What has happened to the Catholic Church in which I grew up?

Unwillingness to face up to the paedophile abuse scandal contradicts everything good the Church once

I have refrained so far from commenting on the scandal of paedophile abuse that now appears almost to endanger the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Refrained, because I have been so horrified by the charges, and equally appalled at the Vatican's shameful responses, including the suggestion that this is just "petty gossip", that I have felt struck dumb by the news.

I mean that literally. If anyone had asked me what I thought of these events, I simply would not have known what to say. It is so incomprehensible to me that the Catholic Church I grew up in should have concealed such acts, and actively colluded in further abuse by merely transferring priests suspected (read "known") to have molested and raped children, that words -- thoughts, even -- have failed me.

These crimes, and the Church's failure to deal even remotely appropriately with the perpetrators, were so terrible that the very foundations of a faith from which I departed long ago, but still retain much affection for, seemed to have been undermined. I was capable of no more than stunned silence.

And then I watched the first episode of Deliver Us from Evil, a Channel 4 series on the same subject, in which an American father broke down on camera several times, in rage and despair over the abuse of his daughter by the local Catholic priest. This was a man he and his wife had trusted and invited into their family home.

Ann Jyono was only five when she was first raped by Oliver O'Grady, an Irish priest who is now free to live as he pleases back in Dublin.

The film ended with the Jyonos, accompanied by Father Tom Doyle, a heroic priest who has tried for decades to get the Catholic Church to confront this problem, being turned away from the Vatican when they tried to present a letter detailing their grievances. Ann's father declared, in his anger and his grief, that now he believes "there is no God". His passion was unquestionable. And afterwards, it seemed to me that one of the roots of my own belief had been dealt a mortal blow.

 

Message of duty

Let me explain. As a young child, I attended a church in Ashford, Kent, that had little connection with the beautiful, ritualistic and wealthy Catholicism that has attracted conservative converts from Anglicanism, and which is usually portrayed as representative by the media.

St Theresa's had none of the fripperies of the London Oratory, let alone the grandeur of St Peter's, because although its congregation included some middle-class churchgoers, most were working class and many were immigrants, for the most part either Irish, like my father, or Polish. There was no spare money for finery. Even incense was burned only rarely.

But we knew we had something. We were not like those strange Protestants who didn't seem to have to believe in anything or ever go to a service if they didn't want to. We were a community, who went to church every Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation, who put whatever we could into the collection basket and grasped each other's hands genuinely in the sign of peace across pews and aisles.

Whenever the envelopes for Cafod, the Catholic aid agency, were passed round, they were filled. I can still remember a talk, given at the school attached to the church, in which the headmaster told us about Father Damien, the missionary (since canonised) who gave his life in the service of a leper colony on Hawaii. The overwhelming message was of duty, yes, to Christian edicts, but the greatest emphasis was on duty to the poor, to the famished, the needy and the afflicted.

 

The power of vocation

The next church I attended, as one of a handful of Catholics at a Church of England boarding school, was in the old mining village of Hersden, near Canterbury. St Dunstan's had a semi-circular corrugated-iron roof and would have been condemned as an eyesore if it had had any other purpose.

The ageing congregation consisted mostly of people on low incomes. And although the building was quite small, on the Sundays when I occasionally accompanied the hymns on the electric organ (no glorious piping cladding the walls here) there were sometimes glaring gaps on the benches.

The priest, Father Kenneth Snaith, had had a late vocation. He'd been a Protestant and a seaman, and was no intellectual -- in fact, his sermons were often read from a book. Yet he was one of the most "holy" men I've ever met, and his congregation was one of the most inspiring groups of people one could ever hope to come across.

On the day that I and others were confirmed, just about the whole parish turned out, from dignified ex-miners and their wives in their finest formal dress to teenagers in mod suits, ties and hats, because that was their "Sunday best". And I'm still touched that they made that effort (though "effort" is not a word they would have recognised, because that was what they, and we, simply did).

It was there, and under the tutelage of the decidedly non-political Father Snaith, that I came to believe that the message of the Gospels was unmistakably left-wing. Jesus was clearly a revolutionary, a man who overturned the moneychangers' tables, who would have been a pacifist if he had been alive today (which is why I joined CND), and who would have had no time for the special pleas of aristocrats, for the harsh "realities" of the "market", or for people who thought they were too good to consort with those whom others considered the lowest of the low.

 

Who's sorry now?

I lost my faith later, but I never forgot the example of Father Snaith, a man who must have led quite a lonely life, on a pittance, but did so gladly in the service of his fellow men. Just as I have never forgotten the sense of peace and transcendence I experienced at another church you will never hear about -- St Benet's, in the small town of Beccles, Suffolk, where my parents were married and where Benedictine monks used to sing Mass (or "Maaass", as the parish priest, the former Downside headmaster Abbot Aelred Watkin, always used to pronounce it) in Latin every second Sunday.

This was the Catholicism I was brought up in, and it would be ungrateful, at the very least, for me ever to deny it. I have never felt the need to do so before. But to declare now that I feel proud or happy about my Catholic cultural inheritance is something I would hesitate to do.

We were always taught to reveal our sins, however embarrassing or terrible, when we went to confession. The lack of willingness on the part of the Catholic Church to face up to appalling abuse that it either implicitly condoned or did not investigate properly is a contradiction of everything good it once stood for.

I've already lost my faith once, and that was difficult enough. To see the Pope, and the Church for which I still have so much affection, hide behind legalistic equivocation is almost worse.

Never mind "Bless you, Father" -- it is you who have sinned. Unless Roman Catholicism admits to this, it will continue to suffer, and deserve to suffer, a gravely damaging lack of credibility, just as Rowan Williams correctly said about the Church in Ireland. The Archbishop of Canterbury has since apologised for his statement.

But, really, is it he who should be saying sorry?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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