The Sadness of the Church

Anyone who has read the IICSA report on Ampleforth and Downside (which you can obtain here, or the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report into sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses in the State of Pennsylvania (which you can obtain here, will have been left feeling sad and probably angry as well. It is appalling that children and young people should have been treated so abominably while the depraved behaviour of some clerics is mind-numbing. No one ‘gets over’ such abuse, no matter how admirably they cope, or seem to cope, in later life. Official apologies or promises to learn lessons sound increasingly hollow, the clerical equivalent of corporate-speak.

I think we can say the whole Church is sad because of the failure of many bishops and priests to realise how the laity and good, decent clergy and religious feel about the incessant revelations of corrupt and depraved behaviour among their pastors. It is not ‘just’ that young people have been abused; not ‘just’ that there have been cover-ups; not ‘just’ the hypocrisy of promising celibate chastity then living a dissolute life; it is the enormity of the sin and, time and time again, the arrogant indifference of the response that has hurt and led to yet more suffering, especially among the poor. A few years ago I wrote about nuns in the Boston diocese who literally lost the roof over their heads because the diocese needed to pay out large sums in compensation. There was inevitably a knock-on effect on schools and hospitals for the poor. I daresay we may see more of the same in the future, with the most vulnerable suffering the most. But, and it is an important but, it is not my purpose to add to the chorus of lamentation and anger, although I must acknowledge the dreadful wrong done. We need to address the question of what to do now. What do those of us who are ordinary Catholics — priests, religious, lay — do in the light of these scandals?

Calls for collective repentance and conversion of heart only go so far and are sometimes a substitute for facing up to the reality of the situation. Of course we must pray, and pray hard, but we must also act. Our bishops cannot deny that the Church is in crisis, at a turning-point. It is no good dredging up statistics to prove that abuse is much more common in society as a whole than in the Church. We know that, but we expect better of those who are Christians. It is no good arguing, as I have heard many argue when attending Safeguarding training days, that the ‘whole abuse thing’ is an attack on the Catholic Church. It isn’t, unless one acknowledges that it is an attack from within. We must be honest and admit that there is a huge problem, one we must tackle at the individual level if we are to succeed in overcoming it at the ecclesial level. So, no excuses for any of us, no attempts to play down the wickedness of what has happened in the past or to walk a double-path in the future; but, having said that, I do think there are grounds for hope.

I think of the priests I know who have been insulted and even attacked because many of the public — including Catholics — are incapable of distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty. Their fidelity in the face of scorn and derision gives me hope. I think of religious who have braved disbelief and opprobrium because they would not collude with evil. They give me hope. I think, too, of the attempts of many American Catholics to ensure that the laity are properly included in any commissions of enquiry, despite Cardinal Wuerl’s apparent inability to recognize that they are as much a part of the Church as the bishops. Their concern for the Church, their willingness to go on despite the negative response they receive, also gives me hope. The sheer decency of so many Catholics who quietly persevere in trying to live good, generous lives gives me hope. Some have called for changes in Church discipline or teaching to allow clerical marriage more generally or admit women to the priesthood. They make me suspect another agenda at work. It may sound simplistic or old-fashioned to some, but if we have promised celibate chastity, that’s it — no infringements, no ‘accommodations’; and where there have been lapses, no cover-ups or attempts to minimize the harm done.

This Sunday many a homily will be preached on the Bread of Life. I daresay some would prefer to hear from the pulpit some straight talking about abuse and the Church’s response, but I think the gospel homilies have an important point to make. We are not members of the Church because of the pope, the bishops or the clergy. We are members of the Church because we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in him that we place our trust. Teilhard de Chardin once described the Church as being like a mist surrounding a lamp, both concealing and revealing the light. To get to the light (Christ) we have to go through the Church. At the moment the way may seem very dark, but it is the Light that draws us and the Bread of Life that sustains us as we go. May we never forget that.


21 thoughts on “The Sadness of the Church”

  1. Thank you for your consoling and realistic comment on the horrifying position we find ourselves in.

    I read somewhere that when asked how he could possibly stay a Catholic, someone simply replied, ‘Because God.’ (#MeToo.) Pray and pray and pray and cling closely to the Lord who sees it all and will carry us through the fire, for fire it will indeed be, possibly over generations, now.

    (Isn’t it remarkable how in terrible times, the texts of the daily Liturgy of the Hours are so often precisely relevant to the day’s pain? You might almost think it was the voice of God.)

    • I too find that the Divine Office and the prayers and readings of the Mass take on a new colour according to the day’s events. Without being overly literalistic, I do indeed think that is how God speaks to us.

  2. Thank you, Sister for once again for being a voice of reason and calm. My heart breaks for all who were abused( I was abused as a child, but, thank God, not by anyone in the Church), so I understand their pain. I pray the Church can recover, I know it will in some form, just not what we have now. Praying that we come out stronger and more focused on what Jesus came to bring us in HIS church.

  3. “To get to the light (Christ) we have to go through the Church.” As a life-long protestant I disagree with this, but what ever our differences in theology, we can agree that to be more Christ-like is a worthy goal.

    • I’m sure you’ll understand, Alison, that I can’t quite agree with you that being more Christ-like is enough. After all, how do we judge that? There are many varieties of Protestantism but I write always as a Catholic, believing in the necessity of baptism as proclaimed in the earliest creeds, which makes us members of the Church.

