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Paul Vallely: Small steps in tackling clerical abuse

01 March 2019

Critics have misunderstood the Pope’s summit, says Paul Vallely


Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on Wednesday

Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on Wednesday

THE devil is a bit of a problem for Pope Francis — not in the usual theological sense, but as a device for communicating with the rest of the world. At the end of the Vatican’s four-day summit on paedophile priests and clerical cover-ups, the Pope, in his concluding remarks, talked of “the mystery of evil” and called abusers “tools of Satan”. The survivors of sex abuse gathered outside were unimpressed. One called his speech a “stunning let-down”.

Pope Francis sees the devil as a real person, terrifyingly exploiting the weaknesses of humankind. So did the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, who referred to Satan as “the ancient enemy”. The Pope, in his sermons, repeatedly refers to “the Evil One” and “the Father of Lies”, whose greatest achievement is to make most of us believe that he does not exist. By describing sex abuse as the work of the devil, the Pope is trying to convey his sense of deep theological horror.

Unfortunately, in contemporary Western culture, the devil is seen as a myth or a metaphor, a representation or a figure of speech. Invoking the diabolical, therefore, sounds to victims and survivors like shifting the blame away from the actual abusers. Likewise, the Pope’s attempt to contextualise paedophile priests — by pointing out that most abusers are parents, teachers, or family friends — sounds like another move to minimise the problem and defend the institutional Church. Small wonder that survivor groups denounced his “recycled rhetoric” and “tepid promises”. Where are the new concrete measures to stamp out abuse and cover-up, they ask.

Pope Francis clearly needs some advice from a communications expert. Yet campaigns and the media have misunderstood the Pope’s plan in bringing together 190 Catholic bishops and religious superiors from across the world.

New laws could easily be drawn up by officials in the Vatican, under the Pope’s direct instruction. (Indeed, the Pope included 21 recommendations — on practicalities such as screening of candidates, reporting of allegations, and so on — in the pre-summit documentation.) The real problem is getting new rules put into practice.

Contrary to popular perception, a pope is not a supreme ruler whose word is put into practice like some global religious CEO. Bishops and bishops’ conferences often act as they see fit, in practice — and in ways that depart from Rome’s guidance. Real change needs buy-in from the world’s bishops. What the Pope was trying to do with this summit was to change the episcopal culture on the clericalism, secrecy, and sense of priestly entitlement which undergird both abuse and cover-ups.

There were some signs that change may have begun. Bishops who arrived sceptical, especially those from Africa and Asia, were chastened, insiders reported, by face-to-face meetings with survivors. The Vatican is now to draw up a handbook on abuse which, it is said, will include the necessity to involve survivors in processes of investigation. Lay people, not priests, will be central to the process, to bring external standards and their independent reputation to the process.

It is actions, not words, that will, in the end, signify that the Church is undergoing the kind of comprehensive renewal it needs. But we should not let the understandable anger of victims obscure these small signs of hope.

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