Pope Francis has come and gone from our shores. Those who went to greet him in Knock, Croke Park, The Pro-Cathedral and the Phoenix Park came away touched by the transparent goodness of an open and loving soul. They encountered a man not wrapped up in self-importance or over awed by the great and the good, but a man whose heart is firmly with the poor and the marginalised in a most striking way. In his lifestyle he has spurned the trappings of office in favour of an altogether simpler style. He looked most at home in Brother Kevin Capuchin Day Centre in Church Street among the poor and the homeless.
The two weeks prior to his visit can only be described as a time of onslaught by the media. Every news and discussion programme seemed obsessed with the issue of child abuse, and what Pope Francis might say and do about it while in our midst. The fact that the horrendous catalogue of crimes from Pennsylvania was published in the days before the visit only served to add to the media frenzy. The World Meeting of Families was somehow lost in the mist.
We have been here before; the Ferns report (2005) and the Murphy Report (2009) as well as the Ryan Report have already catalogued the shameful crimes of clergy in the past in our own country, and we are only too well aware of the suffering and pain caused to too many innocent children. We have come a long distance since these reports were published and the Catholic Church in Ireland has now in place a robust set of standards and procedures to ensure the safety of all young people involved in its life and ministry. Horrendous mistakes were made in the past by bishops who were often motivated by a desire to keep the lid on scandal rather than the welfare of children, and whose actions sadly provided fresh opportunities to abusers by moving them on to different parishes. Clearly any bishop who made such bad decisions should resign from office.
If every state in the US does a trawl as Pennsylvania has done, or indeed anywhere in Europe, we can expect more and more of the same; we have no reason to believe that anywhere was exempt from this evil behaviour.
For reasons difficult to comprehend, the sexual abuse of minors happened in many spheres of human activity, sporting and athletic, scouting and education, institutions and clubs of many kinds, sadly the vast majority of it happened within families. It clearly is not a problem peculiar to the Catholic Church.
We all share the sense of disgust that this topic gives rise to, as well as a profound empathy for those who have suffered – and everything humanly possible should and must be done to support and cherish them. But the sordid story of abuse in all its horror cannot be allowed to blight the life and mission of the church. We are still the community to whom Jesus entrusted his mission of announcing a God of mercy and compassion to all.
A church dominated by an inward looking clericalist culture was the perfect incubator for crime and cover-up, and elements of that unhealthy environment still very much persist. It is clear that that structure has got to be challenged and dismantled. The very terms ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ reveal a mind-set that would set one above the other. Antiquated titles like Monsignor, Canon, My Lord, Your Grace etc. echo a past best forgotten and in need of radical reform. The greatest dignity, which we all share is our Baptism whereby we become equals in the sight of God, the rest has more to do with human hubris than the spirit of the Gospel. Demolition is phase one – what we need then are the builders for what must come, true partners in mission. Meanwhile don’t discard the hard hats just yet, as sadly there will be much falling debris for some time to come.
Fr. Philip Curran