For nearly 30 of my 46 years on this planet, I have been regularly inundated with stories about sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Canada. I wasn’t even Catholic yet when the first major news erupted in February 1989 about Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a place filled with the same sadomasochistic horrors and demonic abuse (and cover-up) that we have heard about this year in the Pennsylvania report and similar stories from other parts of the world. I wrote my first paper on the crisis as an undergraduate in the early 1990s for a class on child psychology. The paper consisted of an analysis of the 1992 document From Pain to Hope, which the Canadian episcopal conference issued in its first major attempt to come to terms with the stories of abuse that had been emerging over the previous decade.
The Canadian bishops have just issued another, newer, and longer document entitled “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation”. It is instructive to see what they apparently have—and have not—learned in more than twenty-five years.
This new text, states the introduction, was drafted over the last four years. It is a lengthy and wide-ranging document divided into three parts. The first presents a history of Catholic responses to abuse and stories from survivors; this runs to seventy-six (of 181) pages. Perhaps the best feature of this section is that every sub-section ends with highlighted text boxes listing points of action expected or encouraged from bishops and major superiors.
The second section is highly technical, and offers canonical norms, sometimes in complex legalese (both canonical and civil). These norms, we are told, have been reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved for publication.
The third section offers an annotated list of recommended resources in both official languages (French and English) and from several countries, including secular governmental publications, publications of clinicians, and Catholic resources. Several appendices then follow, including numerous check-lists for what to ask for and how to listen to victims, how to deal with offenders, and how the wider Church can deal with the shame. A glossary, footnotes, and index bring the report to a conclusion.
Overall the tone is modest and restrained. Though rightly noting that progress has been made in the last quarter-century (e.g., mandatory reporting in all jurisdictions, and the removal of any statute of limitations on indictable offenses), it avoids any crowing about achievements because it recognizes that a lot of damage still remains, and new allegations continue to emerge. Indeed, the pain and damage of abuses previously acknowledged can by no means be considered a thing of the past. As a result, it recognizes that “the need for healing and reconciliation, for repentance and conversion, and for deep ecclesial renewal remain a challenge” (16).
Two other major challenges are flagged early on. The first involves what is describes as transparency “and the willingness to be accountable” (18). Later on it puts this as a call to “revitalize the Church by engaging new, more collaborative forms of ministry” (39). But nowhere do we find the necessary specifics. Who collaborates with whom doing what? What mechanisms are in place to ensure this accountability happens regularly?
The documents then states that perhaps the biggest lesson learned since 1992 also remains an ongoing challenge: that of meeting with victims and hearing from them. But then the authorial mask slips a bit and two very revealing claims emerge: “while it may be difficult and even humiliating for a bishop to find the courage to meet survivors, Pope Benedict XVI has shown that it is not impossible” (23; my emphasis). Humiliating—for bishops? Who need courage? This is offensive whining. What of the real humiliations endured by victims, whose real courage in coming forward was often rebuffed by a callous and uncaring hierarchy? Still, we can freely admit that the bit about courage among bishops not being impossible is surely a very telling admission of their manifest weakness in this regard. (What’s that old saw about how, at an ordination, prior to putting the mitre on a man’s head, his backbone is first removed?)
Elsewhere, however, the bishops do manage to strike a better balance. While several times noting that “zero tolerance” is an understandable public expectation, which the bishops themselves share, it also says the Church cannot remain the body of Christ if it is not merciful like Christ to all, including offenders. It immediately adds, however, that mercy can be offered only after admission of guilt, reparation of harms done, and other demands of justice are met. And the document later rightly insists “church leaders be cautious when using the language of forgiveness” because it may “downplay” or “delegitimize” the pain of the victims, or make them feel pressured to offer forgiveness before they are ready (55).
The document also recognizes the suffering of those in the Church who are innocent. It admits the widespread sense of shame on the part of many Catholics, noting with striking candor that some who remain “profoundly attached” to Christ nonetheless “no longer feel comfortable identifying themselves as Catholic or proclaiming their faith in public” (38). This, of course, confirms something many of us have known for a long time: abuse and its cover-up function as anti-evangelistic tools more powerfully than just about anything else. Whenever, for thirty years now, we have seen the word “Catholic” in the headlines, we have become accustomed to hearing not evangelion—good news—but nightmares.
It’s important to note that there is a kind of negative ecumenical effect as well. I recall how, in 1992, when—while still an Anglican—I was discussing my paper on the earlier document From Pain to Hope with my child psychology professor. Her scorn was such that she didn’t make ecumenical distinctions between churches or denominations, but clearly regarded the sins of Catholics as damning all Christians. I tried several times, and without much success, to explain that Anglicans had a lot in common with Catholics—but were not part of the Catholic Church. In hindsight it was a wasted effort, for the Anglican Church of Canada has since 1993 been embroiled in its own crisis, largely centered on abuses committed by its clergy at residential schools for aboriginal Canadians.
After more than a quarter-century of struggling to learn, what must yet be done? All throughout, the report is right on sentiment, but short on specifics. For example, it calls on “all members of the Catholic Church in this country…to engage in a process of regaining credibility” (48). Later on it says that the Church can “regain its credibility by examining its own self-understanding” (62). And later still it says that restored credibility requires “transparency…, a challenge which must be taken up as generously as possible in order for broken trust to be restored” (71). In none of these places, or elsewhere, does it give any serious and specific guidance on how any of this is to be done.
The missing piece, I submit, and have argued at length in my forthcoming book Crucifying the Church: the Costs of Reform Today, comes in looking at practical structural reforms to the organs of ecclesial governance—parish councils and diocesan synods in particular. Until and unless these are reformed so that lay people will play not merely a consultative role but have decision-making powers in a manner commensurate with clergy, the bishops who write documents such as this will find, in another twenty-five years’ time, that there may—please God—be far fewer stories of abuse only because there are far fewer Catholics in the Church.