Yet another report detailing alleged sexual abuse of 450 children by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin has been handed to the Irish Government. This is now the second report this year that has looked into the extent of abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I
The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland could be likened to the proverbial fish that understood how desperately it needed water only when it landed in the bottom of a boat on the end of a hook. It is a sad reflection on the enormity of the recent abuse cases that many faithful and sincere Catholics have only recently grasped just how much the Catholic community relies on trust - now that they have so little of it. Trust is a social practice - humans are social beings who swim in an ocean of trust. What happens when this ocean begins to drain away is that we become sceptical, often cynical and perhaps even a little paranoid. Some of the more disturbing aspects of the recent cases in Ireland have been the attempts by the Catholic Church to control information, prevent public disclosure and silence dissent and anguished cries of abused children and their families. Cultures of this sort are not unknown. Tendencies toward centralisation of power and control of information exist in all institutions. The Catholic Church is no ordinary institution. For believers the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit - a community in which God's saving work is accomplished and God's kingdom proclaimed. But the Church is also a human institution, managed by humans with all their failings, including susceptibility to the corruptions of power and mistaken judgment.
Might the Catholic Church look outward and make use of some of the practices adopted by secular institutions to check inevitable abuses? One example is the need for a formal grievance and appeals procedure. Some of the most heart-wrenching testimonies from abuse victims are their reports of having nowhere to turn when their priest was part of the problem and of their attempts to engage others within the Church that were ignored or rebuffed. Similarly, the laity has no formal recourse when their pastors are insensitive or incompetent. Surely, formal grievance and appeals processes, with recourse to independent outside bodies, could serve the people of God well? In the Catholic Church in particular, pressures to reassign rather than remove priests and to cover up both abuses and incompetence are certainly exacerbated by the serious shortage of priests.
Many mistakes and cover-ups, involving the abuse of children by clergymen, have been made by Bishops and it is ironic that the responsibility for resolving or moving beyond the present crisis of trust lies primarily with the Bishops themselves. The problem is that the Catholic Church is suffering from a form of paralysis. The people who can do something (the Conference of Bishops) have apparently done all they want to do or think they can do as a group. Yet those who want to do something to help to move things on, namely the laity and some clergy, have no real vehicle for doing so. Despite the long-ingrained tendency of lay men and women to defer to the hierarchy, lay people have both the right and the responsibility to make their voices heard. Many of them are now tragically aware of the consequences that follow from the concentration and misuse of power and lay deference to hierarchical authority.
For too long the Roman Catholic Church has, for whatever reason, refused to talk openly, candidly and even compassionately about the crisis of trust that clearly now exists. It will be difficult to regain that trust but without it there can be no growth or development.