Peter Saunders’s departure from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on Saturday had, underneath the ugly way it unfolded, an almost grim inevitability to it. Since his appointment in 2014, Mr Saunders has remained committed to freely expressing his opinions – opinions understandably shaped by his own terrible experience of abuse, on the general process of reform in the Church and, perhaps more problematically, even individual cases.
Saunders’s removal from the Commission, apparently following a 15-0 vote of no confidence, has further fed the unfortunate narrative that the Church remains more committed to preserving an appearance of stability than it is to listening to the concerns of victims. This is very unfortunate, not least because it obscures the very great progress that has been made, under Benedict XVI and, more recently, under Pope Francis, in putting in place structures to prevent the kind of abuse which has destroyed lives and so scandalised the whole Church.
While Saunders leaves the commission rightly drawing attention to the still unfathomed situation in much of South America, where indeed little in the way of reform has even been discussed, let alone accomplished, and where alleged victims can still often go without a hearing, it needs stating, and stating clearly, that in many places, the pendulum has swung the other way with devastating effect.
In the United States, it is now almost impossible for a priest accused of any kind of offence, however spurious the accusation, to receive anything like a fair hearing; the public presumption of guilt is now overwhelming. Bishops, under intense pressure from their lawyers and Diocesan Review Boards, are encouraged to remove an accused priest from all ministry, and issue a public notice of his accused status, before even taking any steps to see if the priest was at fault, or even if the alleged offences were possible.
The enormous settlements which have been reached in some dioceses have led to people happy to file utterly fantastic allegations against priests they may not even know, or allege crimes in parishes to which they were never assigned.
While it is hard enough to pursue any kind of justice, for accusers or accused, under such conditions, often there isn’t even an attempt. Out-of-court payments are offered to keep protesters off the cathedral steps and accused priests find themselves in administrative and canonical limbo, having lost their parish and their good name. Their dioceses then expect them to do the decent thing and just disappear.
Reasserting the Church’s basic demands for justice, for all parties, in different circumstances where either the accused or the accuser has been ignored in the interests of expediency and a desire to avoid bad publicity, is something that requires a structural and legal approach.
In the end, both extremes of injustice come down to a failure at the diocesan level. Bishops need to have the stomach to look unflinchingly at every accusation and follow a course of real investigation and, in accord with the law of the Church, make a final determination about the truth of the matter.
Last year, Pope Francis established a special tribunal, under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to hear cases of abuse of office by a bishop and, while it has yet to hear a case, this represents the reform with the most potential to impel dioceses to follow proper procedure. This, and other canonical and structural reforms, need to be carried into common use, and their fitness for purpose tested.
Structural reform requires an ability to see a whole system, its strengths and flaws, in the round, and make dispassionate changes truly serving justice as a neutral cause. This can be a difficult role for victims to fill, both because the task of conceiving and effecting a reformed system is no easy task and requires very definite skills, knowledge and temperament, but also because, ipso facto by being victims themselves, they have a different, personal, and emotional engagement with the issues; this can make the deliberate nature of universal reform seem frustratingly slow and impersonal.
This is not to say, by any means, that the voices of victims do not need to be heard, and loudly at that, at the highest levels in the Church. There remains, at the curial level, a real cultural distance from the realities of the abuse scandal which continues to sap a sense of urgency from the process of reform.
It is essential that victims, and legitimate victims’ advocacy groups, continue to highlight the special horror of crimes of abuse of children and insist upon justice. But this vital role, which they are uniquely able to fulfil, requires, to be truly effective, a commitment to serving the whole Church, not just the interests of particular victims.
Justice cannot be restored to one group by denying it to another, and all too often it is possible to read quite sweeping and severe denunciations of priests and bishops, seemingly without knowledge of, or reference to, the facts of a case.
If the voice of victims is going to be heard at the highest level of the Church, there needs to be a correlating acceptance by their advocates that becoming part of the process of reform or governance requires a certain maturity; there is a problem when people want to be both outsider and insider. Becoming part of the solution requires a measure of personal distance from the problems being addressed and a willingness to forsake a “us versus them” approach.
The legacy of the child abuse scandal is, in many respects, still an open wound for the Church and one which we have only begun to address. Increasingly, though, progress is going to depend largely on the willingness of all concerned to agree upon solutions, and not create new problems.