….a few lost sheep, or a vast herd

Watched Spotlight last weekend; the film follows The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalist as they investigates the cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous  Catholic priests. The opening scene signals the historical truth: In 1976, at a Boston Police station, two policemen discuss the arrest of Catholic priest Fr. John Geoghan for child molestation and a high ranking cleric talks to the mother of the children. The Assistant District Attorney then enters the precinct and tells the policemen not to let the press get wind of what has happened. The arrest is hushed up, and the priest is released.

The unravelling tale that follows is, with some creative licence, a dramatic account that documents the slow exposure of the scale and spread of the abuse occurring and the silent veil drawn across it.

A truth that is extraordinary and disturbing for the Church adherents is the fundamental schizophrenia in the Church that allowed to flourish the serial child rape by priests and how the Church and church structure play a role in these abuse scandals.

Wherever you want to focus on the experience, the truth remains that the individual abuse was compounded by the institutional abuse that followed. A point subtly made in the film’s end credits with the information that Cardinal Law was eventually promoted to a high office in the Vatican before presenting a list of places in the United States and around the world where major scandals involving abuse by priests took place. There was a clerical culture of secrecy which starts in junior seminaries and continues right up to the Vatican. There remains an obvious unwillingness to address the culture of purposeful cover-up that questions the authenticity of the Church’s expressions of repentance. The lack of transparency, reform of the Vatican Curia, openness around historical abuses and corruption, the double-lives lived and bureaucratic power intrigues that afflict the administration of the institution of the Church, all reinforce the lack of responsiveness in terms of function let alone morality, ethics or theology.

No longer open secrets? Rumours? The celibacy of priests, the condemnation of the use of contraceptives, the cover up of countless cases of Child sexual abuse by clergy, the resignation of Benedict XVI, misogyny among the clergy, the dramatic fall in Europe of the number of vocations to the priesthood, the plotting against Pope Francis – all these issues are at the heart of the Vatican and the Catholic Church today

Since 2002, the Roman Catholic Church has been in crisis over the sexual abuse of minors by priests and the cover-up of those crimes by bishops. Over 11,000 alleged victims have reported their experiences to the Church, and more than 4,700 priests since 1950 have been credibly accused of sexually victimizing minors. The Church has paid over one billion dollars to adults who claim to have been sexually abused by priests and there is no end in sight to these lawsuits. For most victims, the cases are not about money. They want apologies and acknowledgement especially from clergymen they were brought up to obey, respect and often fear.

Newspapers in the UK regularly carry reports of catholic sex abuse scandals and priests being jailed [The Times January 17th 2012 identified 31 known convictions for sex offences since 2002 whereas the Church listed only 11].It remains an prevalent issue: Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned as Archbishop in 2013, and a report by Lord Carlile detailed child sex abuse within St Benedict’s catholic school. It is in the nature of these cases that people take a very long time to make a complaint at the “sinful and criminal acts” by Catholic clergy.

Because the pattern of abuse and cover-up has been so similar across the world, authors question whether there is something fundamentally awry with Church traditions and power structures in relationship to sexuality and sexual abuse. Specifically, some have explored how aspects of the Catholic theology of sexuality set the stage for the abuse of minors and its cover-up. All detail the bishops’ violation of trust and the lack of pastoral care and tendency of clerical narcissism–the belief that the needs of the hierarchy represent the needs of the wider Church.

As to why the Church hierarchy, fellow priests, and lay people were silent for so long: centuries-old theological errors encouraged blind submission to hierarchy, by making obedience to authority the highest virtue. For too many victims that meant listening to the advice of the Church and supress the stories of (what has been mainly) men who gave an image of piety in public and lead a quite different life in private. The abuses of the Sisters have been of a different psychological and physical nature as in the Irish experience of those committed to their “care”.

After years of investigation, a bibliography of abuse could be compiled; what should suffice is that these titles speak for themselves:

Frederic Martel (2019) In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. London: Bloomsbury

Jason Berry (2000) Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. University of Illinois Press

Jason Berry (2004) Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power and Sexual Crisis in the Papacy of John Paul II. New York: Free Press

Jeffrey Ferro (2005) Sexual misconduct and the clergy. New York: Facts On File, Inc

Louise Milligan (2017) Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell. Melbourne University Press

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea (2007) Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press

Michael D’Antonio (2013) Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal. New York: St Martin’s Press

Michael Kerrigan (2014) Dark History of the Catholic Church: schisms, wars, inquisitions, witch hunts, scandals, corruption. London: Amber Books

Thomas G. Plante (2004) Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church. Westport: Praeger Publishers

Tom Keneally (2016) Crimes of the Father. Vintage