Virginia Barton

28 September 2018: Scandal, Disgrace, Fallout

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?”

or:

“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.

 

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I am grateful to The Times newspaper for allowing me to use extracts and ideas from Fr Rod’s article: click here.

 

 

Comments

5 Comments

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  • Harry P says on: September 28, 2018 at 12:05 am

     

    An astute, measured, and thoughtful article, Virginia; thank you.

    Alongside the welcome re-commitment to transparency, child protection, justice and reform, I believe the crisis is also a teaching opportunity for the vast numbers of good priests out there. I say, preach from the pulpit about your vocation. Educate the faithful on the importance of celibacy. Remind them that you are a sinful human being, like they are, one who depends just as much on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but that you have chosen to reach for a higher standard. Renew your pledge to be holy, faithful, and celibate, and ask for the support and prayers of the flock you serve.

    Also, when spat at in the street: try to face your accuser with courage as well as compassion. They are rightfully hurting; feel their pain but try to explain why it’s important to stay the course.

    After all, Jesus Christ had it a LOT worse…

    By the way, Catholics in the pews (like myself) can do the same and speak up! Acknowledge the crimes, demand justice, but also support the good priests. This is easier said than done, but these are extraordinary times that beg for evangelization.

  • Coal-Filled Wellies says on: September 28, 2018 at 8:00 am

     

    Thank you for tackling this horrific subject head on, Ginny. I have friends who were abused by priests as children, and I have friends who are priests falsely accused of abuse, subsequently cleared but now broken as men. I am a Catholic and see young people, with a few inspiring exceptions, deserting the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches in droves, regarding our faith as a something between a dangerous cult and a joke. Four weeks ago, Our Lady of Medjugorje told us that “all the more the shadows of darkness and deception are being cast over you, and how right she is. Some eighty years ago, Christ revealed to St Faustina Kowalska that nothing hurt him so painfully on the day of his Passion as the indifference of men.

    Who knows what God’s plan for Christianity is now? A return to the Catacombs? An imminent Second Coming? A resurgence, perhaps stemming from China?

    What seems clear is that, institutionally, humility and repentance are needed as never before, and then perhaps some sort of new start, based not upon Power and Order but upon Peace and Community. And personally, the search through prayer, love of neighbour and the Eucharist for closeness with God through his Son and his Spirit.

    Forgive sanctimoniousness!

  • Mary says on: September 28, 2018 at 4:45 pm

     

    I’ve missed your brilliant Commonblogs, I’ve had trouble receiving them recently…

    This is a titan of a subject.

    I am one of those struggling…to stay in the flock, to go to church, to call myself a Catholic at the moment. I just can’t bear to think of those little girls and boys.

    I need to see more real regret and repentance.

    At least Pope Francis is taking tiny steps in that direction. I’m grateful for tiny glimpses of grace.

  • Anthony says on: September 29, 2018 at 10:35 am

     

    Thank you for your fine article, it is an excellent commentary on the scandal that is rocking the Church.

    I suspect that the Church (that is, all of us who believe) will have to live with the fallout from this for a long time to come and sadly to face further revelations.

    One feels for the bishops and other senior clergy who ‘covered up’ abuses and dealt with them by moving the culprits to new positions elsewhere, naively accepting assurances that ‘it wouldn’t happen again’. Nothing in their training prepared them for this, but they will have to share the blame and this will be distressing.

    Priests and ministers will need to be cared for by their parishioners as they face the unfair charges of guilt by association. In this situation pastoral care will have to be mutual.

    I hope the response to your article will be positive.

    • Ginny says on: September 29, 2018 at 10:55 am

       

      I am humbled by the trouble readers have taken to reply to yesterday’s Commonplace. It took a lot of writing I assure you.

      New approaches to this dire subject have been put forward, with the accent on renewal, spirituality and prayer.
      ALL your suggestions for priests, laity and the church are valuable contributions to a future that looks murky and uncertain.

      We know that the church is for all time and cannot founder. We believe that nothing can destroy it however bleak the outlook.
      Somehow we have to seek forgiveness, solace and reconciliation for crimes that are rife: and not just in our own backyards.

      Confession, the sacrament of reconciliation is there for the taking; perhaps the most difficult because so personally shaming.
      A way to make it a little ‘easier’ might be to offer one’s confession on behalf of some nameless abuser or victim of abuse?

      Our Lady, always beside us as a source of comfort, is the the one we turn to for help automatically in moments of fear or pain.

      Reconciliation and Consolation.
      But Forgiveness? For the most heinous crimes committed against children and the vulnerable in society?

      Hopefully the next Commonplace, perhaps with your help?

      Ginny

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