I was surprised by the severity of comments of the Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury about the Catholic Church in Ireland. He is reported as saying, in the course of a radio interview, that the Catholic church in Ireland had “lost all credibility” because of its handling of the paedophile priests issue.
The abuse of children by people exercising power, whether that be religious, familial or civil power, is among the worst of crimes.
But the Archbishop’s conclusion is overstated for a number of reasons.
The Catholic Church is not just the priests and religious, it is the people. The people have not lost either their credibility, or their faith.
The vast majority of priests had nothing to do with this criminal behaviour.
While it is true that, in the past many of these suspected crimes were not reported to the civil authorities, procedures are now fully in place to report such suspected crimes in a timely manner.
Not all the reports have been found to be valid, although the consequences for those against whom all reports were made were severe.
Recent enquiries have also found that, in some cases in the past, medical and police authorities were not as rigorous as they might have been in pursuing allegations of child sex abuse. This reflected profoundly unhealthy attitudes in society as a whole, for which Irish society as a whole must share blame with the church.
The danger now is that a debate about accountability for past wrongs will absorb all our energies, and that the issue of paedophilia itself will not be examined and discussed.
What causes this tendency to develop in people? When does it start? What are its roots in families?
How can it be prevented?
What treatments work? What penalties are effective, and which ones cause as much harm as they prevent?
Does religious belief, and a sense of right and wrong that has been reinforced by religious belief, help people to suppress such tendencies in themselves, or does it hinder them in doing so?
These are really difficult questions to which we need to find answers if we are not to have another similar scandal in another generation, perhaps affecting a different institution in which power is then concentrated , the way it was concentrated in the Catholic Church in an earlier time .
I believe the Archbishop of Canterbury should accept that Irish Catholics know that they have deep and painful lessons to draw from what has happened. But they are learning these lessons and are well able to make the necessary distinctions between
– the strength and credibility of their faith,
– and the sins of acts and omission of the human beings who make up the church.