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Church has a problem, but the cause lies elsewhere

The Catholic Church must do more to combat its image as a safe haven for child abusers, says Dr Donal McKeown

Published 22/06/2010

These have not been easy months for anyone to admit to being involved with promoting or supporting the Catholic Church.

As I noted in a recent homily on the theme of vocations: the image of the saintly parish priest, walking his garden while saying his breviary, was first of all replaced by the idea that clergy were all more likely to be incompetent idiots like Fathers Dougal, Ted and Jack on Craggy Island. We could all laugh at that.

But now the predominant cultural image is more that, because of celibacy, clergy and members of religious orders are all potential child abusers, some just about keeping their instincts under control.

As for bishops, they are little more than a bunch of twisted, incompetent old men, well aware of evil actions among some of their colleagues but saying nothing in order to protect their power.

In that storyline of sexually-frustrated clergy, child abuse was just par for the course. The Corrupt Church was not just the home of abuse, but the cause of it.

The Church doesn't have a problem. The Church is the problem. According to this new ideology, such a rotten body should be destroyed. And yet, for most people that I encounter, their experience of clergy bears no resemblance to either Craggy Island or the Corrupt Church model.

How might we try to read what is happening in the current situation?

Our society in general is starting to come to terms with the terrible effects of sexual and physical abuse on young children and with an awareness of just how widespread that practice is.

No one knows better than schools just how many children suffer in their domestic environments and communities.

If the Church can find a constructive way of engaging with the comparatively small percentage of child abuse that has to do with Church personnel, then we can perhaps model good practice for the rest of society.

People are genuinely hurt at the reality of both child abuse and its cover-up in the Church context. There is little value in saying - correctly - that child abuse and cover-ups were no more prevalent in the Church than elsewhere in society.

The point is that we had rightly come to expect a higher standard of behaviour and transparency from the Church than from others.

Even though we may believe that there are those who abuse the plight of the abused in order to promote other anti-faith agendas, our first priority must always be to be those who suffered.

Good Friday tells us that God's dream for each of us cannot be destroyed by even the worst that human beings do.

Even though the vast majority of claims about Church child abuse are historical, there is still the impression that the Catholic Church in 2010 is a uniquely safe place for child abusers and a uniquely dangerous place for children.

As a Church we have failed to get the message out that Church child-protection procedures are among the best that there are. We have nothing to be embarrassed about in this context.

The Church structures that worked in the 19th and 20th centuries are not necessarily appropriate in a different cultural context.

This is much more of an opportunity than a threat. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that Catholic schools are dangerous places for young people.

Indeed our emphasis on community, forgiveness, truth, grace and reconciliation are vital assets in promoting healing and hope.

This is a challenging and painful time for all involved in the Church. Many people have been hurt and disappointed.

But it is also an exciting and creative time as the grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to renew the face of the earth.

Dr Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor. This article appears in the current issue of Le Cheile — a Catholic School Ethos Journal

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