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What do our young children make of the scandal of clerical sex abuse?

2010 May 7
by Paul Vallely

The monk who runs the parish in the West Country where a friend attended church last week broke down in tears in the pulpit. He was reading out the letter which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have addressed to all members of their church. It is an apology for clerical child abuse and the scandal that has brought down upon that church – and by association all who call themselves Christians.

The letter arrived in my own parish his week. There the priest did not read it from the pulpit but had it handed to all adults as we left the church after Mass. I could understand why he did that when our ten-year-old asked what it was and I was confronted by what we should say to someone of that age.

The letter is extraordinarily well-conceived, well-written and extremely moving. It begins by articulating that we are all members of a single universal body so that “these terrible crimes, and the inadequate response by some church leaders, grieve us all”. It puts first in our concern those who have been made the victims of crimes which inflict such severe and lasting wounds. “The distress we feel at what has happened is nothing in comparison with the suffering of those who have been abused,” the bishops say. They offer heartfelt apology, express deep sorrow and ask pardon of those who have suffered. “There can be no excuses.”

But they go further. These may be the personal sins of only a very few but they bring shame upon the whole church. “We are bound together in the Body of Christ and, therefore, their sins touch us all”.

What is it all about, asked my son as we left church. I plunged in and said: Some priests had abused children by hitting them and fiddling with their private parts. And instead of telling the police, many bishops had simply told the priests off when no-one else could hear and moved them to other parishes. But when they went to their new parishes some of them had done it again with other children. In the letter the bishops were admitting that they had been wrong to not to call the police, which is what they would do now if it happened again. But there were new rules now to stop priests being left on their own with children any more.

How will all this touch the next generation? What impact would that have on the simple faith of a ten-year-old, I fell to thinking. When I was his age priests were not objects of human fallibility, let alone creatures with feet of clay. Infallibility, as we vaguely misunderstood it,  was not merely something that extended to everything the Pope said but pretty much to the actions, pronouncements and judgements of all adults.  The only frailty I had seen in a priest when I was ten was when, as an altar boy, I heard our parish priest call his curate “Fatty” on the altar. (I did not know about dementia then either).

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, TS Eliot once said. What of children? Will clerical abuse and its cover-up make the church feel to them to be deeply flawed and riddled with hypocrisy? Or will it grow a stronger faith rooted in a more realistic understanding of what it means to be human?

Not that there was any choice about telling my son the truth when he asked. All we can do, as the bishops’ letter affirms, is “commit ourselves afresh to the service of children, young people and the vulnerable in our communities” and for priests, religious and laity alike to serve them with dedication, energy and generosity.  And hope that there is strength, rather than a despairing fatalism, to be found in the injunction that we should “weep not for me but for yourselves and for your children”.

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