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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

New Statesman
How much did those in top positions of authority in the Catholic Church know about the dark decades of child abuse. Photo: Getty Images

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