Laity know more than clergy think


The scandal of covering up child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Europe continues to grow, with journalists asking the question “what the did the future pope know and when did he know it?

” Today, The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, writes about the shame and anger that these revelations have provoked. It is no surprise that laity who have witnessed the abusive behavior and watched the cover-up in real time have different perspectives.

Archbishop Nichols said,

[My] shame and anger centres on the damage done to every single abused child. Abuse damages, often irrevocably, a child’s ability to trust another, to fashion stable relationships, to sustain self-esteem. When it is inflicted within a religious context, it damages that child’s relationship to God…

…My shame is compounded, as is the anger of many, at the mistaken judgments made within the Church: that reassurance from a suspect could be believed; that credible allegations were deemed to be “unbelievable”; that the reputation of the Church mattered more than safeguarding children.

Ruth Gledhill points out that the attempts to cover-up bad behavior was not lost on the majority of the laity and that it was a wasted effort. She talked with Clifford Longley, former Religion Editor of The Times, and former deputy editor of The Tablet, who says that clerical leadership were naive and condescending in their view of Catholic laity. In other words, laity know more than clergy think.

‘Catholics in the pews are a lot less shockable than some Church authorities think they are. They live in the real world and know all about rotten apples, crooked policemen, dodgy doctors, bent solicitors, and they know the clergy can go wrong too. “Avoidance of scandal” which was the main impulse behind secrecy and cover-up was always exaggerated. It had much more to do with the pride of the clergy in the institution they served and maintaining the illusion – for their own sakes – that it could do no wrong. But almost nobody was taken in, in my experience. Ever.

‘Take Humanae Vitae in 1968, which stuck to the anti-birth control line largely because of the damage it would do to the Church’s authority to admit it had got the thing wrong. The result was the exact opposite – enormous damage to the Church’s authority.

‘What the laity can’t stand is lying, and cover-ups are a form of that. The laity feels it is being taken for idiots, or worse, treated like children.

‘I noticed no reduction in mass attendance last Sunday and would not expect there to be any. Ordinary Catholics know in their bones that THEY are the Church, which does not belong to priests and hierarchies but is a shared enterprise. The slight problem is that many priests and hierarchies don’t seem to have realised that yet. Perhaps this crisis will help them.’

Brendan McCarthy writes in the Tablet about the effect that the ongoing scandals are having on the Irish Catholic Church and Irish culture in general.

…A generation has grown up in Ireland knowing nothing except a carousel of church scandal and apology, quickly followed by new and more deeply damaging revelations. For almost 20 years, priests in parishes have struggled to frame words of apology to their Sunday congregations for the misdemeanours of their clerical colleagues. In the aftermath of particularly appalling sex crimes committed by the Norbertine priest Brendan Smyth, the late Cardinal Cahal Daly was booed on RTE’s Late Late Show. If there was a moment that marked the end of deference in Irish Catholicism, this was it….

…If there any consolations in the present moment, it is the realisation that the Irish Church was not an exception in world Catholicism, that Irish Catholicism was not a unique case of sexual neurosis and that the scandals did not arise (as many charged and as we had begun to believe) from a culturally specific flaw in the play of Catholicism with the Irish psyche. The truth, it might be argued, is that our Church had to face up to its problems before the Church in many other countries, under the cosh of a public opinion insistent on the full story being told.

There are other truths that Irish Catholics will insist be faced in any revaluation of the Church’s future here. Many perceive that the Church has an inability to speak in credible language about sex and sexual experience. The witness of lay Catholics and of their sexual experiences is, for the most part, a silent witness. Institutionally, the Church has a way of speaking about sexuality refracted through centuries of celibacy and asceticism that does not capture the lived experience of it. In Ireland, the Church tried to impose sexual ethics by strict legislative coercion. When coercion was no longer possible, there was no persuasive power to take its place; the Church’s radical inarticulateness about sex was the fatal context for scandals that brought it low.

As I began to write this, the evening sun slanted over fields stretching towards the Wicklow Mountains. I’ve grown up and lived here, mapped this place sacramentally by parish, by diocese, by holy place; by memory of weddings, christenings, First Communions, funerals. Although, at different times in my life, I’ve fallen in and out of love with Irish Catholicism, it formed my emotional landscape. It brutalised our culture, but it softened it too – and it often spoke for the best of us. I think of missionaries like Brendan, my uncle, an entrepreneur in his marrow, who built farm schools and teacher-training colleges in Kenya’s Kikuyu country; or of Paddy in his country parish in East Clare, the embodiment of the Irish Church’s gentle, understanding decencies.

I’d hate for Paddy and Brendan to be the last of the line, for Ireland to forsake its Catholic history, for this landscape to shed its meanings of mystery and sacrament. But if this is to be averted, the renewal of the Irish Church must be an Irish renewal and rooted in our cultural experience. And there must be no economy of truth. The truths flatter nobody and the Irish Church is not alone in its guilt.


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"It's not the crime, it's the cover-up": this has been common knowledge in the political sphere since at least 1974 (Pres. Richard Nixon's Post-Watergate Exit.) *

...but of course, the RCC (the Vatican, anyway) doesn't see itself as a political institution (only the "City of God").

JC Fisher

* Not that politicians have grasped it any better than RC prelates, for the most part. They do seem to realize that there COULD be a prison-cell w/ their name on it, however (something all but a common priest feels immune from---if even the priest!)

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The really sad thing I see happening here, if the past is any indication, is that Rome will continue to equate sexual predation with homosexuality, and use these current revelations as more "evidence" of how gay men and lesbians are "intrinsically disordered," and should not be allowed to seek Catholic orders, even if they adhere to the vows of celibacy required by them of ordained clergy.

This attitude will tend to affect secular activities such as the Boy Scouts, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, gay adoption, gay teachers, and gay marriage--in short, any activity where openly gay men and lesbians are in contact with children.

Douglas Curlin

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