A group of solicitors headed by Richard Scorer has written to the Times (17 January 2012) to urge the establishment of a public inquiry into the way that the Roman Catholic Church has handled the sexual abuse of children by priests and other workers. Despite action taken to address the problem it appears that there is still massive under-reporting, and the letter alleges that there are three times as many cases of abuse than those reported in the official Church figures. They say that there is evidence of cover-ups which they believe are the tip of the iceberg.As the letter notes, this is a problem for the Church of England and other churches as well, but the proposed inquiry appears to be aimed primarily at the Roman Catholic Church. It has not only recruited more than their share of abusers but has suffered systemic inertia and defensiveness in dealing with the problem. Bishops have handled cases internally, moving priests round in the hope that they will cease to abuse children in their care. They failed to report cases to the Police, as if they are above the law. They have kept secret files, and there are hints that these records have been destroyed. The National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, however, said that there were no secret archives.
The lawyers argue that these problems are such that it is time for everything to come out into the open. “There is now overwhelming evidence that religious organisations are too compromised by their own failings to police themselves effectively. The only way to address the scandal of sexual and physical abuse in these organisations is through a comprehensive public inquiry, and we urge ministers to order this without delay”. The lawyers were supported by the Minister and Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors, who also alleged that there had been cover-ups.
We have argued on a number of occasions in the Webmag that if the Roman Catholic Church is to hold to its own beliefs and practices it needs to confess, repent and seek forgiveness. The mechanism of confession is a regular part of Catholics’ way of life and it enables people to come to terms with their failings and make a fresh start. It also reflects good restorative practice, helping people face up to their social obligations and make amends.
Why should the Church itself not make a similar confession, and seek to make reparation? We are not talking here about money, but about restoring faith in the Church. People need to be able to trust the Church – both the local priests and the hierarchy which supports and controls them. The problem may be that the people to whom atonement should be made are the victims of abuse and their families. The Church is used to being the righteous party, handing out the absolution; it is not used to playing the role of the sinner, seeking forgiveness from those it has harmed.
Public penance is painful, as Henry II found out after Thomas a Becket’s murder. In this case, penance needs to be done both for the physical and sexual abuse of children and the hierarchy’s defensive cover-up. It will be a hard lesson but the inquiry sought by Richard Scorer and his colleagues may give the Church the opportunity to make a fresh start.