Article by CWS member Tina Beattie, originally published by Tui Motu Magazine.
1st March 2019.
Pointing to the cover-up and dysfunction of Church leadership around sexual abuse, Tina Beattie writes that real hope for the Church lies elsewhere.
Set a thief to catch a thief? — what’s the point of the summit of bishops on sex abuse?
I am writing this during the Vatican summit on the “Protection of Minors in the Church”. At the bidding of Pope Francis, 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world are attending, as well as religious superiors, Vatican officials and invited guests. Bishops were asked to visit abuse survivors before attending the summit, and they can be seen speaking about that experience on a website set up by the Vatican to report on the summit, in keeping with its declared commitment to “responsibility, accountability and transparency”. Survivors of abuse are addressing the gathering by way of videos. Of a total of 190 participants, 12 are women. The focus on minors means that there is no intention to address the abuse of vulnerable adults or seminarians. It also means that the increasing number of women committed to speaking out about abuse will not have a hearing.
Some people might see signs of hope in this extraordinary gathering —though Francis has tried to dampen what he sees as unrealistic expectations of what might result from it. Many are encouraged that he is at last taking firm action to deal with the sex abuse crisis. For example, he has defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most senior members of the American hierarchy, following well-substantiated accounts of abuse going back many years. Others are less convinced. Survivor Marie Collins, one of the former members of the Commission for the Protection of Minors who resigned because of the Vatican’s failure to take their work seriously, has expressed doubts about how robust the new systems of safeguarding and accountability are likely to be. Significantly, no members of the reconstituted Commission are present at the summit, though apparently they were consulted beforehand. I wish I could see this summit as a positive sign of change and a firm purpose of amendment, but I am sceptical for a number of reasons.
Thirty Years of Cover-up by Bishops
Of those bishops gathered in Rome, a few will themselves be abusers, and the action taken against McCarrick is likely to have caused flutters of panic in not a few episcopal breasts. Many others — maybe even the majority of others — will have to some extent colluded in the culture of denial and cover-ups, which is why their expressions of sadness, concern and regret ring hollow for me. The public exposé of the sex abuse crisis began in the mid 1980s. The bishops have had more than 30 years to put their house in order. Why should we trust them now, when they have already failed so spectacularly?
As an example of just how effective the culture of collusion and denial has been, we might consider the case of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI and Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and a serial abuser of young men, women and children. As Head of the CDF and then pope, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI was unflinching in his pursuit and punishment of wayward theologians who were seen to question church teaching on issues such as women’s ordination, abortion and contraception, and same-sex marriage, so why did he not take similarly swift and robust action against those he knew to be abusers? Francis has confirmed reports that as Head of the CDF Ratzinger gathered substantial evidence against Maciel and tried to have him brought to justice, but he was overruled. Maciel gave substantial funds to the Vatican and he collaborated closely with Pope John Paul II who professed great admiration for him.
Francis praised Benedict XVI for his bravery in pursuing the case until he was forced to drop it, but such praise is misguided and shows just how much remains to be done before sex abuse is treated with the seriousness it demands. To drop the case against a proven sex abuser because of pressure from other members of the hierarchy is to collude in the abuse. It’s what many of those now gathering in Rome have been doing for years — capitulating to pressure from above to keep quiet about what they know to be true, no matter how many more children and adults suffer as a result. The emeritus Pope is guilty of such collusion during his time as Head of the CDF, not to mention John Paul II himself. So that is one reason why I have little confidence that those men gathering in Rome have the insight, the self-awareness or the courage they need to resolve this crisis.
Dysfunction of the Hierarchy
Second, there is abundant evidence that many of the men still occupying leadership positions in the Church are themselves dysfunctional potentates, whose obsequious loyalty to John Paul II and Benedict XVI is in marked contrast to their virulent attacks on Francis. We should remember that the culture of abuse, clericalism and misogyny which now prevails across much of the Catholic hierarchy flourished under the previous two popes. Francis might not be doing enough to tackle it, but he has done far more than either of his predecessors — and his enemies will stop at nothing to obstruct and discredit him.
As an example, we might consider the open letter to bishops released by Cardinals Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller ahead of this week’s summit. The letter attributes the abuse crisis to the “plague of the homosexual agenda” in the Church, and it invokes “an absolute moral law, that is without exceptions”. It reminds the bishops that the two signatories were also signatories to the 2016 dubia published as a challenge to Francis in relation to his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia published after the 2015 Synod on the Family.
