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The sins of the fathers... Rome forgets already

New Catholic guidelines that state bishops do not always have to report child abuse by priests to the police are evidence of a complacent Church sliding back to its old ways, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 16/02/2016

Fr Brendan Smyth
Fr Brendan Smyth
The film Spotlight focuses on paedophile priests in Boston
Investigative journalist Chris Moor
Pope Francis
Cardinal Sean Brady

There we were thinking that the Catholic Church had learnt a lesson. It had been humiliated by the disclosure of the awesome scale of its cover-up of child abuse by priests and had learnt the fundamental priority of child protection.

And since it specialised in the spiritual welfare of its flock and its pastors, the people best-placed to protect children from marauding paedophiles in clerical garb were the police.

Didn't you think, too, that that was one of the outcomes of the explosion of the scandal?

The old way for the Church to deal with priests who raped children was exemplified by the experience of Cardinal Sean Brady, former primate of Ireland.

As a young priest he had been delegated to question two boys who had complained that they had been molested by Fr Brendan Smyth.

Fr Brady, as he then was, interviewed the boys, pledged them to secrecy, reported the matter to his bishop and, from then on, put the whole sordid business out of his mind.

And the bishop reported the matter to Brendan Smyth's superiors in the Nortbertine Order, and satisfied himself that he had discharged his responsibility as an officer of the Church.

His objective at the time, we now know, was the avoidance of scandal. Scandal would have been people talking about a priest, calling him a dirty old man, shunning him, telling their children to have nothing to do with him.

That was the outcome the Church feared, so priests who raped children were shunted away to other parishes, often to other countries, where they were in no danger of being gossiped about, or pointed at on the street, or made the butt of jokes - and where they would have untrammelled access to more children.

There is nothing new in this. It is the subject matter of current film Spotlight about how journalists in Boston had unearthed these Church procedures for the protection of paedophile priests.

In fact, Boston was late to the story. Here, Chris Moore, a local investigative journalist, made a similar journey to that of the Boston Globe journalists in the film.

It started with finding one case of a priest who abused children, the same Brendan Smyth, discovering that he was being protected by his order, and then, staying with the story, unveiling the shocking truth that this was happening on a massive scale.

Somewhere between 5% and 10% of priests were abusing children and the Church, far from being ignorant of this, had established procedures for preventing scandal - ie priests being gossiped about.

We've been through all that. You'll be wondering why this is a story now. Everybody knows that the admission of shame and regret went to the very top.

We had Pope Benedict apologising and sending a pastoral letter to the Irish Church, commending that we all return to a loyal adherence to canon law and say our prayers more diligently.

And we all thought that was a pretty daft response, but if it also included, as it did, an insistence that priests were not outside the law and that bishops would report paedophile priests to the police, then what harm if the pontiff thought prayer was part of the solution, too? It would have been a little surprising if he hadn't. And the Church's journey towards a more humane presentation of its theology and its institutions went further.

Because the German Pope Benedict, who, as leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had written to bishops advising them on how to apply the old rules, specifically telling them to refer abuse cases to the Vatican, and to preserve secrecy, stepped down from his post.

In doing so he triggered a lot of speculation that he had at least copped on that he had realised his dictatorial and supercilious manner were not the best face to present to the world of a kinder Church that had found in itself a deeper concern for the welfare of vulnerable children.

Others speculated, more cynically, that Benedict had jumped before he was pushed; that investigations were lapping rather close to him.

An earlier film, Mea Maxima Culpa (My Most Grievous Fault), had unpacked the story of the abuse and cover-up much more comprehensively than Spotlight does.

It had included a journalist actually confronting Pope Benedict, and what we saw in the moment in which he snapped angrily back was that this was a man who presumed that he moved gracefully through a world in which he was merely revered.

He seemed as appalled to be asked a question as he would have been to be kicked.

Then along came Pope Francis, that most kindly and genial Pope, that humble and considerate prelate. He was the one who could win souls back to the Church, who could undo the massive disillusionment among Catholics who would never have believed that their Church was covering up rape on such a scale all across the world, but now had the evidence in front of them.

Francis represented change. He made the right noises about gays, seemed not to be as judgmental. And he wanted to delegate more responsibility to dioceses in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

But what's this? The Church is now telling bishops that it is not always necessary for them to report child abuse by priests and that sometimes the decision rests with the family of the victim.

That message is contained in new guidelines, written by the French monsignor and psychotherapist Tony Anatrella, who serves as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Furthermore, a special commission established by Pope Francis, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has no role in the training of the very same bishops who are supposed to be implementing its policies, framed as a response to the abuse scandals.

This looks like a return to a fixation on canon law to the exclusion of all else. That's the view of John L Allen, who edits the magazine Crux, whose strapline is 'Covering All Things Catholic'.

Don't bishops need to know how to deal with abuse victims? Don't they need to know what the indicators of abuse are? Don't they need to be trained to recognise them?

Don't Bishops need training on how to deal with abusive priests? Don't they need to know the resources that are available already?

These are Allen's questions and the answer he finds in the new guidelines is that it is enough for bishops to know their canon law.

What follows from this is that we need to be able to recognise some signs ourselves, particularly the signs of an evasive Church sliding back into its old ways, content that it has all the answers.

Belfast Telegraph

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