  4. Brilliant.. to say it like it is! Let us not be merely SAD, let us be positive, to tackle this canker at source, but how many more are keeping their mouths firmly closed. As others have done for decades ..shame on you!

  5. Thank you, sister, I agree in all. I add that a paedophile almost always is a person strongly disturbed, with serious mental illness; in these cases who must control is more accountable that the direct offender.
    We must invest a lot more in education, selection and supervision of priest, religious, lay people in our parishes and our schools.

  6. Thanks should be given for the work secular bodies for safeguarding and support of abused children, and yes, despite sensationalism, the work of the media – it shines a light into dark places. The Holy Spirit will flow where it will, both inside and outside the church. And of course the Holy Spirit can be opposed both inside and outside the church.

  7. One of the great sadnesses of my life was finding out in my late teens that a close friend had been abused by her stepfather when we were little girls, and realising I’d quite literally been too innocent or oblivious to piece together things she had told me when we were at Primary school. Not to be alone with him. Especially not in that particular shed. That she didn’t like him. Maybe a little more I don’t remember: but it all fell on me like a tonne of bricks. My parents were worried that perhaps something had happened to me, and asked: in the manner of young girls, our friendship ended abruptly, and they wondered if this abuse had caused that. Perhaps it had, but not in the way they feared. Perhaps I badly let my friend down.

    I wonder how many people in the church find themselves in similar situations of wondering how they just didn’t see. I can only forgive myself because I was truly a child, while my friend was having her childhood stolen. 🙁 Please pray for her – I still do.

    • No, Mikeala, you did not let your friend down. You were a child and you responded to your friend as a child would faced with such a confusing situation. It is only with hindsight that you (or any of us) would be able to see what was going on. That is one of the terrible ways in which the effects of abuse ripple out. We’ll pray for your friend, and for you — you have nothing for which you need to ask forgiveness. I think your more general observation may be right; there is also the reluctance to speak out when one sees something that doesn’t seem quite as it should but which isn’t, or doesn’t seem, definite enough to justify making an allegation of abuse.

      • Sister, your last sentence here goes hand in hand with one of my concerns: we have now become so systematic in our safeguarding that the use of judgement has become secondary.
        When the MPs expenses furore blew up, Cardinal Nichols said “rules cannot substitute for virtue”. Similarly with safeguarding, systems cannot substitute for judgement – they help us know how to act, but don’t tell us when to act.

      • I agree wholeheartedly that Mikeala is not guilty of letting her friend down – how on earth could she have understood what her friend was telling her? Her continued prayer for her friend speaks volumes about her compassion and caring. May God bless both of them.

        The reluctance to speak out can also make one feel ashamed but so often the person one suspects of some sort of abuse is adept at covering up their faults, especially with a bonhomie and ‘jolly’ persona. Adults trying to speak out about them are usually met with incomprehension, denial and then transference of the ‘root of the problem’ onto those who have tried to bring the problem into the light. For children or vulnerable adults this brings a double-bind…not only are you being abused but you are a ‘liar’ and may even face some sort of punishment. Perhaps the hope in the darkness is that, at last, these matters are being seen and acknowledged. How we might help the past sufferers and give protection for the future is an enormous question – I hope that the churches, in particular, will tackle this head-on.

  8. Abuse in the Church is not peculiar to the Catholic persuasion. The Anglican community has also hidden extensive and inexcusable cases of abuse of children, young adults and the disabled by its representatives. As Christians, we are all duty bound to forgive the perpetrators, but we cannot and must not collude in aiding cover ups of these horrendous acts. Neither should we assist in preventing the implementation of justice. We have not only a moral duty but also compassionate obligation to the victims to ensure that the abuse is stopped and the abusers punished and, more importantly, prevented from perpetuating their evil purpose. Every institution has its share of evil doers. We have to be alert to their activities and to be unafraid of exposing them to both the clerical and secular authorities.
    Dear Sister Catherine, your words of wisdom are a gift from God, loving, caring and full of compassion. Bless you for speaking out and for championing the abused.

  9. Thank you for this calm and generous post. I have read it a few times during the day, it is a comfort. I also tried to read the report into Ampleforth and Downside and was utterly sickened so that I could not read to the end.
    In the end I fall back on what St Peter replied when Christ told the disciples that they were free to go if they wished. ” Where else should we go Lord? To whom?” I chose to become a Catholic, having been an Anglican most of my life. My choice, that’s it. No looking back, no havering.

  10. Thanks for your kind remarks. It cannot change the feelings of ‘what if’ but what I really hoped to share was some empathy with those on the receiving end of ‘how could you not have known?!’. While refusing to investigate, or worse covering up completely, has clearly been a terrible wrong that has caused so much worse pain and damage within all churches, I think we all have to acknowledge that it’s easy to miss. That’s why basic safeguarding practises, like children not being left alone with one solitary adult become so very important, even of easy to dismiss as over-the-top. My friend appears to be happily married with children of her own, now, so I hope she found peace, alongside justice.

  11. Eclesia Semper Reformanda – and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. As terrible as this situation is, although individual men must be removed, our hope is not in men of power, but in the one who established His church.

Comments are closed.