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Vatican not off the hook on abuse

12 February 2016

The fight against abuse can go too far, but no sign of this at the Vatican, Paul Vallely fears

THERE is a tide in the affairs of men, Shakespeare had Brutus say, as he urged his fellow conspirator to war. But tides work two ways. They ebb as well as flow, as we can see from a couple of non-related events this week. One involves Field Marshal Lord Bramall. The other involves the Pope.

The lesson of sex-abuse cases over the past five decades was that abusers succeeded because no one believed their victims. It is often said that abuse is more about power than sex; certainly, if sex is the motor, power affords the opportunity. And, from the perspective of the abused person, it is power that is the dominant experience.

In a whole catalogue of cases — involving churchmen, social workers, politicians, soldiers, policemen, teachers, taxi drivers, and the BBC — abusers, sexual or otherwise, got away with it because the dominant social paradigm was that the judgement of those in positions of authority held sway.

When the grim evidence emerged, it took decades for the abused to be believed, as the young women of Rochdale and Rotherham will testify.

Then the tide turned, and celebrities such as Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, and Stuart Hall were brought to book. But ebb tides can rush to an opposite extremity. “Come forward, you will be believed,” was the new message broadcast by the police and others in authority. There was no caveat: “You will be believed within the bounds of common sense.”

And so one injustice was replaced with a different kind. Fantasisers were able to make bogus claims, which the police investigated. And, instead of shelving such allegations when they were unsubstantiated, a new police paradigm emerged, in which the names of those under investigation were made public, in the hope that “other victims will come forward”.

The trouble was that public figures were smeared by the police in the process. Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini, and, most recently, Lord Bramall have been victims of this unevidenced police innuendo. You cannot restore justice to one group simply by depriving another.

The Vatican is resisting this tendency. In parts of the United States, you hear the complaint that priests accused of abuse are swiftly removed from ministry while an investigation proceeds; the presumption of innocence has been replaced by the presupposition of guilt.

But the pendulum seems not to have swung that far in Rome, where, this week, the most outspoken critic of the Vatican over sex abuse, Peter Saunders, has been summarily removed from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Apparently, he has been too vocal in his criticism of individual cases, of Rome generally, and Pope Francis in particular, for too tardy progress in preventing priestly abuse and episcopal cover-ups.

A revolutionary Pope from Latin America would, it was supposed, shake Rome from its old ways of secrecy and silence. And yet Pope Francis seems curiously disengaged. He has never even turned up to a meeting of the commission. The tide there still seems a long way from turning.


Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism.

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