and even the danger, of the confessional.  Musty physical convention has given way to digital releases and outpouring.  Social media, crowned by the confessional fetish that is Facebook, takes the disturbed soul and expresses it to the globe.

From the vacuity of the Kardashian phenomenon to the newly enlisted grandparent keen to reflect on banal deeds, these platforms have stolen an irresistible march on those in the land of Catholicity.  Such confessions of sin or achievement – the distinctions are not always clear – have become the preserve of Mark Zuckerberg and his technicians, rather than a local priest desperate to remain relevant. But that age old resistance against the laws of the civic secular domain remains the Church of Rome’s stubborn, practised specialty. The elusive spirit, in dialogue with an unverified Sky God, continues to be its invaluable alibi for crimes of the flesh.