It’s impossible to imagine what victims of sex abuse have to deal with — in the moment of the abuse and in its aftermath. It’s surely even more troublesome when the perpetrators of that abuse are priests and brothers who were supposed to be steadfastly concerned with their welfare.
Knowing that so much damage has been done, the Church must consider what it is doing to make reparations for those evil acts. In many cases, there have been financial settlements. In some cases, priests and bishops have made very public apologies and made gestures that the Church has long used to express remorse — acts of penance. In some cases, priests and brothers have been put on trial, been convicted and sent to prison, or some combination of those.
In the wake of last week’s round of troubling accusations and even admissions of wrongdoing by a (now former) priest dating back to the 1980s, and charges that three senior priests — one of whom I know — didn’t respond appropriately, one of Sydney’s auxiliary bishops offered what appears to have been a heartfelt attempt to reach out to victims of clerical sex abuse.
At the Mass, Bishop [Julian] Porteous said the sexual abuse of children was a “most heinous crime’’ because of the damage it did to victims and their families, and was worse if the abuser represented the Church and was in a unique position of trust.
In his homily, Bishop Porteous offered prayers for the victims. The head of an organisation that is very outspoken about victims’ rights, though, has essentially rejected that offer.
Abuse victims have derided prayers for them offered at a Mass in Sydney’s Catholic cathedral yesterday as hypocritical and an empty gesture designed to keep donations coming.
“This is the ultimate hypocrisy,” said Nicky Davis, a victim and spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, about the prayers offered by Sydney Bishop Julian Porteous at St Mary’s Cathedral.
“Victims do not see this as a genuine attempt to help us, nor that its intended audience is victims at all. We are being used to make those Catholics still attending Mass feel like something is being done to help victims so that they don’t stop funding the church in protest,” Ms Davis said.
Now, I reassert my first thought on this post that I cannot begin to comprehend the burdens that people who have been abused carry with them. But I think that Ms Davis’s response is incredibly unfortunate and is way wide of the mark. I cannot for one minute accept her accusation that the Church is more concerned about money that victims.
Ms Davis said: ”Senior Catholic figures are still lying to the media and anyone who’ll believe them about their widespread and systematic cover-up of serious criminal offences against defenceless children.”
Ms Davis said senior Catholics were still abandoning known victims of known predators to suffer in silence without assistance, and were still hiding evidence, obstructing police investigations and exploiting legal loopholes.
“Most victims would far prefer church leaders stop praying and start delivering the truth, justice and compassion they are so good at talking about,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the Church in Sydney disagrees with the accusation that those principles are lacking from the Church’s response.
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Sydney said Bishop Porteous had been sincere in offering the Mass for victims and asking for forgiveness.
“If Bishop Julian had not made any comment there would have been further criticism,” she said.
Those who heard his homily ‘‘would have immediately recognised it was a sincere, compassionate and heartfelt message from a man who cares deeply about people especially those and their families who have been victims of abuse by a priest’’, she said.
So that leaves us with the question I pose in my headline: What can help victims of abuse? Or, possibly a better questions would be can anything be done to help victims of abuse? We’ve seen a number of stories of victims who received large cash settlements and apologies from the Church and whose abusers were sent to prison, yet they’ve still gone on to commit suicide as young men (or young women, in some cases).
If there are concrete strategies that we know can truly help victims, I haven’t heard much about them. And if they do exist, I’m sure the Church will try to deliver on them. Justice should be delivered where it can be to those accused of abusing young people. Now that the man at the centre of the latest allegations has long been defrocked, there is nothing the Church can do to bring about that justice for his victims. But where priests still in ministry or even those no longer allowed to carry out public ministry are still under the Church’s jurisdiction, the Church must co-operate with civil and criminal authorities. Once again, I find it hard to believe that there are still dioceses that would block such attempts to bring about justice.
I wish there could be more constructive dialogue between the Church and groups like SNAP that — wronged as they have been — sometimes seem unwilling to engage in that measured, thoughtful discussion.
This is probably as hard a task as the Church has. It’s made harder when genuine efforts at making reparations are rebuffed.