Saturday, March 13, 2010
The Times' allegations
The Times on the other hand, one might expect to be a little better, last week I am told they reported on a Brighton Catholic priest, urging people on his blog to be compassionate, despite downloading their copy from the net or a news agency, they still got his name wrong. Have you heard of a Fr Michael Blake?
In a story by Gregory Owen headlined "Pope knew priest was paedophile but allowed him to continue with ministry", The Times suggests the Pope was complicit in the cover-up of an abusing priest, whilst Archbishop of Munich.
This story just doesn't ring true, Joseph Ratzinger's greatest fault is that he appoints people to a position and lets them get on with things and focuses his energies on precise projects. His time as Archbishop of Munich was not the most glorious part of his career, he is a man of ideas and concepts, not a micro-managing administer. Certainly he was a loving pastor but in a diocese with over a thousand clergy plus a vast lay staff, it seems absurd to expect him to have even known of this abusive priest. In fact that was a criticism of his time in Munich that his relations with clergy were cerebral and rather formal, and their pastoral supervision was left to vicars general, but that happens in a large diocese.
The past, even the recent past, is a different country, Owen's allegation stem from 1986. The priest in question was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence and fined DM 4,000 (£1,800 today); apparently there have been no formal charges against him since. The lightness of the sentence and fine are indicative of the different attitudes that were prevalent at the time, not just in the Church but in society generally. It is worth reminding ourselves that the first English language academic study of the phenomena of sexual abuse of children was published less than a decade before. I can't imagine a German study pre-existing it.
Those were the days in which parents thought it best not to talk about such problems, that children forgot unpleasant things that happened to them, that carrying on and keeping up appearances was everything. Rape of women, abuse of children always carried with a suspicion that the victim was somehow not so innocent, and the victim bore some responsibility. Respectable women didn't report rape in those days, parents tended to be satisfied that abusers were moved on and would happily collaborate in official silence to protect their child from public exposure as a victim. It is difficult for us to understand such taboos today. I do not think it is surprising the Pope’s brother arrived at the Regensburg Choir after an abusive headmaster had been ousted and knew nothing.
Child abuse by priests until the last ten years victims seems to have been dealt with more in terms of a sin against celibacy, a problem centred on the priest's soul rather than on its effects on the child. It wasn't seen as a specific problem, it essentially revealed a weakness of character, a lack of formation or commitment to his vocation. That might necessitate his removal as far as possible from the occasion of sin but little else. So the normal way of dealing with it in the past was a spell in a monastery, or with an order that dealt with priests with problems, some real sign of repentance, possibly followed by being sent off to do a specialist chaplaincy, looking after nuns, or prison work or a spell as a Naval Chaplain seemed to be popular, or just being sent abroad. In our naivety we thought it could be dealt with by prayer and spiritual direction.
The Church as well as society tended not to talk, or maybe even think, about these things, not only because it was shameful but because there was a sense of protecting both the perpetrator’s and individual's character from detraction.
The Church especially felt these things were best dealt with in the confessional, even if they were semi-public, there was still a sense that sin, especially sexual sin, really belonged in the internal forum. When most Catholics went to Confession more frequently I suspect hearing about sexual abuse in the Confessional was not quite as rare as it is today.
In England when allegations of child abuse first came to the fore in the Church in the late 1990s, we simply didn't know what to do, we just didn’t understand the gravity of them, as we do now. In larger diocese where the bishop did directly appoint or concern himself much with his clergy, especially the junior clergy, the problems were for the most part dealt with by an appointee rather than the bishop himself. If there was cover up it was part of the mores of the time.
Judging the present by the past is rather easy but being wise after the event, shows a lack of understanding.
Posted by Fr Ray Blake