The scathing reaction by the media and society to the incidence of child sex abuse in the Church has been chastening but for the most part welcome. It has concentrated our minds wonderfully on our faults and failings and vanities.
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As for those Bishops who misused clerical power by covering up the crimes of members of their clergy, who mistakenly believed their primary duty was to protect the Church from scandal, or who failed to recognise that their true mission and obligation, as disciples of Jesus Christ, was to act in the best interests of the molested children: they must hopefully feel the wounds of their negligence.
The law must prosecute the guilty. The Church must pay generous financial compensation to the victims. However, it will take much more than money to make restitution for their distress and pain.
Our Holy Father Pope Benedict is leading the way as pastor of a sorrowful Church. He has found eloquent voice in speaking of the shame that the Church collectively must feel and the penitence to the victims that it must show. He has spent time at a most personal level with victims of sexual abuse, emotionally sharing with them their suffering. Countless participants at these discreet gatherings have reported “a great weight was lifted from their hearts; the healing began; confidence and hope were reborn”.
In spite of failed and scurrilous attempts from some quarters to smear and immerse Pope Benedict with the sex abuse scandals, His Holiness is at the forefront of introducing all necessary reforms to root out the criminals in the clergy and ensure total security for all our children throughout the Church. Even before his elevation to the Papacy he had made a start on fundamental and innovative reforms. He is not an idle observer. He is certainly a penitent. But he is much more than that. He is a determined and active force for good.
What is especially painful, however, is the attitude of some sections of the public and certain commentators in the media who direct their bitterness and hostility indiscriminately at more or less all of the clergy and religious in the Catholic Church -- the vast majority of whom are overwhelmingly quite innocent of such terrible violations. In the last 40 years the proportion of clergy who have had sexual allegations made against them is less than half of one per cent.
Not all were guilty -- but many were, and that is an unforgivable and shameful fact. Yet statistics reveal that more than 75% of all sexual abuse of minors happens in the family, perpetrated by family members, mostly those who are married, and by others known to the victims. Most of it is never made public.
There are other equally shocking statistics relating to other institutions and professions who have access to children. The press have rightly reported on many such cases of sexual abuse. The evidence is clear and has been cited by respected professionals that sexual abuse of minors is not a “Catholic Church” problem. The figures speak for themselves.
Still, we take no comfort from the fact that only a very small percentage of priests committed such crimes. The existence of even one case of sexual abuse is one too many and rightly brings disgrace and shame on our Church. Yet the Church has been subjected to the fiercest scrutiny and interrogation by the media, some incautiously hell-bent on depicting the Catholic Church as the paedophile empire of sexual abuse against children. Some of their more fallacious allegations betray something insidious about their agenda.
Still, we are thankful that what failures we have been guilty of have been exposed. The truth is paramount. As a result we have introduced radical and wide-ranging reforms to a degree where we can now state with confidence that the Catholic Church in the UK is one of the safest environments and sanctuaries in the world for children and young people. Who else can claim this?
Similar rules and procedures to our own are already being drawn up for application to the universal Church. Understandably, many Catholics are anxious for the future of the Church. My message to all of you is: do not be afraid!
Yes, we must atone for the sins and betrayal of those in the Church who caused such heartbreak and suffering. We must seek forgiveness from the abused victims as well as pardon from God. But we must be conscious too of the great good that the Church achieves in its positive pastoral contribution.
Look at the world picture. The Church continues to pour its resources into aiding the poor, homeless, starving and suffering throughout the world. No other institution in human history can equal its record of unwavering commitment to care for the health, education and wellbeing of the poor, the hurt, the rejected and the sick, or champion their rights and dignity. Without its beneficence, millions more would suffer.
See the marvellous works our Church, clergy and lay people are carrying out every minute of every day at home and overseas. Priests and nuns at tremendous personal sacrifice are risking their own lives in the most dangerous and poverty-stricken areas of the world. They are to be found even in places where no government military forces, international charities or multinational aid agencies would dare go.
They are an example to the world: the living saints of the Church doing God’s work.
The Right Reverend Joseph Devine is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell