28 September 2018
The Saturday edition of The Times newspaper has a regular column called Credo, and September 15th was no exception. The author was Fr Rod Strange.
I should perhaps introduce him formally: Monsignor Roderick Strange is Professor of Theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Since I have known him for many years, I feel able to refer to him here more familiarly as Fr Rod. He has published several impressive books, including three on Newman, and his book, The Catholic Faith (OUP 1986), well-reviewed at the time, merits an update.
He writes with the authority and experience of his position. I write from a rather different perspective, that of a dismayed lay Catholic. There’s room for both.
As Chaplain at Oxford University for several years and now living at St Mary’s, Fr Rod has had considerable exposure to the highs, lows and growing pains of the young, and is no ivory tower academic. He spent seventeen years as Rector of the Beda College in Rome, where men with a “late” vocation train for the priesthood.
His short piece in the Times tackled the scandalous disgrace of the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by priests. I believe he is well-placed to write on the subject despite, perhaps, some slight restraint. However, let’s not forget that he was restricted to about 700 words.
The title of his article is “Good priests are being blamed by association”. But Fr Rod originally called it “Surprised by Suffering”, a delicate reference to CS Lewis and a title to ponder, considering the subject matter.
One of Fr Rod’s themes in Surprised by Suffering was winners and losers — we like to be on the winning side and we like to back a winner. He cites the well-known incident in the Gospel when Peter and the others are appalled at the prospect of Christ’s torture and death. Just like us they consider themselves winners. Peter protests, “This shall not happen to you Lord” — and receives a stinging rebuke. “You think in a man’s way, not in God’s way.”
Fr Rod says that the rebuke could be aimed at many of us: there’s none so smug as a self-righteous Catholic, and we do tend to assume we are on the winning side.
There are insufficient words to describe the worldwide scandal of abuse — who would have believed such a thing thirty years ago? I try to imagine what my mother, or BH’s mother, would have made of it. Somehow neither would have been totally surprised, aware that there is no such thing as a “new” crime; history tells us that. But they would have been deeply shocked that so many priests are involved and horrified by the extent of the cover-ups. Those responsible for hiding the evidence, or not declaring their suspicions, must surely be at least as guilty as the perpetrators.
Fr Rod tells of the charm and secretive cunning of the abusive perpetrators, masters at pulling the wool as it were, and of their skill at “grooming” — revolting word — not only their victims but all those concerned with them. This is hard to credit, but I read a heart-rending letter recently, written by a wife who had no idea her husband was an abuser until the police came to arrest him.
The psychology of child abusers, abusers of anybody is very hard to understand. We do know they were often abused themselves. We know they come in all shapes and sizes. Parents, nurses, teachers, priests — in fact anyone in authority with power over youngsters and the vulnerable. Just exactly the sort of people one would expect to trust and respect.
There is a challenge here for us all. Much that we hold dear has resulted, unsurprisingly, in a great many walking away from their long-held beliefs, their faith, their church and even from God. Our priests, so many of them our good friends, are now targets for abuse themselves, and we too by extension.
The fallout is widespread. One of Fr Rod’s priest friends was spat at and told to go to hell. Possibly the person was a victim of abuse herself. This priest was publicly shamed and we too share in it when our friends and acquaintances point the finger or mock. That abusers should include priests, and many many of them, is, to a Christian, to a Catholic, somehow worst of all.
Our priests are our role models and we expect, mistakenly perhaps, super-high moral standards. We expect those standards to go with the job. In many cases they are our confessors, our ministers of the sacraments — the people who baptised us for goodness’ sake! Perhaps they married us, and presided over the burial of our loved ones. Let alone instructing our children.
I can just hear a riff of scornful voices:
“Do you seriously you want us to take notice of anything that old ***** says?”
“You surely don’t expect us to go to Mass? Who knows what goes on in the vestry!”
One winces, and tries to get in a few words before the door slams.
I am grateful to The Times newspaper for allowing me to use extracts and ideas from Fr Rod’s article: click here.