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Priest and Victim?

On arriving at Dublin Castle, and having signed the book of welcome, Pope Francis listened to the Prime Minister of Ireland speak of 'stains' on society, the State and the Church. In response, he stated it was not possible to ignore the repugnant scandal and the failings of those exercising ecclesiastical authority. In doing so, he attributed responsibility to everyone: priests, bishops and religious. These statements come at a time when the media coverage raises the question whether the State of Ireland is now 'over' Catholicism. It is not the first time this question has been posed. As long ago as 2003, D Vincent Twomey published his "The End of Irish Catholicism" (Veritas, Dublin, 2003). In the course of his work, he observed:

"The past two decades have witnessed several major controversies usually described in terms of 'Church-State' confrontations... In many ways, those losses are seen by some commentators as the price paid for what proved to be the pyrrhic victory of the Mother and Child controversy (1951), an incident often cited as the beginning of the end of the Church's prominence in Irish Life"

He later added:

"Today, clerics and laity alike cite a lack of leadership for their demoralised state. Many speak of a lack of vision, a rather dangerous concept itself. But there can be no genuine vision, whatever that is, or leadership without hard thinking- and moral courage..."

Eight years later, Kevin Egan engaged with the same question. In "Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy Report" (Columba Press, Dublin, 2011) he referred to the open wound of spiritual abuse:

"Spiritual damage would seem to occur whenever someone's sense of self or sense of connection to God is weakened, undermined or decreased. Spiritual abuse that undermines one's sense of self often occurs in the context of shaming" (p95).

Thereafter, Egan referred to a number of potential causes for the sexual abuse crisis; making specific mention of so-called clericalism and related "clerical culture". He proceeded to recite a number of measures which he considered fundamental prerequisites, if lessons were to be learned and faith preserved. In this respect, he cited the need for "victims" to be received and listened to; calling upon those in authority to renew their Christian identity. For this purpose, he advocated the "servant church" as a model for leadership, and the image of Christ washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper as central to that service.

The suggestion that the voice of victims should be listened to cannot be gainsaid. However, the events and disclosures of the past weeks require us to pause and consider with some care what we mean by the term 'victim'. For instance, who is a victim? Is it simply those who have been able to establish -by means of a legal process- that they have suffered direct physical harm at the hands of a member of the Church? Is it those who have witnessed such behaviour? Or, does the nature of the Church require that we use the word 'victim' in a more inclusive manner (i.e. to denote any and all who have directly or indirectly been affected by the misconduct of the few?). Alternatively, does it extend even further to include those who have been offended by some aspect of church doctrine? Where do we draw the line?

This is a profound question which requires careful consideration. At the outset, and to be clear, the extension of the term is not intended to undermine the very real physical or psychological harm of those who have experienced direct abuse of any kind. Nor does the proposed widening of the term seek to secure some form of equivalence or symmetry between those who have suffered abuse at first hand and those who are required to live with the indirect consequences of such abuse, or, its detection. However, the question remains one of some importance. Why?

If we are not prepared to engage with the concept in an ecclesial rather than exclusively individual way, we run the risk of condemning persons of a particular group or class, as distinct from those who, by reason of conduct or concealment perpetrated offences against specific victims; denying them the justice to which they were entitled. On the other hand, the use of the term in a more inclusive manner, has a number of importance consequences for the church as a whole. First, it places beyond doubt that the occurrence of physical or other forms of abuse against any member of the Church, affects the whole. Second, treating matters at parish or diocesan level as amounting to a 'little local difficulty' is contrary to the universal character of the Church and its mission. Thirdly, accepting the scale and contaminating effect of such misconduct, removes any doubt that the Church must respond consistently and systemically. Platitudes and apologies are not enough. In this instance, this means the application of the norms found in the Code of Canon Law which are perfectly adequate for the purpose. In addition, a recognition of the impact of these issues upon the church as whole necessarily means that the responsibility for prevention of harm is an endeavour in which all of the faithful are obliged to participate. This includes providing practical and spiritual support to our own clergy, at parish level.

In "The Burden of Betrayal" (Gracewing, 2018) Fr Barry O Sullivan presents the experience of non-offending priests in our present times. His research makes clear that these men are far from untouched by the scandals which have arisen and are required to pay the price daily for the conduct of others. Without priests, we are left with nothing. In this respect, we do well to reflect upon the last supper as not merely the occasion when Jesus washed feet, but the event by which he instituted both the sacred Eucharist and sacred priesthood. Throughout Catholicism, these two elements are inextricably linked. It is not possible to have one without the other. We have a duty to preserve both. It was perhaps with this in mind that St Therese of Lisieux expressed the following prayer for priests:

"Since they are earthen vessels, we pray that Your power shine out through their weakness. In their afflictions never let them be crushed; in their doubts never despair; in temptation never be destroyed; in persecution never abandoned. Inspire them through prayer to live each day Your dying and rising. In times of weakness, send them your Spirit, and help them to praise Your Heavenly Father...."

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