Upholding mercy without justice paved the way for the abuse crisis

The cast of Spotlight, which has received rave reviews

The film Spotlight, which opens in the UK this week, tells the story of the Boston Globe’s work in uncovering the child sex abuse scandal in that city. It has received, both here and in the United States, rave reviews and will, rightly, bring with it a revisiting of the terrible crimes which were committed, and covered up, in Boston, but also in many other dioceses.

For Catholics, this can be an occasion for mixed emotions: on the one hand, everyone shares the rage and revulsion which is the only possible response to the horrific pattern of abuse and denial which played out in so many places. On the other, there is a certain tribal resistance which many of us feel at the wider media broad-brush painting of the Church we love, and of which we have a totally different experience, as a monolithic embodiment of hypocrisy and evil. Neither feeling is unreasonable, nor are they mutually contradictory.

My own attempts to reconcile the two, in part, steered me towards my study of canon law, and penal law in particular. What I expected to learn was that canon law was part of the problem, that it was the mechanism which allowed for the crimes of child abusers to be ignored, excused, and covered up. It was a great relief discovering that the opposite was true; the pattern of abuse and cover up, so especially seen in Boston and Los Angeles, was not a product of canon law, nor even its abuse, but of its flagrant violation. Changes and updates were needed, but, broadly speaking, the law itself was sound and, had it been followed, we would not have seen the pattern of tragedy which we did in many places. But when a law can be ignored with impunity, however internally sound it may be, it cries out for reform.

Pope Benedict XVI made a number of canonical reforms in the light of the child sex abuse scandals, and these were badly needed. In addition to updating the Church’s criminal code to account for modern realities, like internet pornography, the general thrust of the Benedictine reforms was to further centralise the mechanism by which the Church dealt with the most serious crimes, including sexual abuse. Cases which might have previously been for the local diocese to initially investigate were now to be transmitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith immediately, and they would determine what kind of process would be initiated, and who would carry it out. This was a necessary and direct response to the simple failure of some dioceses to act when allegations were made.

In the United States, the Dallas Charter was adopted by the bishops, as well as a set of complementary canonical norms, which, along with other provisions, established diocesan review boards to provide a measure of oversight and independence in the process. More recently, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was founded to continue the process of reform and self-examination at the universal level. Yet, for all the real efforts to learn and reform and prevent any chance of a recurrence, it is clear that the work is far from over.

In a recent interview, Marie Collins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and herself a past victim, called the ongoing efforts to put in place better safeguards and procedures across the Church “frustratingly slow”, and conceded that achieving measurable progress through Vatican bureaucracy was a difficult business. This is easy to believe, but the barriers to progress are likely to be more cultural and personal than they are to be structural. I remember attending a canonical conference in 2014; at one point during proceedings I heard a curial cardinal refer to the issue of clerical sex abuse as “an Anglo-Saxon obsession”, and I expect this cultural deafness, if not outright hostility, to the abiding urgency and seriousness of the subject is of the same sort that Cardinal Pell is encountering in other areas of curial reform.

Meanwhile, at the local level, the diocesan review boards, which were intended to ensure that bishops dealt with cases according to the law, have, in some places (regrettably but perhaps predictably in those dioceses worst affected by abuse scandals), morphed into ecclesiastical star-chambers where innocent priests are summarily removed from ministry, and their names publicly ruined, at even the slightest allegation of wrong-doing, however fanciful or malicious.

The bitter irony is that at both the universal and local level, there remains a common failure to understand the need for justice, or appreciate the risks of removing it as a guiding principle in the life of the Church.

Justice in an important part of Catholic theology and ecclesiology. It is often, wrongly, defined in the popular consciousness as the opposite of mercy. In fact, in the mind of the Church they are inseparable; Thomas Aquinas defined the relationship by saying that justice without mercy is cruelty, but mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.

The clerical sex abuse scandal was made possible because of a prevailing mentality, especially in the 1970s and 80s, that notions of crime and justice had no place in the post-Vatican II Church. The crimes of clerical abuse were labelled as “struggles with chastity” and “mental issues” and there was an entire cottage industry of therapy centres and clinics which would helpfully label the abusers as victims of their own traumas, often blaming it on the wicked institution of clerical celibacy, and then “rehabilitate” abusive priests and send them back, certified as ready for ministry. This approach, which was consciously identified as a “merciful” way of handling matters, caused a chilling illustration of what a mockery of itself mercy can become when it is uncoupled from justice.

We are unlikely to see Pope Francis ever proclaim a Year of Justice, but, as we consider the Year of Mercy, we should do so mindful of the reverse of the coin. The film Spotlight is a powerful reminder to us that when justice is removed from the mind of the Church, what remains is abuse: of the weak, of the faith, and of mercy.