Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

We need actions from Pope Francis, not words, to put end to worldwide clerical abuse

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis has recently been quoted as saying that "2%" – that is, one in 50 – of the Catholic Church's clergy is a paedophile involved in child-abuse cases.

This information has often been requested previously, but has never been provided by the Catholic Church.

For this reason I was shocked to see a figure being quoted by Pope Francis and the question immediately arose in my mind as to how he calculated it?

Previous experiences for me have taught me to be very wary of opinion stated as fact. This frequently happens when leading churchmen express their views about clerical abuse, but present them as if they were facts.

I recall the public statement made by Cardinal Pell in Australia, when the Government there announced the setting up of a Royal Commission to examine institutional abuse in that country.

His confidence in the way allegations had been handled in the Australian Church has been shown to be badly misplaced.

Similarly, I can recall statements made by leading clerics in Ireland that all allegations of clerical abuse known to their Church body had been reported to the State authorities when, in reality, this was far from the case.

If they had preceded their statements with the phrase "It is my belief", or "I have been informed that", this would have been recognised for what it was: guesstimation.

The point that I am seeking to make is that we need to distinguish between fact and opinion.

It is acceptable for someone to express a view which may (or may not) be shown to be supported by the evidence when that is fully examined. But it is quite different to present it as if it were fact.

If a statement as significant as the known rate of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is being made, then the very least that it should be accompanied by is reference to the specific data, or evidence, that it is based upon.

For this statement by Pope Francis to be given any credence then, you have to accept that he is aware of the true incidence of clerical abuse on a worldwide basis. For me, this immediately begs the question as to how he has gained this knowledge.

The Catholic Church is a global institution covering both the developed and the undeveloped world. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to extract accurate information on the incidence of clerical abuse cases known within Ireland and we are a developed society, with access to technology and with trained professionals employed within the Catholic Church.

It is still a major challenge here, so what must it be like for other territories that are less well-resourced? It would be my strong view that the Catholic Church as a whole is not in a position where it can make a definitive statement with regard to what is the true incidence of clerical abuse within its ranks.

In fact, I would suggest that it is a very long way from reaching that position.

It is encouraging that Pope Francis is seeking to establish this information and to put it in the public domain. He has given very clear signals that he wishes to address the scourge of clerical abuse and remove it from the Catholic Church.

This is to be welcomed, but I would respectfully suggest that the ending of clerical abuse would be better served by actions, rather than words.

We may not know what the true incidence of abuse is, but there is no confusion about the many cases that have come to light already.

There is plenty of scope for real change and practical steps taken to address the issue within the Church.

I would encourage Pope Francis to focus on these actions, but to do so recognising that his and our understanding of the reality of abuse within the Church is partial, but that this should not act as an inhibitor to him taking action.

Ian Elliott, former head of the Irish National Board of Safeguarding Children (NBSC), is an independent safeguarding consultant (ianelliott safeguard ing.com)

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