A crisis for the laity, a crisis for the clergy, a crisis for the bishops and, increasingly, a crisis for the Pope himself.
It has caused great damage to the victims, who need to be considered first.
In some cases the psychological damage will last a lifetime.
The crisis has damaged the image that the Church has of itself; it has damaged the authority of the Pope.
Priests see themselves as men of spiritual values, disciplined in their personal lives and requiring considerable personal sacrifices, including the sacrifice involved in a life of celibacy.
They usually have the respect of their own communities.
It is still the case that congregations usually trust their own priests; that is true of the Catholic Church and of the Church of England, but it is easy for the Catholic clergy to feel they may be suspected of criminal conduct with children, which they find as outrageous as does everyone else.
Like MPs who have never abused their expenses, many priests must feel that they are suffering guilt by association.
Most clergy live relatively austere religious lives.
The proportion who have ever had sexual allegations made against them is about one in 200.
That proportion has been high enough to cast some degree of suspicion on the priesthood as a whole.
The clergy are able to do their work because they are trusted, and that trust has been damaged.
The Catholic Church of previous eras had a policy that sexual offences should be hidden.
This policy of “cover-up” has done the greatest possible harm, both to the victims, who were not believed, and to the spread of abuse.
Until about ten years ago, most Catholic bishops thought it was their duty to protect the Church from scandal; they mistakenly believed that secrecy would act in the interest of the Church.
They protected paedophile priests from the police; they persuaded the unfortunate victims to sign secrecy agreements; they kept the stories out of the press; they moved the peccant priests from one parish or diocese to another.
Families were persuaded that their children, who had suffered abuse, were fantasists or liars.
The victims were made to feel that it was they who were guilty.
This essentially unjust and dangerous policy was particularly effective in strongly Catholic regions or countries, such as Ireland or southern Germany.
In England, where the Catholic Church has nothing like the same social influence, the general laity still had no idea that there was a serious problem of paedophile priests.
The process of reform in England started with press criticism in 2000 of the newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
That led to a change of policy in England and Wales. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor responded in an open way, which led to the reform of the treatment of abuses in England.
The archbishop had been criticised for having, as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, moved a suspect priest to the chaplaincy of Gatwick airport, where he might have been able to associate with children.
When the archbishop examined the criticisms, he decided that the policy of the English Church needed to be reformed and asked the eminent lawyer, Lord Nolan, to report on the issue.
In 2001 Lord Nolan produced his report, The Review on Child Protection in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The review recommended openness and the reporting of offenders to the police.
It was adopted.
Cardinal Murphy- O’Connor got his decision right.
He opted for reform, openness and the prosecution of offenders in the place of secrecy, concealment and movement of offenders.
Ireland did not have the benefit of a Nolan report, nor was there an early reform. The situation in Ireland shows how quickly the Church authorities could lose control of the abuse scandal.
The Irish Government published its report of horrifying abuses in the Republic.
The Northern Ireland Assembly intends to establish a similar inquiry.
Two Irish bishops have resigned.
Cardinal Sean Brady is considering his position as Archbishop of Armagh, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
Pope Benedict has announced an apostolic visitation of the Irish Church.
If the Archbishop of Armagh is having to consider his position, how high will resignations have to go?
Professor Hans Küng, the liberal Austrian theologian, has been a long-term critic of the post-Vatican II papacy.
He is quoted as saying that: “No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knows as much about abuse cases as the Pope. Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own mea culpa.”
I am not sure what this means.
Is Professor Küng directly calling for Pope Benedict to resign, or is he merely calling for a further stage of apology, going beyond the Pope’s letter to the Irish?
Professor Küng seems to be treating the papacy as though it were governed by the same conventions as a secular political institution.
A minister, or even a prime minister, may have to resign if he loses the confidence of the public or fails in some part of his duty.
But there is no papal constitution of that kind.
No Pope has resigned since Gregory XII, in July 1415. The Pope is more like a monarch than a prime minister. One of the duties of each successive pope is to hand on his office to his successor.
A resignation would destroy the balance of authority; a resignation under pressure would not be the last.
In the course of his career, as an archbishop or as a cardinal, Pope Benedict has given his loyalty to previous popes. As Pope, he has loyal support, not least in England.
He may have made misjudgments in his earlier offices. If he did, his duty is to carry out the reforms he perceives to be necessary.
In effect, he should do what Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor did when he was Archbishop of Westminster. There is no mystery about the policies that need to be followed; the Church needs to apply the principles of the Nolan report on a universal scale.
In fact, Pope Benedict made a start on reforms when he was still at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is his duty to complete them; if the Pope cannot enforce them, who can?
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