Dear Donagh, I notice you’ve been keeping silent about child sexual abuse. I've been looking at your site since the beginning and you haven't answered any questions about it. We are distraught at the continuing sexual abuse cases involving priests and religious. What organisation could allow such people continue to exercise positions of trust? Today the Gospel condemnation of those who harm children has new meaning. Where do we look for leadership? Who can we trust now? Conor and Joan
Dear Conor and Joan, Thanks for asking this question. The reason I haven't mentioned the subject before is that no one sent us a question about it. In real life many ask me questions about it, but you are the first to ask on this site.
It’s a subject painful beyond words. Painful and scandalous: it’s hard to imagine how anyone would molest a child. Life is hard enough, and the odds are stacked against them by a heartless commercialised and sexualised culture; how could anyone have any instinct but to protect them? How could anyone - let alone a carer - make it worse for them? People have run out of words to describe this evil. This happens too in war and terrorist situations: people feel helpless to describe the devastation. But war and terrorism are highly visible. The abuse of children has been like a slow hidden smouldering terrorism against the most vulnerable people in society - so vulnerable that they were often unable to tell anyone about it and had to carry the horror of it alone.
What strikes many as especially bizarre is that this was going on silently in years gone by when everything was very strict, even oppressively strict, in Church practice. The very people who were abusing children were preaching that it was a sin to do a bit of gardening on a Sunday. The pain and humiliation of the Church at the present time is healthy at least. It’s better that this evil has become visible and that it is now almost impossible that a child can be abused by a priest or religious. In Ireland there is now in place a set of procedures for handling abuse cases. A lawyer friend of mine described them as draconian in their strictness. See Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response (Veritas, Dublin 1996).
We are spared one thing: no one has invented an anodyne language to describe these horrors - in the way that war and terror victims are called “collateral damage”, or the unborn child “foetal matter”. This must be because it is not a government or a pressure group behind it, but isolated individuals.
Many people are still dissatisfied. They feel that at the higher levels of authority there has been an attempt to conceal the full truth. That issue is being fought out at the present time. It is certain to take its full course.
I feel deeply humiliated and angry that a number of priests and religious have so abused their position of trust in relation to children. Not only have they destroyed their own ministry but they have made the ministry of every priest and every carer more difficult, almost impossible. I realised this fully recently when a child came to me in a confessional room for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I froze in the seat! And even in public a priest can no longer show even minimal friendliness towards a child. I feel angry about this, because I love children and enjoy their company. We are all made to feel guilty by association.
Society itself, and even more so the Church, is based on trust. If that trust is completely undermined, it is impossible to continue. Who can you trust now, you ask. Ironically it should be easier to trust priests and religious now than it was in the past when few thought of distrusting them. The Church that will emerge from this will be a very humble one, conscious of its own sinfulness and betrayal. It will be a Church that tries as a Church to live the Beatitudes rather than just recommending them for private use. For the first few centuries St Peter was represented in Christian art with the rooster at his side: a reminder of his betrayal of Jesus, who said “before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.” This was to give a reminder of hope to the many who had betrayed the Gospel in time of persecution, and who now wanted to return to the fold. But later when the Church’s accent was on power, Peter was represented holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We are now once again in the age of the rooster. There is hope for us all, victims of every kind, and even for criminals.