I DON’T normally do the church press in this column, but The Tablet’s treatment of the Roman Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandals, and the part played by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in playing them down, has been remarkable, given the long history of sympathy between the two parties.
In June, the paper carried an editorial on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report on the Roman Catholic Church (News, 28 June), which queried the fitness for office of both the Cardinal and his successor as Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley, and suggested that the Pope demand an account from them of the failures in the archdiocese.
Earlier this month, there was a news story by Liz Dodd about a 2003 BBC programme that had exposed some of the wickedness that had been policy under Archbishop Couve de Murville in the 1990s: the usual business of moving an abusive priest from parish to parish until he had to be sent abroad entirely. The news was not that, but the lengths to which Couve de Murville’s successor as Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, went to discredit the BBC.
The programme’s presenter was quoted: “In my entire career as an investigative journalist, I have never experienced an onslaught of that kind of intense lying and deceit and manipulation.”
Cardinal Nichols went so far as to call a press conference to denounce the programme before it had even been broadcast, making a series of allegations that were later proved false.
This was first-class, painful reporting, and it was backed by a fierce Tablet leader which said that the hierarchy of the Church had done very little to expose the scandals of child abuse. All the work that mattered was done by secular agencies: the media, the police, and the courts.
“It would have been gracious of Archbishop Nichols — now Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster — to accept the findings of the BBC inquiry into his complaints, and to apologise to the journalists who worked on the programme.
“It cannot be ignored that two successive heads of child-protection services in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Eileen Shearer and Adrian Child, said to IICSA through their counsel: ‘In the Archdiocese of Birmingham, there were systemic and personal failures. There was a lack of leadership from the archbishop and failures by the Safeguarding Commission and the safeguarding coordinator to perform their duties. These failures were deliberate. They were persistent. They were prolonged. And they were serious.”
Nothing of which the Cardinal has been accused stands comparison with the cover-up over John Smyth, but this is still a reminder of just how very angry the laity of the Roman Catholic Church have become over the behaviour of the hierarchy in this matter.
THE other piece of journalism worth remembering appeared in The New York Times, in which Tara Isabella Burton discussed the alt-Right movement in the language of some sociologists of religion. “Unlike Islamist jihadists, the online communities of incels, white supremacists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists make no metaphysical truth claims, do not focus on God and offer no promise of an afterlife or reward,” she wrote.
“‘But they fulfil the functions that sociologists generally attribute to a religion. They give their members a meaningful account of why the world is the way it is. They provide them with a sense of purpose and the possibility of sainthood. . . These aren’t just subcultures; they are churches. . .
“The social and communal appeal of these groups is nearly as important to understand as their ideological, world-shaping ones. Like nearly all religious groups, they use shared languages and shared rituals. . . Perhaps most important, these groups give their adherents, many of whom perceive themselves as socially isolated, a sense of community.”
THIS sits quite neatly alongside a piece in The Economist’s Erasmus blog on the attractions of Pentecostalism for migrants: again, the argument is that this form of religion offers a community for the uprooted.
The great difference, of course, between the Churches and online communities is that Churches still have an anchoring in the physical world. They are not just imagined communities, but physical ones. The difference matters.
Online practices will never have effects as powerful as physical ones, and will never be as tightly tied to their intended meanings. But I don’t think that means that they are less real, any more than dead authors are less real than living ones.
Of course, this blurring of distinctions may infuriate people who suppose that the value of religions, and, indeed, their distinctiveness from all other human activities, lies in their doctrines. But it is at least possible that the central doctrines of lasting religions are, and must be, literally meaningless.
They gain meaning only in and from the lives of their believers. Perhaps, without saints, Christianity would be wholly incredible.