I am suggesting that cardinals such as Burke and Brandmüller and their supporters are evidence of the extent to which there is something rotten at the core of the Catholic hierarchy, and this is at least in part because of the extent to which the previous two popes allowed America’s culture wars to infect the Vatican. An obsessive preoccupation with homosexuality, abortion, contraception and gender theory was allowed to drive the hierarchy into an unholy alliance with the most fundamentalist and bigoted evangelicals. In a 2017 article, Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, described this as “an ecumenism of hate”.
The consequences of this Americanisation of the Vatican can be seen in the number of Catholics who support Donald Trump because he has cynically aligned himself with campaigns against abortion, and in the extent to which wealthy Catholics are complicit with the rise of the Far Right across the western democracies. The poisoning of the soul of the Church finds virulent expression not only in the hostility towards Francis by Burke and others, but also in the alliance of some wealthy and prominent Catholics with emergent white supremacist and Islamophobic regimes across Europe and America. For example, Steve Bannon’s obscenely misnamed Dignitatis Humanae Institute has leased a medieval monastery in Italy in order to set up a “gladiator school for culture warriors” under the directorship of British convert Benjamin Harnwell. The President of the Institute’s Board of Advisers is none other than Cardinal Burke. If we join the dots — Brexit Britain being assiduously promoted by wealthy right-wing Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg, Catholic support for Trump, Bannon and Burke’s Catholic alliance — we see that once again, as so often in history, when politics teeters towards fascism the institutional Church tends to lean in the same direction.
Lost Opportunity for Pope Francis
Pope Francis could have used the gathering this week to destroy the foundations of this ideology. I find myself going back again and again to his papal manifesto, his 2015 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, with its robust condemnation of clericalism and its affirmation of a messy, risk-taking church in which the parish and not the Vatican is the centre of gravity. Francis offers a vision of a participatory collaboration between priests and people, in which the Vatican II principle of synodality at last comes into its own, and power devolves from the centre to the many different cultures and contexts within which the Catholic faithful incarnate the life of Christ. He writes:
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (MK 6:37).” (EG par 49)
No wonder those corpulent cardinals in their crimson vestments hate him.
Yet this summit is a missed opportunity to put that vision of the Church into practice. It is already an event in which Francis is bending the rules to hold his fellow bishops accountable, but I wish he had just broken the rules altogether. Tell those bishops to come to Rome in sackcloth and ashes, and to keep a penitent silence as they listen to the voices of the laity: theologians and teachers, women religious, chaplains and social workers, mothers and fathers, survivors of abuse, gay and transgender people, all those who must be included as full participants in the life of the Church if the culture of clericalism predicated upon male privilege and a distorted theology of priesthood is to be challenged.
Look for Hope Beyond Rome
For me, this summit is too little too late. There is an ethical deficit at the heart of the institutional church, and for many Catholics around the world the hierarchy has squandered the last vestiges of its authority. If we look for signs of hope, we should not look to Rome but to the lives of millions of ordinary Catholics who see beyond the posturings and politics of the hierarchy to recognise the fragility and woundedness of Christ in our midst, to see that he too is a victim of abuse and humiliation. Mary identifies with all the mothers of children tortured and abused by men of religious and political power. She stands in solidarity with women through the ages who have kept faith alive even on Holy Saturday outside the tomb, when the men are cowering in fear and fighting among themselves.
These are not just silent vigils, for women are speaking out as never before in the Church. Catholic Women Speak, founded by me in 2014, is a worldwide network of women committed to creating spaces for women’s voices to be heard in the Church and society. We have published two books and we have recorded a series of interviews with women who represent the messy incarnational diversity of Christ’s presence in the midst of his people. Voices of Faith is another organisation campaigning for women’s leadership and for breaking the culture of silence surrounding women who have experienced sexual abuse by priests and bishops. They have recently launched a campaign, #overcomingsilence, which aims to gather a million signatures of women and men who are challenging the hierarchy over abuses of power and sex. The magazine Donne Chiesa Mondo, published in Italian and English by L’Osservatore Romano under the editorship of Lucetta Scaraffia, is becoming increasingly outspoken on women’s issues. An Italian forum of women, Donne per la Chiesa, has recently joined the ranks of women committed to staying in and speaking out.
That’s what gives me hope. As for those men in Rome, I would say they have become an irrelevance, except for the harm that they might yet do if they fail to take dramatic and radical action as a result of this week’s summit.
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 235 March 2019: 6-7
(photo credit https://www.cchwyo.org/Services/CCH/Home_Health_and_Hospice/Hospice/Service_of_Memory_and_Hope.aspx)