Friday, June 10, 2016

Demon of cover-up must be exorcised

From the editor's desk

Demon of cover-up must be exorcised

09 June 2016 Pope Francis has announced new procedures for the disciplining and dismissal of bishops who failed to protect children from being sexually abused by clergy. Although technically they could have been investigated under existing church legislation, the lack of precision about the offence and the clumsiness and slowness of the process were crying out for reform. There is apparently no known case of a bishop being dismissed for negligence in such matters, though a few have resigned.

The lack of an effective remedy when bishops fail in their duty has been a scandal, aggravated when the Church had known for some time what had happened and whose fault it was. For instance Pope Benedict, in his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland 10 years ago, said “grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred” by Irish bishops. They had undermined their “credibility and effectiveness”.

But the loss of the Church’s reputation should never have been the primary concern. The issue was justice, above all for those children subjected to sexual abuse. In many cases the Church’s response to their complaints, or lack of it, added greatly to their suffering and magnified the injustice. And this extra damage was inflicted in the name of the institution. At last those responsible, however senior, can be made to answer for it.

But will they be? The panel which will hear complaints under the new rules is expected to be of equivalent rank to the bishop against whom the allegations have been laid or higher. All along, however, what has bedevilled these matters has been the way clergy have watched each other’s backs, and closed ranks against outside critics. To be credible, the panel must include significant independent lay representation. Survivors of abuse must also have the right to participate in the proceedings according to the rules of natural justice. The great danger is that some complaints will be dismissed, rightly or wrongly, and the verdict will not be accepted as fair and accurate. This will only increase the damage. The demon the Church has to exorcise is cover-up. It is by no means certain the new machinery is equal to that task.

The origins of the clergy abuse scandal, and particularly of the way the authorities responded, lie in a clericalised and hierarchical mindset where lay people, especially children, are at the bottom of the power pyramid. The culture of impunity that sheltered many bishops arose because they were effectively answerable to nobody. Rome’s supervision was of the lightest sort. The Church has hardly yet started to recognise the need to admit lay people into the decision-making process, even less to allow them to hold bishops to account.

Diocesan pastoral councils are still a relative rarity, including in the 22 dioceses of England and Wales where there are at most eight (and some may be moribund.) For a Church committed to taking the role of the laity seriously this is disappointing. If bishops want to know why so many Catholics appear semi-detached from church life, it may simply be that they have no other option. This is why the criminally negligent response of some bishops to clergy who abused children seems still, in many people’s minds, to characterise the whole laity-bishop relationship.