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Comeuppance or confession: a reckoning on clerical abuse?

With the global tide of clerical sex abuse scandals still surging in places as far apart as Poland, Ireland and the US state of Illinois, Catholic Church leadership seems as bereft as ever of a strategy for "getting ahead" of such revelations.

The Irish bishops agreed with the conclusion of Ireland's national synodal synthesis of August 2022 that a "reckoning" on the disaster has still to be achieved. But it is far from clear that the Synod on Synodality, which is to culminate in Rome in the autumn of 2024, will rise to this challenge.

What "shape" could such a reckoning take in any case? How, in particular, would the victims of clerical sexual abuse and their closest kin, picture that?

A desire for "comeuppance"  

Popular secular culture provides one obvious model for closure on high-level concealment of malfeasance. In the classic movie All the President's Men, the final sequence is a montage of press headlines, culminating in President Nixon's resignation announcement – on the foot of the Washington Post's remorseless investigation of the origins of the Watergate burglary of 1972. This was Nixon's "comeuppance" – the deserved consequence of his paranoid detestation of a critical media. 

Similarly a fictional streaming TV epic, the HBO series Succession, ends with the rivalrous adult children of another "mogul'" visiting a variety of betrayals and indignities upon one another - including the takeover by an interloper of the media empire they had all plotted to inherit.

This "comeuppance" scenario satisfies the natural human desire to see what TV readily provides in the form of "perp walks" – the bitter experience of downfall by the highest conspirators, with merited suffering etched clearly on faces. Who can forget Richard Nixon's grotesque attempts at facial denial of the defeat he had fought tooth-and-nail to prevent, or the fictional Kendall Roy's final frozen stare into his own endless horizon of failure?

A more redemptive way

No such comeuppance is possible for the long-dead originators of the Catholic policy of secrecy on clerical sexual abuse. There is as yet no official history of this cover-up but the best short unofficial account tells us that the decisive steps that affected living victims had already been taken by 1962 (A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church by Thomas Doyle).

Already in 2023 the first decisive media revelations of the phenomenon – those relating to the abuser Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana ­– are almost four decades old, and very few if any bishops have ever been criminally sanctioned by secular courts anywhere for a cover-up since then. The secularizing principles of distance between Church and state, and freedom of the press, have exposed the dysfunctions of power as exercised by the Catholic hierarchy but new state laws cannot now be made against concealment of clerical child abuse in the past.

Would it ever be sufficient in any case to see only some individuals suffer for what is in essence a colossal global institutional failure, with ramifications that must utterly change the nature of our Church relationships if they do not shatter the Church altogether? Would it not be more satisfying – and redemptive – for the leaders of the affected institution to uncover and confess an utterly mistaken and sinful sequence of decisions that sacrificed the innocence and future of children to preserve the celibate reputation of the clerical institution itself – a sequence that can nowhere find justification in the texts that the Church claims as foundational?

Looking to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures

Are not the scriptures -- the books of the Old and New Testaments -- replete instead with stories of betrayal, victimization of the innocent and then concealment by those exercising power – including spiritual power? Why has it not yet happened that these scriptural patterns of misuse of power and of divine intolerance of injustice have not yet been officially recognized in the Church's mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of children and the scandalous revelations that still remorselessly follow? 

Take, for example, the two Jewish elders in Babylon who tried to intimidate Susanna into yielding to their lust, well aware that just two elder testimonies to any woman's adultery would usually be sufficient for a sentence of death by stoning. Those two were thwarted only by the inspired young Daniel's stratagem for discerning their conspiracy (Daniel 13).

Similarly Jezebel's scheme for dispossessing Naboth of his vineyard, and then murdering him, was empowered by the divinely anointed status of Jezebel's husband, the Israelite King Ahab -condemned later by the prophet Elijah for his connivance (1 Kings 21).

The exposure of the crime of the brothers of Joseph, the most favored son of Jacob, grandson of the founding patriarch Abraham, took much longer but was also implicitly a result of divine providence – the raising of Joseph to supreme favor in Egypt, where he had been taken when sold into slavery by those siblings (Genesis 37-50).

