WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Response to Papal Letter

WelCom September 2018:

Monsignor Gerard Burns, Vicar General Archdiocese of Wellington

In the face of the shocking revelations about clerical sexual abuse of children and young people in different parts of the world – Pennsylvania, Chile, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand – many of us are feeling dismayed, disgusted and angry. That this abuse has been perpetrated at high levels of the Church hierarchy is doubly shameful.

Pope Francis’ letter recognises the pain of the victim-survivors and the need for change in the Church, especially in the clerical culture that has permitted and facilitated such abuse and misconduct. Crimes and sins have been committed and hidden. The ‘good of the Church’ meaning the ‘good of the clergy’ has been given preference over the good of the most vulnerable.

Pope Francis says no effort must be spared to build a culture to prevent abuses occurring, being covered up or perpetuated. The Pope sees that this new culture needs to be based on repentance and conversion. Repentance for the sins of spiritual corruption and clericalism. Such repentance is particularly required of those of us who are members of the clergy. A ‘fierce and searching moral inventory’ – AA twelve-step method – is required of the clergy at all levels: priests, deacons, bishops, cardinals, popes. We clergy need to come to true repentance for sins of commission and omission, to a real sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment.

To help us in that repentance Francis proposes a methodology of taking on the pain of those who have been abused in flesh and spirit, the pain of their families. He asks us to do that through prayer and fasting. The reality of their suffering will remove us from any form of blindness, deceit or egotism. Francis does not detail the forms of prayer and fasting but perhaps it is akin to meditating on the physical realities of the crucifixion of Jesus and seeing in the faces of the abused the face of Christ. This can be an extra motivation for change in solidarity with them.

Francis is also proposing a conversion of the whole Church in the light of the truth shown to us. It is the whole People of God who have to be involved. We will all have to change in some ways to create a different culture with practices and structures in which this change is expressed. Cultural change requires a mutually-reinforcing change of attitudes and actions.

Some have seen the Pope’s letter as platitudinous, a further delaying measure because he does not mention specific, concrete measures for action now. The pope does commend the implementing of ‘ways of making those who perpetrate or cover up such crimes accountable’ and asks support for ‘all the judicial measures that may be necessary’. This must include something for bishops at all levels. Obviously in clerical culture there has been a practice of overlooking or condoning some behaviours that have been criminal, abusive and or sinful. This has to change.

Change will require external, lay assistance or oversight as is happening at the level of safeguarding and professional standards because any powerful group will tend to protect itself. This may mean radical changes in terms of selection, training and ongoing accompaniment of clergy. Although abuse of children and vulnerable people is not necessarily the result of celibacy it may be that this requirement for ordination needs to be reviewed.

Some other suggestions: Parishioners be trained in good safeguarding behaviour, including for priests, through diocesan safeguarding programmes. Naming a safeguarding officer in each parish. Priests and parish councils trained in how to be mutually accountable. Priests’ faculties to celebrate the sacraments made periodically renewable depending on professional development training and their having both spiritual director and a supervisor.