Today is Holy Thursday, the beginning of the end of Lent. It is the beginning of the three days that lead up to Easter. For Catholics like myself, these three days are laden with significance as we walk with Jesus in his last hours on earth that end with the completion of his mission to reconcile humanity to God. The whole season of Lent is one of reconciliation, first between man and God, then between humans. We are charged to take stock of our lives, seek forgiveness from God and man & take steps to do better in future.
Against this backdrop, it seems almost poetic that widespread allegations of child sex abuse by priests come to light during this period. Of course, there have been allegations before, but never on this scale and certainly, never with this coverage. From Ireland, Germany, Austria, the US and Brazil people have come forward to tell their stories of abuse by the people they least expected it from. Given the fact many people trust priests implicitly, this represents a breach of that trust on a massive scale. It’s effect on Catholics around the world vary, but even though an exodus from the Catholic Church is very unlikely many are losing confidence in its human leadership. This confidence has to be restored.
The cases of abuse are so many because instead of the priests against whom charges were brought to be removed from circulation, they were instead transferred over and over by church authorities. This is because the priesthood is seen as a brotherhood, and brothers stick together. The first inclination is to protect a fellow priest by moving him away from a particular parish to another one where he can make a fresh start. In Ireland for example, those who came forward were asked to keep quiet ‘for the good of the church’ while they struggled with the emotional trauma inflicted on them at such a tender age. The leaders of the Catholic Church must reconcile with their flock, and the first step to this is that the veil of secrecy must be broken. However bad, however sordid the revelations, all church documents where complaints of abuse have been recorded must be made public. There are downsides to this obviously as some high-ranking bishops, cardinals and even the Pope himself maybe implicated not for commission, but for omission. There have been strident calls by some that the Pope resign, indeed some Irish archbishops have already done so, but to me this is not the first or most important step. There must be openness.
Any priest still serving who is found guilty of committing pedophilia in the past must be defrocked and handed over to civil authorities, or at the very least, not work with children ever again. We must leave ultimate judgment of these priests to God, but they must be made to face human justice as well. This will give some form of closure to the victims whose lives were altered forever. There is also a need to evaluate the psyche of those young men who want to become priests. If an aspiring priest has been abused in childhood by a parent or superior, it would make him more likely to commit same. There are always behavioral signs that a trained psychiatrist could see. Its not enough for a person to be spiritually and intellectually fit for priesthood, he must be emotionally fit as well. A ‘zero tolerance’ stance must be adopted towards this issue by the Vatican. Any future cases should be handled decisively by expelling the priest concerned as there are few things worse than taking advantage of a little child.
I must also mention that this scandal has enabled those who dislike the Catholic Church for one reason or the other to make even more uncharitable remarks in the media. Some feel giving the priests the option of getting married is the way out. Liberal groups who don’t like the church’s stance on abortion, contraception and gay marriage have used this incident to heap insult on the person of the Pope and on the Church. Its all fair game I guess. The Catholic Church owes no group any apologies for its beliefs, but it owes its followers a full disclosure of the actions of a very small minority. Only then can the journey to reconciliation start. It has paid a high enough price for secrecy.