But that is perhaps the one good aspect of the revelations. In every other respect it makes terrible reading. The commission found that there were perhaps 2,900 to 3,200 abusers among 115,000 priests and clergy since 1950. This is less than three per cent of the total, and by far the greatest amount of abuse is historic, but it is still an astonishing figure. The report estimates that some 216,000 children and young people from a variety of social backgrounds – the great majority boys – were abused by clergy; if lay abusers are taken into account, it’s possible the figure could be as high as 300,000. This is a grotesque figure, a devastating indictment of a rotten culture.
The offence was made possible because of the power and standing of the clergy relative to the victims and the offenders were protected by the actions of the hierarchy.
The pattern of offending is dismally familiar – the offence was made possible because of the power and standing of the clergy relative to the victims and the offenders were protected by the actions of the hierarchy. The reflexive approach of the bishops was to protect the reputation of the institution and to prevent exposure of the offence and scandal. As Jean-Marc Sauvé said, in a public, online presentation of the report today, the abuse was systemic, facilitated by the perceived sanctity of the clergy, and the authorities had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference for years”. Some cases were brought to the attention of state prosecutors but for the most part, the church failed to report abuse. Sauve observed that the church only really started to change its attitude in 2015-16 – at least 30 years after the problem was evident.
As in every single case in every part of the church over the last 20 years, the folly of this approach has been evident: by seeking to avoid scandal in the face of a secular society, the reckoning was simply postponed, until now. And the reckoning is terrible. Just over 40 per cent of French people identify as Catholics – it is still the default cultural identity of indigenous France – and only a small percentage attend church with any regularity. Their position is more beleaguered now.
The abuse was systemic, facilitated by the perceived sanctity of the clergy.
The French bishops have responded to the report as they should. After the presentation of the report, the archbishop of Reims and head of the French conference of bishops, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, spoke of shame, asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
But the most devastating response was immediate, and addressed directly to church representatives at the presentation of the report before Sauve began to speak. “You are a disgrace to our humanity,” François Devaux, who set up victims’ association La Parole Libérée, said.
“In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes … but there has been, even worse, betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children.”
He thanked the commission and said he hoped the report would be a turning point: “You finally bring victims an institutional recognition of the responsibility of the church.”
The primary victims of the abuse were of course the young who were abused. But there are others – the clergy who did not know of the crimes of their fellow priests and who were and are themselves men of real holiness, or at least, good reputation. Their standing has been undermined by association, and they are blameless. They are also the great majority of the clergy.
Remember the story Alec Guinness used to tell about the reason he became a Catholic? He was playing Father Brown, GK Chesterton’s priest, in a film shot in a remote French village. One evening Guinness, still in costume, was on his way back to his lodgings. A little boy, mistaking him for the real thing, grabbed his hand and trustingly accompanied the “priest.”
That incident affected Guinness. “Continuing my walk,” he said, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
Would that happen now? It’s much less likely, isn’t it?
Gertrude Clarke is a Chapter House contributor.
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