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Clericalism in Roman Catholic Church ‘failed survivors’ says Durham study

14 June 2024

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A CULTURE of clericalism and “damaging theology” in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has contributed to its “failure” to respond well to survivors of clerical abuse, researchers from the University of Durham say.

Some of the survivors who contributed to the four-year project from the University’s Centre for Catholic Studies, The Cross of the Moment: A report from the Boundary Breaking Project, published last month, describe the Church’s “mishandling” of their disclosures as tantamount to “secondary abuse”.

The research — which is describes as both theological and “empirical” — is based largely on 82 interviews and four focus groups with 22 victims and survivors of clerical abuse, 25 priests and deacons, five diocesan bishops, and 17 lay people from RC parishes in 14 of the 22 dioceses, as well as 18 members of 16 religious communities in England and Wales.

The findings are set out in the 191-page report across eight chapters, written by Dr Pat Jones, Dr Marcus Pound, and Dr Catherine Sexton.

It states: “There was little doubt among research participants about the connections between clericalism and abuse. They spoke of how clericalism has helped create a context which has been conducive to abuse and to mishandling of the response.”

The report defines clericalism as being “visible in any behaviour that assumes or makes priests or indeed seminarians exceptional or entitled to special treatment”. It continues: “Many also acknowledged that laypeople collude with clericalism. We inherit a fear of sounding disrespectful, a sense that we should not question or complain or challenge.”

One priest said: “The real sin of clericalism is the idea that you couldn’t possibly know as much as I do about something because I’m a priest.”

Another participant said: “We’ve put people on this pedestal and we’ve left them there.”

This, in turn, has lead to a breakdown in accountability, the report continues. One priest told researchers: “I think we’re the least monitored, least controlled, least supervised group of people in the whole world.”

The report goes on to describe clericalism as “a problem of and for the whole Church, the entire Catholic community”.

“Damaging theology” surrounding redemption and forgiveness is also raised. “Forgiveness seems too easily given, without any sense of what was traditionally known as restitution and with little account taken of the traumatic impact of abuse,” the report says.

One survivor told researchers: “The theology has said to him [the priest], once you ask for forgiveness, it’s all sorted; so there’s no social accountability, there’s no in the real-world accountabilities.”

Several examples are given in the report of the meeting of disclosures by denial, disbelief, or a lack of compassion for the person and their pain. One survivor said: “You want belief more than anything, or any financial compensation, before anything whatsoever; for somebody to say that they believe you, means everything.”

The research is guided by the pronouncement by Pope Francis that, for the RC Church to move on from the abuse crisis, it needed “a continuous and profound conversion of hearts attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church”.

The authors explain that they have deliberately chosen not to make recommendations, but to “imagine some of the possibilities . . . to invite others also to imagine, to find the right local solutions, whether in a parish or diocese or religious community, or in the Bishops’ Conference. If our response to the abuse crisis comes from our hearts, if it is truly conversion, it will have its own motivation, character and shape.”

The report concludes by expressing gratitude to participants, and stating the “conviction that the response of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to the victims and survivors of abuse is not yet adequate or complete”. It invites people to learn from the report and continue conversations about the issues raised.

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