The Church’s leaders can’t hold a candle to the survivors of abuse

Who would ever, in any sense, regard the lighting of a candle as an act of atonement or reparation? asks Fergus Finlay.

The Church’s leaders can’t hold a candle to the survivors of abuse

Who would ever, in any sense, regard the lighting of a candle as an act of atonement or reparation? asks Fergus Finlay.

MEDIOCRITY, hypocrisy, and complacency. They’re not my words, they’re the words of a Nigerian nun. And who was she talking about? The princes of her Church, that’s who.

Sr Veronica Openibo has worked in Africa, Europe, and the United States. When she was asked to address the Catholic Church’s gathering on child protection, last week, in the Vatican, she didn’t mince her words.

“We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards and values and good behaviour in society. Hypocrites at times? Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long?” she asked.

“How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses, and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable,” she said.

It’s such a pity, isn’t it, that our own bishops have neither the wit nor the courage to invite someone like Veronica Openibo to speak to them. Our hierarchy gathered in Knock before the Vatican meeting, for a retreat, and to reflect on the momentous conference about to unfold in Rome.

Just before that conference, Pope Francis defrocked Theodore McCarrick, a child abuser who had been Archbishop of Washington. It was the first defrocking of a cardinal in generations, and it sent a strong signal that, at last, the Church was going to match its words with actions. Around the same time, the Pope publicly acknowledged that he was aware of the sexual abuse of nuns by bishops and priests.

In the stultified world of the institutional Church, these seemed like highly dramatic developments. And it was remarkable to read some of the reports from the conference itself. It felt almost as if the Church, for the first time, was facing up to its shame, instead of using weasel words.

So, when our bishops gathered in Knock to think about all this, what did they do? They blessed and dedicated hundreds of ‘candles of atonement’ for use in their cathedrals and parishes throughout the country.

The leader of the bishops, Archbishop Eamon Martin, welcomed the candles on behalf of the Church. And he said each candle would remind us all of someone who had been left with lifelong suffering as a result of abuse.

He said he had been privileged to meet with victims and survivors of abuse, and members of their families, throughout Ireland. “Many have spoken to me,” he said, “about the importance of prayer for survivors, and for the need for the Church to be open to justice, to atone and never forget them. I have been humbled by their courage and overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit. It is my intention to relay the lived experience and insights of Irish survivors, both personally to Pope Francis, and more widely to the safeguarding meeting in Rome later this month.”

I don’t know if Archbishop Martin actually said any of these things. I can’t imagine anyone seriously believing that there is a significant number of survivors of clerical abuse who want the Church to be lighting candles for them, or who would ever, in any sense, regard the lighting of a candle as an act of atonement, reparation, or justice.

But the words I’ve quoted above are attributed to Archbishop Martin in a long statement on the website of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He’s the chair of that conference, which represents 30 Irish bishops.

Don’t pause to ask yourself why Ireland still needs 30 bishops, including four auxiliaries, or who they are. We all, I’m guessing, know the names of one or two, but the rest are a bunch of elderly anonymous men. You can see all their names on their website, and I reckon you’d want to be really good at table quizzes to recognise the vast majority of them. Brendan Leahy? Ray Browne? Fintan Monahan?

Because I don’t know them, I can’t say that they fit into Sr Openibo’s description of mediocrity or hypocrisy. But while she was trenchantly describing her horror at the way in which the film Spotlight had stripped away the cover-up of abuse in Boston, there does seem to be something remarkably complacent about blessing candles.

To be fair, the Irish Church authorities were among the first to put procedures in place to improve the safety of children and to enable reporting. But they constantly give the impression that this is really a public relations problem that they haven’t got quite right, rather than a corrosive scandal of the Church’s own making.

Sister Openibo wasn’t the only speaker to confront the bishops gathered in the Vatican. One speaker from Africa told of three abortions she was forced to have by a rapist priest. Another, from Chile, told the bishops that the pain they had inflicted on victims was compounded by the steps taken by bishops to discredit victims and protect priests.

What’s the upshot of it all?

The optimists are reporting that the conference, together with the defrocking of McCarrick, are real signals that the Pope is determined to force the Church to face up to its responsibilities. He has talked about the need to eradicate child abuse from the face of the Earth, and I’ve read reports that suggest he is to issue a formal edict on the protection of children that will have binding effects on the Roman curia. That sounds dramatic, at least.

THE pessimists, however, point to the Pope’s closing speech at the conference, in which he seemed to go to great lengths to show that clerical abuse of children represented a small minority of situations where children are sexually abused. They also point to reports that the Church is going to prepare a “guidebook” for Catholic bishops worldwide, and create task forces “of competent persons” to help bishops’ conferences, as signs that nothing is going to really change.

One has to assume, I guess, that the truth is somewhere in the middle. If we take Pope Francis at his word, he is more determined than any of his predecessors to ensure that issues like reputational damage won’t prevent the Church from ridding itself of the scourge of child abuse. It can only do that by ridding itself of a large number of authority figures.

And maybe that’s why every time he does or says something radical, it’s immediately followed by something conservative. This week he defrocks a cardinal, next week he uses statistics to make the problem seem smaller than it is. Small, incremental steps are the way, it seems, he hopes to make progress.

That would be okay if you were talking about less crucial issues. But the issue of child abuse is much bigger than anything else the Church faces, and a “one step forward, one step backwards” approach will change nothing. Unless last week’s conference results, finally, in radical action — including changes in canon law — they would be as well off blessing a few more candles.

Who would ever, in any sense, regard the lighting of a candle as an act of atonement or reparation?

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