Comment

Should priests accused of abuse be denied public funerals?

The ethics are complex, but we need to clarify what a funeral is actually for

In Wild Swans, the family memoir by Jung Chang, she discusses what happened when her father died. He had been an important member of the Chinese Communist party, but under a cloud at the time of his death. Her mother made enormous efforts to ensure that his funeral was as grand as possible, with the usual speeches and huge wreaths, because she knew that the funeral would reflect her husband’s standing with the party, and a suitably grand funeral would mark his posthumous rehabilitation, which would have a material effect on the fortunes of his survivors in Mao’s China.

This idea that a person’s funeral reflects their status in life is pretty much a given throughout the world. The last huge funeral we experienced in Britain was that of the Queen Mother in April 2002: the pageantry was extraordinary, reflecting, one supposes, an extraordinary and long life. One aspect of it was the proclamation of the deceased’s styles and titles by the Garter King at Arms – something that has never been done before at a Royal funeral and may well never be done again. While the Queen mother’s funeral was an Anglican service held in a church, the state and indeed secular elements largely overwhelmed the religious parts, to my mind.

The ‘Green Book’ as it is commonly called, which lays out the Catholic funeral rites, does say in the introduction that the funeral should reflect the life of the person, but it also makes clear that the funeral is a time for prayer and refection anchored in our belief in the Resurrection of the Lord. The focus must be on the Lord, and on the deceased’s Christian vocation, now fulfilled. Secular elements must not be allowed to crowd this out. But the idea that the Catholic funeral is somehow or another a ‘reward’ for living a good life, or a reflection on the status of the deceased, is still there. There is no level playing field for the dead, and this is partly the fault of the Church.

Everyone knows of famous people who were denied a Church funeral on the grounds that they were public sinners. Nowadays this would be unusual, to say the least; indeed, we have gone the other way, assuming that all who die automatically go to Heaven (Trigger warning: it may not be the case – some may be destined for Purgatory, and some even for another place.) But there is one group who are being treated differently in death, as I myself have noticed.

I was in a cemetery a short while ago and I noticed the grave of someone who I will call Father John Jones. Two things struck me as unusual: first, I had had no idea that he had died. Second, his cross just said “John Jones” without the customary “Father”. I made enquiries, and I was told that Fr Jones’s funeral service had taken place in a private chapel, and the death had been announced after the funeral. Two or three people had been present at the funeral, fellow members of his religious order. Of course, Father Jones had been creditably accused of child abuse, and out of ministry for some years, though never sentenced by any court. He had been an embarrassment to his order – hence the truncated ceremonies, the muted inscription; all this may have been done to avoid hurt to his victims. But it also meant that his friends (and he would have had some) would not have been able to attend his funeral.

The procedure in the case of Father Jones does raise questions. One may well ask whether this is right. But one also needs to remember the case of the Bishop of Dromore, Dr McAreavey, who, in March this year, resigned because he had celebrated the Requiem Mass of a priest, in 2002, who had been creditably accused of paedophilia. His celebration of the funeral Mass effectively cost him the confidence of the people of his diocese and his job. So, it seems that when it comes to paedophile priests, the Church has no choice but to deny them the sort of funeral that any other Catholic would be given.

We are not all equal in death, after all. Moreover, praying for the dead, in some cases, of those who particularly need it, had better be done in private from now on. But is it right? Are we not all equal before God, whatever our sins and crimes? Perhaps even to ask the question is to underestimate the damage done by child abusers and the hurt they have caused. But at the same time, the question remains: what is a funeral for? To celebrate a life? Or to implore God’s mercy for a departed sinner? That is a question we are in danger of getting wrong.