Is Vatican III the answer?

The Cardinal Sean Brady case shows only root and branch reform can deal with the issue of abuse in t

How much has the Catholic Church really changed in addressing questions such as child abuse?

Not very much, if the recent BBC programme The Shame of the Catholic Church implicating Cardinal Sean Brady is to be believed.

The question that such programmes constantly bring up is whether on the abuse question the Church has not just conducted a damage limitation exercise, taken some public relations advice, but in reality continues pretty much as before. 

Guidelines have been brought in and child protection has rightly been given a higher priority. However, as this BBC programme showed there is still much atoning to be done for what happened in the past.

The role of Cardinal Brady also raises the question as to how much those now in the top positions of authority in the Catholic Church knew about what was going on over the dark decades of child abuse. These people were clearly considered to have performed well in order that they were subsequently rewarded with high office. A safe pair of hands.

It might prove helpful to compare the Church with other institutions. Take the army. General Sir Mike Jackson, as he later became, was a captain at the time of the Bloody Sunday atrocity in Derry in 1972. General Jackson played an important role in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday; taking accounts and generally tidying up the story for the army. Not to suggest it was this role that led to his later advancement: but had Captain Jackson spoken out then - at the time - he would not have advanced far.

Then there is the police. A number of those who were middle-ranking officers at the time of the miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four later advanced on to become senior officers in the service. While none were found to have done anything wrong, would they have advanced so far if they had stepped out and denounced the wrongdoing at the time? To do so would no doubt have invited a quick exit.

The Church has been badly hit by the abuse crisis. It has turned many, particularly in Ireland, away from it. Fulsome efforts have been made by some to deal with what has gone on in the past, but there is a growing insularity about the Church today.

Instead of looking out and opening the windows in the way that Pope John XXIII called for at the time of Vatican II in the 1960s, now there is a closing in. Vatican II was all about opening the Church up, making it more accountable in a changing world. It was to be of the world, seeking to bring gospel values to bear on daily life. Accountability, subsidiarity and democracy were to be watchwords.

There have been unscrupulous efforts from some in the institution of the Church to indicate that abuse was in some way linked to the Vatican II process. This group seek to turn things back to pre-Vatican II days where clericalism was rife, the priest apart all powerful, the laity simply there to obey. The good old days, when everyone knew their place.

The problem is that it was this very unaccountable clericalism that brought about the child abuse scandals in the first place. The lack of accountability of the position of priest presented an opportunity to abuse; the culture of "Deference" and "Father Knows Best".  Much of this still exists, though less so in Ireland where the abuse scandal has so rocked the nation.

The way in which a young priest coming into a parish suddenly becomes every mother’s adopted son shows a touching human warmth but also an unwarranted respect.

There have certainly been moves made to address abuse in the Catholic Church across the world. In Britain, guidelines are in place and a well resourced regulation system exists. The hierarchy - President of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, down - have committed to dealing with the issue of child abuse. There was a fulsome apology made last year for child abuse. However, without accompanying actions, apologies are just hot air. 

There needs to be a root and branch process undertaken - perhaps a Vatican III. This should include a truth commission-type process looking at abuse across the church, listening to, understanding and compensating the victims.

After what has gone on across the Catholic Church, there needs to be substantial change in the institution itself. This would mean once again opening the windows and letting in the light. The structure of the hierarchy much change significantly, bringing in accountability and democracy.

Fundamental to all of this has to be the role of the priest. This position must change to a position of one among equals, accountable first and foremost to the local people in the parish. Too many priests remain aloof, undertaking a policing rather than pastoral role regarding their flock. 

Neither are women priests the answer. Women can just as easily be authoritarian and unaccountable as men. It is the nature of the position itself that needs to significantly change. These changes would start the process toward restoring the Church, but there is a very long way to go.

Paul Donovan blogs at paulfdonovan.blogspot.co.uk 

How much did those in top positions of authority in the Catholic Church know about the dark decades of child abuse. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.