At the risk of sounding like a broken record (in a blogging sense), I am not one of those Catholics who believes that everything the mainstream media writes about the Church is biased and unfair. I’ve said and written before that if it weren’t for the efforts of the mainstream media in Boston and in other places, the Church might still be in denial about the scourge of sexual abuse by clergy and religious.
That’s not to say, though, that some members of the mainstream media love nothing more than the chance to bash the Church. It also doesn’t mean that there isn’t some dreadful reporting that does go on and a level of scrutiny exercised on the Church that others institutions simply don’t have to worry about.
In the past few days, the Church in Sydney — and New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state — has been enduring assaults on a number of fronts about a 20-year-old case involving the admissions of a priest of sexual contact with a number of boys. As has unfortunately been the case in many similar circumstances, the priest was moved from one parish to another, with the hope that the separation from the targets of his advances would “cure” him of his problem. And, as has unfortunately been the case in many similar circumstances, the priest re-offended and ruined more lives. And, tragically in this case, it appears the priest’s actions had such a damaging effect on the boys that they ended up taking their own lives — though one cannot know what other burdens they carried.
This particular case also has the shadow of a cover-up cast over it, with reports — first aired on a TV show earlier this week — that three priests who now hold senior positions within the Church allegedly heard the priest admit to a number of lewd acts but did not report them to the police, which some law experts have argued leaves them open to prosecution.
In the aftermath of the Four Corners program, newspapers have sensed blood in the water and gone in for the kill. Each day brings more twists in the story or analysis by legal experts on the culpability of those three priests and bishops and others involved. It has been a difficult time for the Church, but obviously nothing in comparison to the pain and hurt the victims endured — and the victims’ families as well.
In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, an editorial called for the appointment of a royal commission to investigate abuse within the Catholic Church and the response of the Church to the abuse that took place. You may recall that Victoria, the second-most populous state in Australia, a couple of months back announced it would be conducting a parliamentary inquiry into abuse within religious institutions. The royal commission would be a more thorough investigation and would have more powers.
I think that the editorial is right. When the Victorian government made its announcement, I said it would be a very tough thing for the Church to handle, but it would ultimately be a positive thing as the Church would finally be forced to own up to exactly what happened. A royal commission would expand and amplify that airing of dirty laundry, but it’s quite possible that the larger the pain the Church must endure, the greater the cleansing effect it will have.
The Catholic Church preaches about justice, and rightly so. There is no doubt that members of the Church either perpetrated or failed to respond adequately to great acts of injustice, and there must be work done to, in some small way, make reparations for that. And there must be open and transparent procedures in place to do everything humanly possible to stop abuse from happening again. And when it does happen — and there is almost no chance that it won’t happen, even if very isolated circumstances — there must be swift action that involves the police and seeks to protect the public from possible harm.
Spare a thought as you read this for the people caught in the crossfire. A good friend of mine, a young Catholic with a deep love for the Church, has been deeply affected by these latest allegations because one of the three priests accused of covering things up is her parish priest. Think about the parents who have been so deeply hurt by the knowledge that the priest they trusted has interfered with their children. We hear stories of wonderful priests who everyone loved who, years later, we find out was abusing children.
There are victims all over the place in these situations, and the Church is far from the greatest victim. Without a royal commission of some independent, scrutinised examination of the facts, are we going to be dealing with these stories for decades to come? I think we might be in the situation of needing to recognise that the Church may have to endure short-term pain — deep, deep pain — to achieve long-term gains in respect to better practices and procedures to seek to eliminate an evil that reaches into all parts of society, but should be so anathema to the Gospel message that it never happens again in the Church so many of us love.
As I said today to my friend struggling with the possibility that her parish priest didn’t do everything possible to protect children, “It’s things like this that remind us how important it is for those of us who love the Church to do what we can to make sure it remains a holy institution, even though it contains flawed people like me”.
Acknowledging the merits in a royal commission might be considered “tough love” by some, but so be it.