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7 April 2010

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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.

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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.

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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?