16 October 2023, The Tablet

Delegates at Spirit Unbounded address issues facing the Church

Spirit Unbounded met over the weekend in Rome, while the Synod of Bishops was taking place.

Delegates at Spirit Unbounded address issues facing the Church

LGBTQIA panel at Spirit Unbounded: (l to r) Marianne Duddy-Burke (DignityUSA), Mara Klein (German Synodal weg)
Susie Triffitt for Spirit Unbounded

The source of the “plague” of child sexual abuse in the Church is the “traditional devaluation of children”, the theology of priesthood and mythical image of the priest promoted by Pope John Paul II, according to canon lawyer Dr Tom Doyle.

He recalled a deposition he attended in which a bishop, when asked about the victims of a paedophile priest in his diocese, said, “Little boys heal.” Doyle said, “That sentence – that concept manifests the fundamental ignorance of the hierarchy about the damage done and the effects of sexual violation on the young. None of them have ever had children. If you have never had children, you cannot properly appreciate the damage that is done by sexual abuse.”

The former Dominican said protecting the institution seems to be “the ultimate value, not the welfare of victims”.

The well-known advocate for victims of clerical abuse criticised the theology of the priesthood which emphasises the ontological change at ordination. He described this concept of the nature of the priesthood as “exaggerated” and “inflated” which promoted the idea that the priest was an Alter Christus.

This had led to the priest being “deified” within the institutional church and ultimately enabled abusive clerics to groom and get access or control over children in a way nobody else would.

“They're able to do this and pull this off because of the mythical image of a priest.”

Doyle, who has taught in a number of US seminaries and universities, told the Spirit Unbounded assembly of lay reform groups that he had “never heard” of the concept of ontological change when he was in the seminary or for the first 30 years of his priesthood.

“I only heard it mentioned after John Paul II became pope, when he started using it and started magnifying the priesthood beyond what it is.”

The ontological change concept he stressed is “not something that was given to the Church by Jesus Christ or by St Peter. It was conjured up by a French cardinal named Cardinal Pierre Bérulle in the early part of the 17th century. It has led to some very unhealthy concepts of priestly identity and culture.”

While St Thomas Aquinas had taught that the priest is an instrument, “Cardinal Bérulle taught that he was a lot more than an instrument” and that “at ordination he becomes part of the physical person of Jesus Christ”.

Elsewhere in his address, Fr Doyle said this over identifying of the priest with Jesus Christ had resulted in Mass which “more resembled an opera” than the Last Supper. “The priest represents Christ but he is not Christ,” he stressed.

He was critical of the ethos which focused on protecting the image of the institution as the “ultimate value”. He also questioned the system of governance and the monarchical structure of the Church.

Warning that clerical sexual abuse is “still a persistent plague”, he told the assembly, “When you hear people say ‘it's all over, it's under control now, it's behind us’, those are people that are either in denial and want it to be behind them because it still makes them uncomfortable, or they're living under a rock. I hear a lot of clergy and a lot of the hierarchy say, ‘we've got that all taken care of’. I’m sorry cardinals and bishops, you haven't got it taken care of because you don't know how to take care of it, and you didn’t take care of it.”

Elsewhere he said the Church’s institutional leadership in general “does not appreciate the incredible damage done to human beings when they are sexually violated as a child or a young adolescent by an adult.” He said depending on the type of violation and the degree it generally can have lasting, destructive consequences.

“If you’re a catholic and that violation takes place at the hands of a cleric, the violation is both eminently deeper and worse. And the institutional church, by which I mean the hierarchical government, do not appreciate that. I've not seen anything coming out of the Vatican that talks about the damage to children and adolescents because of this, and how do we fix this. Nothing.”

He said the ultimate goal should not be to protect the institution, the ultimate goal should be to protect the body of Christ.”

Another speaker at the Spirit Unbounded assembly was Cardinal Keith O'Brien’s whistleblower Brian Devlin who described the Church as “an organisation rooted in misogynistic apartheid”.

The former priest said Spirit Unbounded’s exploration of the human rights abuse in the Catholic Church had shown “an organisation that, because of its institutionalised misogyny, offers no place for women in ministry and leadership”.

“Imagine if the Roman Catholic Church was a country. What would happen to it? Well, we know what occurs to apartheid nations. It would be deemed to be a rogue state. It would be internationally sanctioned. No one would buy its products. Would you vacation there? Would you bring your children there?”

Recalling Pope Francis’ announcement in October 2021 of the synodal process, he said in Scotland, the Archbishop Leo Cushley of Edinburgh had set the scene with his take on synodality.

The Archbishop had said, "It is gathered around the Successor of Peter in the See of Rome, and through the koinonia, or communion, shared between the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, we here are all held in a communion which is effective and affective,".

He then added this quote from Ignatius of Antioch: "Wherever the bishop is, there, is the Church."

In Devlin’s view, the idea, that wherever the bishop is, there is the Church, was demeaning, reductive and un-beatitudinal.

“The well that Catholics drink from has been poisoned by so many of those very same bishops - and we need our Church back,” he said.

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