THE Archbishop of Canterbury has acted with commendable speed in announcing an inquiry into how the Church of England handled allegations of sex abuse by a former Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Peter Ball, 22 years ago (News, 11 September). He announced the independent review even before Bishop Ball was due to be sentenced this week. It is an expeditious approach, which Pope Francis could scrutinise with profit.
Sex abuse casts a wide pall over any Church. The horror is not restricted to the actual offences by individual priestly predators. For a start, there are too many such individuals involved in such acts for the arguments about a series of “bad apples” to be persuasive; the scale of the issue raises clear questions about institutional culture, clericalism, and perhaps even ecclesiastical traditions such as celibacy. But the scandal also prompts wider, and in some ways deeper, questions about the nature of the institutional Church and its default reactions to such troubles.
Archbishop Welby has been wise in addressing this expeditiously. It took Pope Francis more than a year to set up his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, whose brief is to propose changes to prevent such scandals occurring again. He was also tardy in strengthening structures within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discipline predator priests. And although he has spoken firm words about disciplining bishops who fail to act against abuser-clerics, he has yet to take much serious action.
Firm words are not insignificant. Inside the Vatican, at very high levels, there is considerable resistance to addressing the sex-abuse scandal properly. Some senior officials fear that it will further damage the Church’s reputation rather than repair it. So the more the Pope speaks publicly about his commitment to accountability — as he did last month in the United States — the more chance there is that this message will get through to recalcitrant prelates.
But in the Roman Catholic Church, progress is too slow. It took Pope Francis two years to remove Bishop Robert Finn, of Kansas City, despite the fact that he had been convicted by a US court of failing to report an abuser priest to the police. And the Pope is refusing to listen to the advice of several of his own commissioners, who have told him to remove Bishop Juan Barros, who was enmeshed in a cover-up scandal in Chile. Pope Francis, who has a fear of false accusations against priests, has not embraced the “zero-tolerance” policy that his own commission has set out.
Bishop Ball’s case is not so complex. Now 83, he has pleaded guilty, and the Church has offered an unreserved apology to his victims. But there are institutional issues to confront over whether the Church acted properly and adequately. The investigation must consider the full extent of the backroom dealings between church officials and the police, courts, and other statutory agencies, and uncover the part played by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the day, Lord Carey, who made a private approach to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The lessons from Rome are that anything less than full transparency and accountability is unsatisfactory. Archbishop Welby has made a good start. Now the findings of the inquiry must be published in full.