I must admit to an equivocal relationship with the Catholic Church. I was brought up as a Catholic and much of my family are still practicing Catholics (although some have moved on to other forms of enthusiasm). But like most observers, I have found the ever more lurid stories of priestly behaviour very disturbing.
I attended Catholic schools from the age of seven, served at the altar, sang in choirs and took an active part in Catholic youth organisations. At no point during that time did I encounter or hear about the sort of behaviour that has filled the newspapers and airwaves in recent times. I don’t point this out by way of excuse, justification or explanation but to provide a little context – the context that will be real for most people brought up as Catholics. We weren’t abused, beaten or exploited by the clergy – or indeed by any other figures of Catholic authority.
So like many brought up in this way, confusion reigns. Whatever we may think of the faith these days, the priests, monks and nuns we knew were mostly caring, supportive and admirable men and women who – it seemed to me – had made a genuine commitment to their faith and to the mission of the church. I don’t doubt that most of the Catholic clergy still conforms to this character whatever has happened around them. These men and women will have been cruelly hurt – even betrayed – by what has come to light.
None of this, however, provides any excuse for the Church’s leadership. That there were – and maybe still are – paedophile clergy is perhaps understandable. What is beyond comprehension is that the church chose to cover up, to excuse and to obfuscate this activity. Had abusive clergy been defrocked, condemned and handed over to the police, the church would have received praise for its positive attitude to child protection. As it stands, though, the behaviour of senior clergy beggars belief – it is simply unforgivable to pretend that the problem could be dealt with by moving abusive priests elsewhere or giving them a gentle pep talk.
The result of this is that the good men and women who have committed themselves to the church’s mission are betrayed. Nobody will trust them. People will equate the priest with the paedophile., the abbot with the abuser. We will doubt all the men of the church – an injustice for the majority who would never abuse or exploit a relationship with any young person. And sadly, the church cannot resolve this problem because the biggest sinners – if we are to use that word – are those who run the church. Those who allowed their desire to avoid embarrassing exposure to poison and corrupt the whole institution.
I have moved on from the church – it does not matter to me. But for many millions – and especially the genuine, caring clergy – the actions of the Catholic hierarchy represents a monumental, appalling and hideous act of betrayal. Others may be able to forgive the church but many will have had one of their pillars of certainty destroyed. And that cannot be set aside with words or prayers.