26 March 2015, The Tablet

Abuse of power in the Church

The stripping by Pope Francis of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s rights and privileges of his office, coupled with an admission by his successor Archbishop Leo Cushley that his behaviour had made the Catholic Church in Scotland “less credible”, might not be enough, sadly, to bury this sorry affair and let healing begin. There were major allegations against O’Brien when he was Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. The first was that he was a hypocrite when he outspokenly attacked the proposal for gay marriage. His exposure as a gay man who had made multiple unwanted sexual advances fatally undermined the Church’s message in what was already a tense debate. The reputational damage has been done; he has apologised and paid the penalty.

It is not so easy to lay to rest the allegation that he made some appointments in his archdiocese based on favouritism. That means the essential problem – abuse of power under the protection of the Church’s hierarchical structure – may still be present. But it is not confined to Scotland. There are several cases, most notoriously that of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna, where clergy knew of sexual irregularities in the past or present lives of senior church dignitaries, and did not know where to turn, or were not listened to. On a lesser scale, those who felt aggrieved by the behaviour of Bishop Kieran Conry, then of Arundel and Brighton, felt they had no obvious remedies except, eventually, to go to a national newspaper.

The victims of O’Brien’s sexual misconduct, mainly fellow clergy, suffered greatly. They felt trapped and powerless because of his seniority. It is still not clear how many there were – around 40 has been suggested – and though the new archbishop will need time to address all the issues, there is nothing in place so far that looks likely to give the victims justice. It is suggested that many of the 40 have not made formal allegations, though they are known to fellow victims. That indicates a lack of confidence in the Church’s procedures for dealing with such complaints.

When bishops are accused of erring in faith or morals, the matter is usually dealt with, in the first instance, by the nuncio, the local representative of the Pope. However, he may not understand the local culture; nuncios usually have a very small junior staff; their conduct is bureaucratic and secretive; they have a limited capacity to investigate. Yet allegations of sexual misconduct are always difficult to handle, and institutional pressures are strong.

In the case of O’Brien, the nuncio seems to have acted swiftly. But in 2009 the nunciature in Ireland was so savagely criticised for failing to cooperate with an official inquiry into child abuse by clergy that there was a serious breach between the Government and the Holy See which is even now not fully repaired. All of which suggests that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, needs to take a long, hard look at how nuncios handle allegations of sexual abuse involving both children and vulnerable adults. Had there been a system in place in which clergy and laity had confidence, it is arguable that Cardinal O’Brien would have been stopped in his tracks long ago.

What do you think?


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User Comments (5)

Comment by: catharina
Posted: 12/05/2015 21:07:12

On reporting sexual abuse by clergy to the Catholic Church in NZ you are given a procedural document, which on scrutiny reveals nothing is confidential, from the start, there are many 'should' and 'could' and not many 'will', you are handed a blanket consent form at the initial getting-to-know-you meeting, allowing the investigator to search every document in existence about you. You need to ask for a witness/observer for your meetings. In my case the investigator dressed as if for a dominatrix role in a 50 shades of grey genre movie.

All in all, a good case for the Human Rights Commission.

Survivors are up against a powerful organization, this Catholic Church 2015.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 01/04/2015 14:20:45

How is this put right and how exactly will all this end? It seems there is an insatiable desire on the part of some to see the former Cardinal publicly flogged or boiled in oil. My feeling is that nothing will suffice. Is it also fair to read into this that some of those accusing O'Brien did so because they were not sufficiently rewarded. If that is the case that needs to be investigated as diligently as O'Brien himself.
What of that other miscreant Kieran Conry. Is he also to face this endless public anger?

Comment by: From down under
Posted: 30/03/2015 07:11:52

At last something is being done. Now let's hope that Pope Francis looks at the shocking state of the abuse that has taken place in Australia.

Comment by: Catlady
Posted: 27/03/2015 12:56:40

This is a good article except it stops way short. What "...rights and privileges..." were stripped? Voting for the pope?. And by whom? O'Brien had already given up all or most of such "rights", although we will never know how much pressure might have been applied behind the scenes. Most of us might not regard being given good retirement pay while living in a most pleasant house as being completely stripped of privileges.

Comment by: Bob
Posted: 26/03/2015 21:36:22

Exactly - we need a system where monitoring and safeguarding concerns are taken seriously . How can we police ourselves as church ? We can't ; and this has led to this sad situation . What will Francis do with the next one that comes along , now he's given a precedent - show more mercy ? Where is "zero tolerence and we will not take one step back on this issue "his words not backed up by action . His strong words are what the people are delighted with ,,,,,, but recent judgements fail to smell of the sheep ,,,, maybe fish or old style under the carpet - or new style mercy - which can look the same . Was obrien like some of the banks ; and too big to fail ?

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