Issue 35 - 14 Sept

Safeguarding Sunday

Last Sunday was “Safeguarding Sunday” (formerly Child Protection Sunday), the conclusion of National Child Protection Week. This day seeks to acknowledge the immense damage caused by the sexual abuse of children and adults at risk, including by priests, religious and laypeople within Catholic contexts. It makes a commitment to practices and protocols that create and maintain safe environments for all people. It invites people to pray for those harmed by abuse directly and indirectly.

In the last twenty years, I cannot recall a conversation about the validity of religion where this issue has not been raised. This has a personal edge for me. Since being ordained in 1993, I have seriously questioned my vocation on three occasions, and each time the questioning emerged out of revelations about the crimes of clergy against minors and the cover-up of those crimes by church officials.

There is no question that this criminal behaviour has been one of the greatest moments of evil, both in the abuse, itself, and in its cover up. Having established a Papal Commission for Protecting Minors from Clerical Sex Abuse, Pope Francis stated, “We must go ahead with zero tolerance. A priest who has sex with a child betrays God. A priest needs to lead children to sanctity, and children trust him. But instead he abuses them, and this is terrible.”

Then, in his meeting with survivors of clerical abuse on Monday July 7, 2014, he said even more clearly, “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable …. I ask (your) support so as to help me ensure that we develop better policies and procedures in the universal Church for the protection of minors and for the training of church personnel in implementing those policies and procedures. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church… (May God) give us the grace to be ashamed…”

For those of us who have met survivors of clerical sexual abuse of minors, and the secondary victims, their families, we know that no apology can ever repair the damage, no amount of compensation can give someone back their innocence and childhood, and no act of reparation or penance can ever adequately express the shame and sorrow of what all of us feel over what a very few clergy have done.

That said, along with many other Catholics that I know, I hope, firstly, that all church officials, against whom credible allegations of child abuse have been upheld, will be dismissed from the priesthood and the religious life. No matter when it was committed, the sexual abuse of a child nullifies any commitment to the priesthood or belonging to a religious order. It is, for many believers, the line in the sand. Christian forgiveness starts with holding people accountable for what they have done, and it has consequences. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness, however, some actions by a very few church officials prevent them from continuing to be such leaders.

Secondly, if the survivor wishes to go to the police, the Church should support them in their decision, be transparent in the legal process, and hand over the alleged perpetrator for secular legal investigation.

Thirdly, if the survivor does not wish to pursue a legal remedy, the Church’s process must be an independent conciliation, arbitration, and compensation one.

Fourthly, officials who have covered up these crimes should be subjected to civil and ecclesiastical penalties.

Finally, if the pursuit of justice means that the Church needs to sell property and liquidate assets to settle just claims with survivors, then the Church should recognize that people always matter more than land and buildings. Though no cash can ever repair the damage, it is one indication of the seriousness of action in the face of our new-found rhetoric.

The sexual abuse of children is a crisis for all churches, faith traditions, many families and several other community organisations. In a religious context it’s a make or break moment for many people in regards to belief, unbelief, membership and belonging and even whether the churches can be trusted at all, about anything. The stakes are very high. No one who cares about the Church can minimize the gravity of the crisis anymore.

I hope dedicated days and weeks like Safeguarding ones gives us pause to keep repenting of our past, courage to confront our present and change the structures that covered up these crimes, and do all we can to sincerely offer healing and peace to survivors and their families - if that’s what they want or seek. I think this way is the only way we can embrace our future with faith, hope and love.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).