We have got to move on from here. The Church in the 16th century took the bull of corruption and abuse by the horns and moved on to the Catholic Reformation. It must do the same now. Another tranche of documents – 10,000 pages of them – are in the headlines in the US this week, detailing more records of abuse. Mind you not all 10,000 pages will be disturbing. Some of them record complaints about the long hair-styles or Elvis-style sideburns of some of the clergy of the time. But some of them are indeed disturbing. This time they come from the files of the diocese of San Diego, California. Good. Read then, beat our breasts sincerely and contritely – but then move to do what we should have been doing when these ugly heinous crimes were being committed. We are not doing a service to anyone, least of all the victims of abuse, by just continuing to beat our breasts. If the corruption within the Church in the early modern age was the occasion of driving good men out of the Church, the corruptions of our own age have had no less drastic consequences. It is time to address these consequences.
Moving on is not the same as forgetting. We must never forget what has happened – we cannot, in fact, ever forget it. It is and always will be part of us. It is part of our fallen condition, the effects of which we have all inherited.
We were reminded of this by Pope Benedict in his address at Oscott College in Birmingham in September. “As we reflect on the human frailty that these tragic events so starkly reveal, we are reminded that, if we are to be effective Christian leaders, we must live lives of the utmost integrity, humility and holiness. He then quoted an Anglican priest to express his hope for the future: ‘O that God would grant the clergy to feel their weakness as sinful men, and the people to sympathize with them and love them and pray for their increase in all good gifts of grace’” Those words were the prayer of the Rev. John Henry Newman, now Blessed John Henry Newman, delivered in a sermon on 22 March 1829.
The Pope made no bones about the impact of the scandal on the moral credibility of Church leaders. “I have spoken on many occasions of the deep wounds that such behaviour causes, in the victims first and foremost, but also in the relationships of trust that should exist between priests and people, between priests and their bishops, and between the Church authorities and the public.” But he went on to acknowledge the new awareness “of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects, and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community”. He did not make the obvious point that clerical abuse was but the tip of the iceberg of child abuse. He sees no point in that kind of defence but those looking on should be ready to concede it, if they are at all interested in fairness. What he did propose was much more positive: “Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere? Our duty of care towards the young demands nothing less.” At the heart of the response must be, he said, “Integrity, humility and holiness”.
Looking forward, with the supernatural vision that is the hallmark of his office, he said that his prayer would be that among the graces of his visit to Britain “will be a renewed dedication on the part of Christian leaders to the prophetic vocation they have received, and a new appreciation on the part of the people for the great gift of the ordained ministry. Prayer for vocations will then arise spontaneously, and we may be confident that the Lord will respond by sending labourers to bring in the plentiful harvest.”
Finally, as if to underline that essential platform of the spiritual and supernatural on which that harvesting work can only be based, he spoke to them of the Eucharist – in the context of the imminent publication of the new translation of the Roman Missal for the English-speaking world. “I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration. ‘The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6).
Then, in final words of encouragement the Pope seemed to echo back to that age when the failures and corruption of churchmen five centuries ago drove good men into a revolt which still divides Christendom. He spoke about the generosity needed for the implementation of the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, that apostolic instrument by which members of the Anglican Communion might be reunited with their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. “This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.” Now that is moving on.