News Analysis

Rarely has a Vatican official spoken so bluntly on abuse

Mgr John Kennedy at the conference in St Petersburg, Florida (CNS)

As Spring 2019 turned into summer, journalists, media relations professionals and communications experts gathered for four days in St Petersburg, Florida, to take part in the annual Catholic Media Conference. The event, sponsored by the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, included a talk by the head of the disciplinary section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Mgr John Kennedy.

Titled “Clergy Accountability and the Media’s Response”, the talk Mgr Kennedy gave was part personal reminiscence, part humanising presentation of the CDF’s work, and part cri de coeur. It was revealing in almost every line of its seventeen pages, and deserves to be counted among the most significant public interventions by churchmen on the subject of the worldwide crisis and the Vatican’s response to it.

Mgr Kennedy opened with a recollection of his final days as a seminarian at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, in 1993, when Bishop Eamonn Casey came to tender his resignation to Pope John Paul II. Bishop Casey had sired a child out of wedlock, and the press had got wind of the business. “As it turned out,” Kennedy said, “that moment was a to be a watershed.”

“Over the course of the next quarter century,” Mgr Kennedy continued, “the reality, implications and subsequent coverage of other aspects of clergy accountability, including sexual abuse, became a constant theme worldwide.” Nor was Kennedy deluded with respect to the effects of the watershed. “I am convinced that recent developments in Ireland like the referendum to change the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage as well as the recent passing of abortion legislation are due in great part to the fallout of sexual abuse in the Church.”

Senior prelates have made many vague allusions and oblique references to the baleful effects of the Church’s failure to grapple with the crisis of leadership, now protracted over decades. Rarely, however, have we seen a churchman state the thing so plainly, in words. Kennedy frankly acknowledged the loss of stature – even of standing – even as he kept in ruthless focus the reason for the loss of it: the human toll of the Church’s failure, which has caused untold numbers of people to abandon at least the practice of the faith.

“In part their anger and frustration are directed at the abuser,” Mgr Kennedy said, “but a greater part, from my experience, is directed towards those who covered up in a pathetic attempt to protect the institution.”

“I cannot even begin to imagine what the personal impact has meant in an individual case of a victim,” Mgr Kennedy told his audience. “I read the facts, I feel repulsed, angry, frustrated at what is in print before me, knowing that this was a brother cleric who had done this to an innocent minor. I have the luxury of closing the case, of going home each day and not brining the files with me. However, I do carry it on the inside, but this is nothing compared to those who have borne this for years, in silence.” No, it isn’t.

The picture Mgr Kennedy paints of the current situation in the CDF is one of skilled and diligent people doing their best with too much work and too few resources. He does not complain – he is not a complainer – but the facts he adduces in illustration speak for themselves. “When I first began in 2004, there were five officials” tasked to the disciplinary section dealing with abuse cases, he told us. “Now there are now 17: 15 priests and two lay people,” with four other officials of the Congregation giving occasional assistance on particular cases. “In all honesty,” Kennedy said, “I could do with more.”

It is impossible to imagine anyone disagreeing with that, given the reported backlog of cases, the global scope of the crisis, the punishing nature of the work, and the likely increase in workload owing to recent legislation and improved oversight in many areas of the world only now beginning to wrestle with the gruesome reality of clerical abuse.

In addition to personnel, the CDF is happy to receive outside funding assistance for projects, like that which the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation has offered toward a statistical research project. Fr Federico Lombardi SJ confirmed the offer for the Catholic Herald, further explaining that one concrete idea is for doctoral students doing research in the area might come in to compile and analyse statistics.

In all this, however, one thing stood out. Mgr Kennedy explained that, within the CDF as presently organized, “It is impossible for any procedural step or any decision be taken by an individual alone.” That decription raises the question: who is responsible, and how are those responsible made effectively to answer for their conduct?

“We are conscious that our work will eventually be filed in the archives of the Congregation,” Mgr Kennedy said, “where future generations, yet unborn, will have access to it and will judge us on how well we carried out our responsibilities.” That is true. So are two other maxims: that justice must be seen to be done, and that justice delayed is justice denied.