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Church’s full transparency

Mgr Anton Gauci (The Sunday Times, October 21) disputes England’s Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold Mr Justice Alistair MacDuff’s judgment finding the diocese of Portsmouth vicariously responsible in a case of one of its priests being prosecuted for child sex abuse.

Sir Alistair MacDuff held that “[The priest] was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes. He was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as a representative of the Church. He had been trained and ordained for the purpose. He had immense power handed to him by the defendants [the trustees of the Roman Catholic diocesan trust]. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust, which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused”. Two of the three judges who heard the appeal upheld Mr Justice MacDuff’s judgement (one did not). Lord Justice Ward observed “It may be that the bishop had no ‘formal legal responsibility’ for Father Baldwin, but in my view his responsibility for, and control over, the parish priest whom he had appointed was real and substantial. I would attach importance to the fact that Father Baldwin had been appointed by his bishop as parish priest: that is not simply to be equated with his status as ordained priest”.

The Supreme Court in England (a higher court) will hear another appeal against a similar sentence soon.

Perhaps the appalling details of sexual abuse of minors described in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_sex_abuse_cases are not all accurate but one has to conclude that the Church faces a huge problem which is largely of its own making.

Apologising to victims, the Archbishop of Perth stated “One of the reasons why our voice is not heard or respected when we seek to proclaim our beliefs is the shameful reality of sexual abuse by clergy, religious and other Church personnel”.

Another aspect of child abuse is co-responsibility, where superior(s) protect a cleric who has sexually molested a minor often by transferring him to another parish knowing he has offended and consequently that he may offend again. Few will argue that the court in Philadelphia in the US erred when sentencing Mgr William Lynn to three to six years imprisonment for protecting clerics who he knew had sexually molested children and who, because he protected them, went on to molest others.

Judge Sarmina did not mince his words: Mgr Lynn had “turned a blind eye while monsters in clerical garb sexually abused children and devastated the Church and community”. Bishop Hollis of Portsmouth when appealing against Mr Justice MacDuff’s judgment conceded that “The diocese accepts that where a bishop has, for example, failed to prevent a priest from committing an act of wrongdoing, he will be liable in negligence”.

The Archbishop of Perth addresses another crucially important issue: “What we really do need to see from the Church is full and open transparency, immediate reporting of any child abuse to civil authorities and prioritisation of the needs of victims. We need to see systemic change in the Catholic Church”.

The sexual abuse of minors is one of the most serious offences in the criminal code – and in God’s Law too. Christ said: “But he that shall scandalise one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew: 18.6, Douay Rheims version).

It is time surely for the State to remove any doubt as to where the Church’s legal, as well as moral obligations lie. Minors who have been sexually abused by clergy have the right to protection, justice, healing and compensation.

More and more Catholics are demanding sound strategies to rid the Church of this evil. Clarification of the law could serve as an opportunity to break with the damaging and murky past that has done it so much harm.

To wipe the slate clean, so to speak, there should be a commission into past allegations of clerical abuse.

Where these are proved, responsibilities can be apportioned and victims can be given justice for the wrongs done and, as appropriate, awarded compensation. Those found to be innocent, can be publicly exonerated and continue with their lives.

The process will be painful but I think it will have the support of all men and women of good will and hopefully the Church will be able consign the current unholy mess to history.

As part of this process the Church should review its practices, procedures and controls carefully and apply strict but fair tests and assessments of clergy before these are appointed to parishes, schools and youth groups. There should be ongoing monitoring programmes as an integral and visible part of the diocesan management plan.

These measures will serve to reduce the incidence of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the Church will be seen to be taking effective action whenever there is suspicion of a crime of this nature.

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