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Eamonn MCann: Why Pope must pray victims forgive Vatican’s role in abuse

Published 21/05/2009

To discuss the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church without factoring in the role of the Vatican is to miss the main point. Irish Catholics had been told in advance, by Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in his Holy Thursday homily, that the contents of the report of the commission of inquiry published yesterday would “shock us all”. But we may doubt whether all were sufficiently prepared for what’s emerged.

We are set for days of discussion of the different levels of culpability of priests, bishops, diocesan authorities, the institutional Church, society at large. Pope Benedict will likely issue a statement expressing dismay and distress. What he won’t do is accept share of the blame.

Benedict will take the long view. It has been well said that while other institutions measure the passage of events in months, years, decades, the Catholic Church sees the world in a perspective of centuries. Benedict knows there’s nothing new in what’s been brought to light by the inquiry under Mr Justice Seán Ryan. He will be confident that this, too, shall pass.

We used to be taught as children that the fact that the Church had survived all manner of scandals down the ages was proof positive that it was the One True Church. Benedict knows the history and will see yesterday’s headlines as another trial to be overcome with God’s help.

The oldest known instruction to Church officials, the Didache, dating from the second century, commands, ‘Thou shalt not seduce young boys’.

The earliest recorded gathering of bishops, the Council of Elvira, in 309, spelt out 81 Canons, of which 38 dealt with sex. Among those excluded from receiving communion were ‘bishops, presbyters, and deacons committing a sexual sin’, ‘those who sexually abuse boys’, and ‘people who bring charges against bishops and presbyters without proving their cases’.

Why would the Church have mentioned such things had they not already become problems?

Celibacy has had something to do with the proclivity for sexual abuse. Constrained to express their sexuality in secret, furtively, some have tended towards abuse of the vulnerable. When all sexual pleasure is deemed abominable, perversion and excess become nebulous concepts.

The Pope, custodian of Church teaching, is chief enforcer of clerical celibacy. So strongly is he committed to celibacy, he has seemed at times to suggest that the rule is part of the Magisterium, the infallible teaching of the Church, not open to amendment, ever.

Against that background, the suffering of children can be seen as part of the price to be paid for proclaiming Truth in a world stained by sin. It is not that Benedict or any of his bishops are not genuinely anguished at the thought of the agony of the innocent. But viewed in the context of the grand narrative of heaven, for them, this isn’t a decisive consideration.

The first US prelate granted a personal audience with Benedict following his 2005 election was Cardinal Bernard Law. Three years earlier, Law had resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston following revelations that he had systematically, over a number of years, moved predator priests from parish to parish, never alerting parents to the danger in which their children were being put.

Law’s case sparked a huge scandal. The Vatican had been bombarded with demands to explain why he was being retained in the ministry.

Yet this was the man Benedict chose personally to honour 12 days into his papacy. Whether with conscious deliberation or merely by instinct, he was making a point. The same approach emerged in his response to the report three years ago on abuse of children in Ferns, Wexford. In a 271-page document, retired Supreme Court judge Frank Murphy (inset below) identified more than 100 allegations against 26 priests.

He found that, in turning a deaf ear to the pleas of the victims while hiding the abusers from the law, the diocese had been following standard instructions from Rome. Responding, Benedict described the behaviour of the priests concerned as “incomprehensible” and declared that they had “devastated human lives and profoundly betrayed the trust of children.” But as to the finding against the Vatican, not a word of explanation, much less an apology.

In Ferns, as elsewhere, Church control of schools was key to the predators' access to children. “That fairly leaps out of the Murphy report,” commented Mary Raftery, whose 2000 documentary States of Fear sparked the firestorm which the Church hopes will soon now die down.

Says Colm O’Gorman, one of the victims of Ferns’ adherence to Vatican policy: “We still have a situation where an institution that was so entirely negligent in how it addressed child protection in the past, has full legal responsibility for child protection in the majority of Irish schools ... The State needs to do more in Ireland to take on that responsibility.”

But there isn't a mainstream party North or South which would risk the wrath of the Catholic hierarchy by making any such move.

The topmost and implacable priority of Benedict’s Church is at all costs to retain control of the formation of the next generation of Catholic children.

It acknowledges the sin while resolving to retain the occasion of sin. It has no firm purpose of amendment. Priests may be prosecuted, bishops may resign. But the buck stops with Benedict.

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