Absolutely nothing but the truth will set us free

Strange how suddenly, as if from nowhere, a memory embedded in the distant past edged its way into my thoughts. It was the mid 1980s and I was playing golf in Enniscrone with two other priests and Bishop Tommy McDonnell. After driving off from the old 11thtee, we were chatting about a then recent novel where a priest’s housekeeper tells him she is pregnant with his child.

One of the golfing priests commented that they read somewhere that a film version of the novel was being planned. Bishop McDonnell suddenly stopped and, quite upset, unburdened himself of his conviction that the faith of the people would be damaged by the scandal of the priest’s behaviour – fictional though it was. ‘What’s the world coming to?’ was the familiar sub-text of the conversation.

I thought of that encounter when I watched television pictures of Cardinal George Pell of Melbourne, a member of Pope Francis’ elite committee of nine cardinal advisors, leaving a courtroom in Melbourne having been declared guilty of child sexual abuse.

The Pell case as well as the recent ‘defrocking’ of Cardinal Timothy McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, and the compounding effect of the recent Vatican summit on the Catholic Church’s failures to deal with the worldwide problem of clerical child abuse have released a tsunami of scandals, new and old, extending to the highest reaches of the Church.

What would Bishop Tommy have thought of it? In the relatively secure days that the 1980s represented, when everything felt well in our world, if he was so clearly upset by the presumed scandal of a fictional priest and his housekeeper, if he lived through this present age, how would he have dealt with the cumulative deluge of scandal in the present time? Not well, I suspect.

He wouldn’t be alone. It’s difficult to understand how so much has gone so wrong in our Church and how the betrayals of trust have had such a reach.  But what many are wondering is how the Church can possibly survive the devastating revelations of the last few weeks. How has it all come to this?

At the end of the recent Rome meeting on ‘The Protection of Minors in the Church’ (Feb. 21-24) Pope Francis spelt out in grim detail the graphic statistics world-wide on the ‘scourge’ of child abuse, the difficulty of assessing the real extent of the problem as well as laying down a number of red-lines for the Catholic Church on the issue: the need for a change of mentality to give priority to the care of children before other issues like the protection of the institution; an affirmation that the Church will spare no effort to bring to justice whoever  – priests, bishop or cardinal – has committed the crime of abuse; the importance of strengthening criteria for the selection and training of candidates for the priesthood; the need to renew safety criteria for children in every sphere of church activity; and, not least, the importance of accompanying those who have been abused and responding to their needs by committing the Church to learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable.

What’s different this time about what Francis is saying is the clarity of the presentation, the strength of his language and the acceptance that words – even fine words – are no longer sufficient to convey intent and purpose. The sense is that we’ve heard the words so often but that action is the only convincing argument of real intent.

No one, reading what Francis has said, could find any kind of doublethink, evasion or prevarication. Or indeed any room for equivocation. He clearly means what he says and there’s a real sense that he is now giving the abuse of children (and how the Church has dealt with it in the past) his full and undivided attention. And, by announcing his ‘defrocking’ of former cardinal, a few days before the Rome conference he’s sent a clear signal of his intent.

All well and good. But it’s not simple. Francis can ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’ and, when a report lands on his desk, he can deal with it promptly and robustly. And we now expect that he will do so.

But there are at present almost 3000 Catholic dioceses, with even more bishops and around 400,000 priests and even more parishes. The Pope might be infallible in certain matters but the notion that Francis can snap his fingers and every bishop, priest and parish on the planet jumps to attention is not one of them.

Another problem is that there are no simple solutions to this complex issue. When crisis hits and firm action is needed we tend to use the words ‘zero tolerance’ as a kind of shorthand for a robust response – as might a reforming Lord Mayor of New York sorting out unacceptable murder levels in that city.

The difficulty with that concept is that, in the interests of effective action, other rights can be modified or even ignored.

No one, I think, seriously concerned with the problem of the sexual abuse of children, would question that the safety and protection of children has to be a primary focus. But that’s not to say that other rights are not important too.

In most situations there are at least two sets of conflicting rights and giving them their due, even when there are a hierarchy of rights, means that everyone’s rights need to be respected. For instance, the practice of demonising Catholic priests has led to sometimes denying them the presumption of innocence.

Another complicating factor is the role of the media. Without the media uncovering the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, the policy of ‘dealing in-house’ with that scandal (i.e. covering it up) might still be operative.

A clear truth, though not often acknowledged, is that the Catholic Church in Ireland is in the debt of media. That said, when media get it wrong or are unfair or exaggerate, it should be regarded as acceptable and necessary that they too, like the Catholic Church, should not be seen to be above criticism. (As with the case of the infamous RTE Investigates programme, Mission to Prey, and the defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds.)

The problem of child abuse in the Catholic Church and in society won’t be sorted overnight and will demand, not demonization of those with whom we may disagree but a rigorous respect for right and wrong and especially for the truth because nothing, absolutely nothing but the truth will set us free.

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