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Column: Pope Francis is considering the needs of survivors of clerical child sexual abuse

As yet, the Papal Commission initiative is quite short on details; I see opportunity and hope in this ‘space’ but it will take courage to enter it from both sides, writes Mark Vincent Healy.

Mark Vincent Healy

IN THE DOCUMENT “Child Sexual Abuse – Framework for a Church Response” published in 1996, it had the following to say of ‘The Effects of Child Sexual Abuse’:

“A particular effect of abuse by a priest or religious is the harm which may be done to the person’s religious faith. The shattering of trust by a priest or religious who abuses may destroy the person’s trust in the Church and confidence in its ministers. Distrust of priests may result in the experiencing of significant difficulties in participating in the Eucharist and receiving the other sacraments. Indeed, the victim may feel unable to continue to be a member of the Church. Abuse may even damage or destroy belief in God.” – p.12

Some hold the most profound consequence is the loss of belief in oneself which has caused far too many in the population of those so abused to take their life. It is well recognised by many in Ireland that one turned to the church in times of great distress but where do you turn when the cause of that distress is the church?
In an effort to address the spiritual consequences of clerical child sexual abuse the Council of Cardinals, established 13th April 2013, is examining the ‘pastoral care’ needs of survivors of clerical child sexual abuse and their families.

I have no record of the numbers of survivors or their families who ‘participate in the Eucharist and are receiving the other sacraments’ who might be able to avail of the proposed ‘pastoral care’.

‘Pastoral care’ implies that a relationship exists

Indeed ‘pastoral care’ implies there is a relationship between those involved, and in that relationship there is a ‘trust’. I think you would be very hard pressed to find any survivors or their families expressing anything other than their feelings of betrayal and demands for justice, which invariably intensify in failed and harrowing protracted judicial processes in the vast majority of cases.

I think the initiative by the Papal Advisory Council of Cardinals will need to consider ‘how badly have we [the church] messed up that relationship?’ The legal process does nothing to show there is anything but self-interest and self-preservation.

Those faced with causing scandal through perpetration or facilitation are thrown into survival mode. Their state of affairs triggers a ‘flight or fight response’ in order to survive what presents itself as a ruinous situation to the reputation and existence of those causing such scandal. Since the 1980’s the response was one of insurance and lawyers, hardly the expected response of professed ministers of the living God.

Scandal is the drawing of another into doing a wrong because of the gravity of an offence caused. Clerical child sexual abuse has clearly drawn hierarchical figures within the Catholic Church into responses that served the ‘rescue of reputation’ of particular dioceses or congregations rather than the ‘rescue of children’ sexually abused by clergy.

‘Assistance or avoidance response’

However, for those abused and caught up in the scandal, the situation triggers an ‘assistance or avoidance response’. Unfortunately, when the assistance is deemed overwhelming or in the ‘too difficult category’, avoidance becomes the standard response. It is as though those who were abused are considered too troublesome to assist and may be the cause of tipping the life balance of otherwise willing helpers in family, friends and community.

On the 5th December Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, a member of the Papal Advisory Council of Cardinals, announced that “Pope Francis has decided to establish a specific Commission for the protection of children” and to help those who suffered abuse in the past in terms of a pastoral ministry to victims of abuse and to their families.

“All the Cardinals and Pope Francis were in favour of the proposals”.

“Up till now there has been so much focus on the judicial parts of this (clerical child sexual abuse) but the pastoral response of the Church is very, very important and the Holy Father is concerned about that and so he feels that having the advantage of a commission of experts, we will be able to study some of these issues and bring concrete recommendations for the Holy Father and for the Holy See that will be very important.” – Cardinal Sean O’Malley

The Papal Commission initiative is short on details

The last and only time pastoral care was included in any open discussion with Irish survivors was on 30th March 2012 at Manresa House where it was hoped to create a Spiritual Support Services for survivors as sponsored by Bishop John Fleming, Ordained Bishop of Killala, of the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference (ICBC). The discussion was discontinued with those in attendance although I raised it repeatedly with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

As yet, the Papal Commission initiative is quite short on details but it is generating a lot of interest. It would be interesting to see more of the details through involvement. Central to such an initiative are matters of truth, trust and justice in what I am reading concerning responses by survivors. And from my correspondence and meetings with Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, it is their belief that survivors deserve to be treated with ‘dignity, justice and compassion’ at all times. I see opportunity and hope in this ‘space’ but it will take courage to enter it from both sides.

Mark Vincent Healy is a survivor campaigner seeking ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse.

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Mark Vincent Healy

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