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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.