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.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.