Life & Soul

The Church is as healthy as its secrets

The abuse crisis deepens. Chile is awash with revelations of the abuse of minors. Now Germany and the Netherlands have reports emerging of widespread abuse. Six more grand jury investigations are pending in the United States.

Meanwhile, some in authority continue to treat the revelation that a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church spent an episcopal lifetime sleeping with seminarians with a hubris that is the very acme of clericalism. Some cardinals and respected commentators, instead of calling for a full investigation into the McCarrick affair, prefer to attack their fellow Catholics. Others, instead of asking for Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s claims about Church corruption to be fully investigated, devote all their efforts to criticising the archbishop. I am sometimes reminded of Kind Hearts and Coronets and the morality of Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini: “These things are only wrong if they are found out.”

It might be helpful for these people to remember a maxim used in 12-step recovery programmes for addicts: “You are as healthy as your secrets.” This saying ought to be written up in large letters in the offices of the Vatican. Surely the hierarchy must all realise that the maxim is now true of the Church if she is to retain any credibility in the handling of this massive abuse crisis. For all the brave words about transparency, a massive change in culture is still required.

Tragically, many recent responses exemplify an attitude which victims will instantly recognise as typical of clerical power – namely, that the anger with which revelations of abuse are met doesn’t seem to be kindled by what actually happened as much as by what has happened being revealed.

It can feel as if more clerical anger is generated by the potential damage to the individuals accused and the institution than by the suffering of the victims. Even if there is sympathy for victims, it is tinged with an anger that they have somehow handed the Church’s detractors a stick to beat her with.

Clerics who would not conceal anything out of malice or corruption can still resent having their hands forced by revelations and timings not of their choosing, and victims can be made to feel this anger. It often seems fiercest when victims have had recourse to the oxygen of publicity and the involvement of outside agencies. But they do so only to remove clerical control over the dissemination and render them safe from the kinds of leverage used by those who invoke the Church to deny natural justice. In short, clerical anger over abuse still seems to be aroused more by liability than culpability.

In fact, righteous anger now demands to know how many have been harmed in the Church and how anyone responsible by commission or omission can be held to account. We should be very angry that victims of any kind of clerical abuse
(and I think most people accept that being expected to get into bed with your naked bishop counts as abuse) could be treated like collateral damage in a war to protect the Church’s reputation in the person of its prelates or priests.

If the Church is a “field hospital”, then talking about wounds isn’t gossip or slander, to be gagged if it disturbs morale. Nor do generals get to diagnose whether patients’ symptoms deserve treatment. Wounds are triaged according to their medical severity, not their implications for the reputation of the hospital. And when huge numbers of casualties result from friendly fire, suggestions that this is merely a matter of internal administration (or that enemy propaganda is advertising this to make us look bad) neither ease pain nor restore security.

A dictionary definition of the word “crisis” gives it a medical meaning: “The decisive point in the process of a disease; the point at which change must come; that change which indicates recovery or death.” Trust in priests and bishops as credible representatives of Christ, the Good Shepherd, is at a hitherto unimaginable crisis point among large numbers of the faithful. Whether that trust recovers or dies will determine not just the fate of the clerical caste, but also the mission of the whole Church, which, perhaps we should remind ourselves, is to rescue the lost and bind up their wounds.