Paul Vallely: Tackling the problem of abuse

27 May 2009

Condemnation of past sins needs to be clearer

There will be yet another report next month on child abuse in my Church. It will focus specifically on the Roman Catholic diocese of Dublin. Its Archbishop, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has warned that it “will shock us all”.

That will take some doing, after the shameful litany of abuse set out in the 2600-page report of the Ryan Commission last week, which found that, over a period of 35 years, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was endemic in Ireland’s church-run institutions (News, 22 May).

There were so many complaints that the Com­mission did not have the resources to investigate them all.

It was perhaps because Dr Martin knows what is about to be published that he took the extraordinary step of publicly rebuking the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, for his comments on the Ryan report — and doing so on the very day that Archbishop Nichols was installed at Westminster.

Public criticism of one bishop by another may be commonplace among factious Anglicans, but it is almost unprecedented in Roman circles. It is a mark of how grave the crisis of authority has become.

Archbishop Nichols will have been taken aback by the directness of the criticism, because he went out of his way to say all the right things. The trouble was that he tried to say something to please everybody, and failed to realise the impact that this would have.

He unequivocally condemned the abuse, said his heart went out to the victims, and said that the perpetrators should face prosecution. All necessary and good. But, no doubt for the best of reasons, he tried to extend his pastoral concern to the religious orders whose members were responsible for the outrage, adding that it took “courage” for those orders to “face these facts from their past” — something they “instinctively and quite naturally” would rather not do.

All those phrases were dreadful hostages to fortune, for they offered ammunition to those whose antennae are set to detect the slightest defensiveness, excuse, or wriggling in his response.

He then made matters worse by talking about paedophile priests who had “deceived themselves that all they’ve been doing is taking a bit of comfort from children”. Phrases such as “a bit of comfort” only add to the sense that the Roman Catholic Church continues to minimise the terrible abuses, ranging from gratuitously detailed sexual interrogation to horrific rape and unspeakably sadistic beatings.

Those may have been the sins of a previous generation, both in the offences themselves and the actions of religious orders, which systematically covered up for their members — even when they knew they were breaking the law. But any response now other than an unmitigated mea culpa suggests that the Church’s sins of denial, dodging, and damage-limitation continue to the present day.

The undue deference that made the Irish government fail in its inspections of church schools and orphanages persists. The government is not seeking to renegotiate the deal it did with 18 religious orders which allows them to escape 90 per cent of the cost of compensating victims; nor is it seeking to overturn the court decision that, in 2004, granted the Christian Brothers the legal right to anonymity for all those responsible. There are to be no criminal prosecutions.

All this is too grave for members of the Church outside Ireland, such as Archbishop Nichols, or me, to be seen to equivocate about condemning this most grievous sin: placing the prestige and authority of an institution above the values of the gospel that that institution was set up to promulgate.

If there is any suggestion that we continue to do that, then we are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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