"Status anxiety"

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of these and other such narratives, the central focus of their authors follows always the same pattern: power is misused to satisfy the desires of power-wielders at the expense of victims who are innocent - and the God of Israel is revealed as wholly intolerant of this injustice.

Even if it can be argued that there was ignorance on the part of offending bishops of the likely effects of clerical abuse upon children, this raises its own questions as to the safety and wisdom of the Church's governing system - given especially Jesus' most vehement warning against any adult misleading of a child (Mt 18: 6). Do we not need to know why the clerical Church, with an experience of pederasty dating from the earliest centuries (cf. Didache), had to look in the end to secular psychiatry for the truth of the impact of such abuse on the young?

Another connection implicit in all of these biblical stories is that between the status anxiety of the conspirators and the secrecy they try to maintain over their own motivations and actions. By "status anxiety" I mean fear of shame, of social condemnation and rejection, in consequence of revelation of the selfish exercise of power. These biblical stories surely reveal a pattern that should have warned against clerical secrecy over clerical abuse – especially because of the repeating pattern of divine intervention on the side of victims.

That this identical pattern has been replicated in the case of secrecy in Ireland must now be obvious. Not until the first public revelations of the phenomenon in 1994 did Irish bishops begin to act decisively in the cause of child safeguarding. Then it took the Murphy Report of 2009 to precipitate the Irish bishops' declaration that there had indeed been a widespread culture of cover-up, motivated by a desire to protect the reputations of individuals as well as that of the Church.

King David and the greatest of all failures by an anointed leader

However, this same declaration, seemingly regretted by some Irish bishops at the time, now points to a future church document that builds upon scriptural examples of "reckoning" - to admit that the great conspiratorial sins of Old Testament archetypes have had a near equivalent, with countless child victims, in our own time. That document will surely reference the greatest of all failures by an anointed leader of Israel – King David – and draw inspiration from his example of contrition.

Who cannot see that the most obvious reason for David's betrayal of the Hittite elite soldier Uriah was also David's status anxiety, his desire to conceal his self-indulgent seduction and impregnation of Uriah's wife Bathsheba - while Uriah was himself away from home, fighting Israel's enemies? At length the book of Samuel has previously extolled David's youthful climb to celebrity, with the women of Israel chanting of his military exploits and his superiority to Israel's first anointed king, Saul. The fall from grace that David faced in the matter of Bathsheba's pregnancy was in direct proportion to this unparalleled status – and far too much for him to bear. His despicable betrayal and murder-by-proxy of Uriah then followed (2 Samuel 11:1-12:9).

Church leadership's inability to grasp the nettle of compunction and contrition

And yet, according to the same narrative, Israel itself was preserved in the Old Testament telling, by the courage of the prophet Nathan and by David's reciprocal compunction and contrition. This too – the eventual victory of the truth, and not the celebration of any individual or caste – is the true glory of ancient Israel, and of our Church's foundational texts.

It is surely inevitable that the Catholic clerical leadership will one day admit that their institution sinned against children, their families and the Trinity by attempting to keep secret the hard and vitally important fact that a small but significant proportion of ordained Catholic priests could mislead and violate children – and that in making use of the inspired secular principle of a division of power to reveal this mistake the Trinity are not only vindicating all child victims but revealing the future of Catholic Church governance.

In the meantime are we not all living in the limbo of our Church leadership's inability to grasp decisively the nettle of compunction and contrition? We are surely in these days as ancient Israel was in the time between King David's crimes and his heartfelt and full confession. This time of high-level hesitation and bitter revelation cannot end soon enough for a myriad of living victims, and for all of us.

By Sean O'Conaill | Ireland

5ean O'Conaill is an active member of the Association of Catholics in Ireland and a writer for its website. Born in Dublin in 1943, he taught secular history in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland until retiring in in 1996 to write on the gathering crisis of Church and culture in the West. He is the author of Scattering the Proud: Christianity beyond 2000 (AuthorHouse UK, 2012).

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of La Croix International)


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