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The Church ain’t perfect - Sandro Spiteri

Gut-wrenching revulsion. Then anger, fear, impotence, desolation. Wishing I would not hear of this, that I could just lose myself in the festas and the beerfests and the endless parade of mindless gorging that have come to characterise the Maltese summer. But unable, and at a deeper level unwilling, to ignore the unfolding horrors.

Those were my initial feelings on reading about yet more sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church around the world, including Malta. My thoughts are not only for the ‘primary’ victims, mostly minors and women, but the many more collateral ones. Millions of innocent – including gay – religious and their lay associates feel besmirched and violated by association. They too have often been forgotten by the Church.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that both criminal and civil action needs to be taken in response to these foul acts in any country where they surface. I know that some have ambivalent feelings about the issue of civil damages levied against the Church. They feel that the victim recipients are just after the money, and that this invalidates their pain and their claims.

Any victim will tell you that financial redress does not begin to assuage the defilement of sexual abuse. This can only be effectively addressed by a binary process of contrition, apology, interior healing (often professionally supported) and, finally, forgiveness. But it is the Church itself that teaches that contrition includes penance. And because the Church is a human institution like any other, it is subject to the same sociological imperatives. There is nothing quite like parting with a significant amount of cash and facing prison to concentrate the mind of an institution and forcing it to make the wrenching organisational and cultural changes that it has shied away from for decades.

That the Church is imperfect may be obvious today and admitted by the Pope himself, but it was not always so. For centuries the official rhetoric of the Church included the doctrine of the Church as a Perfect Society, meaning that the Catholic Church viewed and projected itself as having all the necessary resources and conditions within itself to achieve its goals. This doctrine was historically rooted in the formation of the great monasteries. In more recent centuries, the more the Church felt its once-dominant position was threatened by secular and anti-clerical developments, the louder it harped on its uniqueness and self-sufficiency.

Good works cannot justify the lust for power that begets evil

Clericalism, the belief that the clergy is superior to the laity, was an unsavoury by-product of the Perfect Society. Clericalism and Perfect Society rhetoric meant that the Church had created its own perfect storm: it could not conceive of its imperfections, could not admit them if it did, and could not seek outside help when it finally faced up to them.

Research carried out in 2017 by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse by Catholic and Anglican Churches in the UK identified clericalism as one of the factors that contributed to abuse. The recent Letter to the People of God by Pope Francis agreed.

Apologists will say that the Church does not need such bitter legal medicine. After all, it has already put in place the necessary safeguarding structures. In America since these structures have been in place the incidence of reported abuse has fallen dramatically.

True. But I am old enough to remember when the official Church position was that it was up to the victim to report to the police, and the Church’s action should be limited to taking care of its internal discipline. A far cry from the obligation now (belatedly) in place to report to the authorities any knowledge of abuse to minors. Only a few days ago the Church in Switzerland has extended this obligation to adult abuse.

The calls being made now in the US and internationally for an independent lay-led inquiry into the whole mess would have been unthinkable even two years ago. They have doubtless been spurred on by official efforts in Australia to penetrate the secrecy of the confessional. Would you have imagined even a few months ago that the Pope would be publicly demanded by a senior cardinal (who is not his ideological or personal enemy) to come clean on the Viganò allegations?

None of this would have happened without the pressure of secular accountability. Of course there is no doubt that the righteous indignation of civil society is less than pure. It could well be that at least some of the victims do have more than tears in their eyes. But that is not the point. It is the Church that needs to pass through this test by firestorm.

If this trial burns away the accruements of centuries that the Church has used for its good works, so be it. Good works cannot justify the lust for power that begets evil. The Church will not wither. It will rise again, leaner and cleaner.

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