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Silent Witness?

When afflicted with trials and difficulties, one may be tempted to succumb to a feeling of being overwhelmed. In such times, we may allow ourselves to be confused, to feel our faith tested or, perhaps, to lose confidence altogether in the working of Divine Providence. Such emotions are accentuated when we are confronted with the failings of those to whom we have looked for spiritual leadership. The accounts of serious misconduct on the part of those exercising authority within the Church present still further problems. First, such accounts are frequently presented and circulated as "evidence" of the Church's own true character. In consequence of this depiction, all those considered to be 'of' the Church are condemned accordingly. Second, within the Church there is, in response to such reports, a growing reluctance. That is, a reticence which sees neither need, nor justification, for explanation, counter-narrative, or, indeed, response. This same reluctance seemingly precludes the cultivation of any meaningful strategy of support, assurance and spiritual guidance for those affected by these issues (i.e all of us).

In our modern experience, it is not uncommon for institutional integrity to be relegated in the interests of political expediency. Equally, there are numerous examples in which the truth of the Church and Her teachings have been diluted so as to render them acceptable to the non-religious palate or find common ground with those of a different denominational standing. Given these realities, it may be thought that the inability to respond and the dilution of Church teaching are explicable on the grounds of the inadequacy of any likely response on the one hand, and ecumenism on the other.

On closer analysis, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that the plea of inadequacy or invocation of ecumenism share a common feature, namely: a seeming disregard for the character of the Church as a mystical body, rather than a mere aggregate of persons. As a mystical body, the Church is entrusted with continuing the salvific mission of Christ himself. This is not merely a mandate, but an obligation. It is an obligation which surpasses the wilful misconduct and serious crimes (whether by act or omission) of all of those within the Church. The universal call to holiness requires that all within the Church participate in the mission with which the Church is entrusted and for which it will be accountable. Both the quality of the mandate and the purpose to which it is directed enjoy more than a sense of urgency. As has been repeatedly made clear, the first law of the Church is the salvation of souls. This juridic declaration of a theological truth, makes demands of all within the Church. Whilst the detail of the demand may vary, it may be considered it possesses an irreducible component: one of witness.

Within most legal traditions, the majority of witnesses provide testimony of a factual kind. Invariably, such testimony draws upon the primary experiences of the witness in question insofar as they are relevant to the matter under forensic scrutiny. Where a putative witness is unable to speak to any of the matters requiring determination, his testimony is worthless. In the term familiar to most lawyers: the witness' evidence lacks any probative value. So too, his status as an authentic, relevant witness. In contrast, where a witness is in possession of evidence of direct relevance to the matter in hand, but nonetheless chooses to remain silent, he does not simply relinquish his ability to contribute to the formulation of a just outcome. Rather, through his silence, he confers credibility on his opponents and exposes all of those likely to be affected by any subsequent judgment to potential injustice.

In our present climate, it may be said that certain leaders of the Church are at risk of adopting (and/or have already adopted) the mantle of the silent witness; choosing to refrain from comment. It is undoubtedly the case that in the majority of cases, this reticence will be the product of fear. Perhaps we have reached a time in history in which we have allowed the fear of adverse media comment to eclipse our fear of God?

Where, as here, what is stake is the fulfilment of the Church's mission, there is no room for considerations of a worldly kind. Safeguarding must have a rightful place and priority within the lived experience of the Church. Transparency and accountability are key elements of any effective safeguarding regime. However, efficacy is also fundamentally dependant upon confidence. The confidence of those who have been harmed; that their concerns will be acted upon. The confidence of those who are accused; that due procedures will be accommodated and adhered to. But, perhaps most fundamental of all, confidence that the individual offences which have prompted the Church's high profile engagement with safeguarding will not be permitted to define the Church herself or to reduce Her to silence.

Safeguarding demands not merely an institutional reaction but a firm resolve on the part of all within the Church to cultivate a climate in which the commitment to protection is inseparable from a renewed understanding of what the Church is and the mission with which it has been entrusted. A moment's reflection ought to make clear that this mission cannot be achieved if the Church is herself relegated to the position of a silent witness or relinquishes Her own voice. In the words of the psalmist:

"The Lord is my light and my help; whom shall I fear..."

Like any other faith community, the Church must be prepared to participate in difficult conversations. Importantly, if the ensuing dialogue is to bear fruit, it must be founded upon a shared understanding. One which acknowledges- and seeks to preserve- the authenticity and integrity of the Church itself. Unless it is to be reduced to the status of the soliloquy, dialogue requires the accommodation of more than one voice. In discharging their commitment to safeguarding, the choice confronting those exercising ecclesial authority is essentially a binary one. As someone once said:

"To be, or not to be. That is the question."

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