Following the publication of the Cloyne Report, which highlighted the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to report child abuse even in recent times, Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, has spoken in the Dail with vigour that the Church’s conduct in concealing abuse has been “absolutely disgraceful” and it needs to repent, and the Vatican has responded by saying that some of the criticisms made were too outspoken. This exchange is unusual diplomatically, but our concern is about the care of children.It has now been acknowledged by the Church that individual priests who abused children were in the wrong. The Church does not, however, seem to have come to terms with its collective guilt – the mis-handling of the abusers by transferring them to new posts in the false hope that they would not abuse again, the failure to report abusers to the Police, the concealment of the abuse by senior clerics and the lack of support and help for the victims.
These are all aspects of an organisation which needs to reform, as they have reflected the actions and thinking of large numbers of non-abusing people, including those in senior positions. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the Church as a religious body, but as an organisation seeking to serve children the questions to be answered relate to the power of the priesthood which victims could not challenge, the Church’s role in being its own judge and jury, and possibly the all-male nature of the priesthood. If the Church were simply a child care organisation whose probity were in question they are the sorts of questions which would be asked about its systems for staffing and quality assurance.
Fundamentally, though, the two key questions are whether the Roman Catholic Church has truly made amends to the victims of abuse, and whether, as a result of repentance and atonement, the Church is now trusted. If the Church is to educate and care for children and young people, it has to be trusted. Of course there are thousands of well-intentioned non-abusing priests, nuns and lay people in the Church, and it is unfair if the mud sticks to them, but the question of trust is about the organisation of which they are part.
The Taoiseach called for repentance. This will require humility – not the dominant Church telling others how to behave and giving them absolution, but the servant Church seeking forgiveness. And if it is to be forgiven, it is the victims of abuse whose forgiveness will need to be sought. When the victims feel that the Church has listened, is truly penitent and has made amends in accordance with the principles of restorative practice, there will once more be the basis of trust. Until then, the Church’s reputation as an organisation working with children and young people is on foundations of sand.