Posted by: meditati0n509 | April 30, 2010

A Way Forward for the Catholic Church?

We too, the rank and file of the Church, need to speak out.

A Way Forward for the Catholic Church?

An Article by Claire Conroy – April 23 2010

It has taken me a long time to formulate what I have been feeling about the crisis facing the Catholic Church over the sexual abuse scandals. For the last months I have been grieving my Church. It feels much like the demise or the break up of a family. Indeed during Holy Week I cried bitter tears of sadness and regret over the sins and failings of my Church.

Over the past twenty years there has been a steady stream of accusations of sexual and other abuse of children by priests and by religious in institutions. This is indeed horrendous; yet equally horrendous has been the climate of secrecy fostered by the higher echelons, mainly in the Vatican, whose concerns have been to minimise the damage done to the ‘Image’ of the Church rather than face up to and deal with the issue. Such secrecy has in fact contributed to the continuing and ongoing situation in which innocent children were raped, shamed and damaged physically, emotionally and spiritually by the very people who were supposed to be leading them to God. In this last year, in Ireland, we have had the Ryan Report and the more recent Dublin Diocesan Report both of which put horror into our daily lives by revealing the huge and widespread incidence of sexual abuse and the equally extensive cover ups that have occurred.

Vatican Denies Any Blame

Even now the Vatican seems to want to bury its head in the sand. The blame for not reporting known paedophile priests to the Irish legal authorities has been laid squarely on the shoulders of the Irish bishops whom, the Pope said, made mistakes in their handling of the situation. “I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.” (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Paragraph 1)

“It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.” (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Paragraph 11.)

Pope Benedict XVI thus absolves the Vatican from any involvement whereas in fact Irish bishops were misguidedly following Vatican protocols or at least adhering to the Vatican culture of secrecy and cover ups. Several newspaper articles and TV News items in the past week alone affirm this opinion. What indeed are the norms of canon law that the bishops failed to apply? How could they have applied them if, as many believe, they were upholding this top down ‘model of secrecy’ which runs contrary to any such norms and so enables them to be put aside? Neither does this absolve the bishops for their failures just as blind obedience to any authority is no excuse for wrongful behaviour.

There is Hope

I am heartened by the recent letter to all Bishops by the theologian Hans Kung

In his letter published last week (Apr 16 2010) in the Irish Times, he advises bishops to speak out because by remaining silent on these issues they are upholding an archaic model of Church which no longer serves the faithful. This model puts obedience to a hierarchy above their primary responsibility of obedience to God and to those in their care – especially children! We are the Church. The hierarchy is not the Church. Yes, they are a part of it but by staying silent which they swore to do – in obedience to the pope – they are in fact doing a disservice to the faithful whom they are called by God to serve.

Like many of my colleagues and friends I was appalled by the media images of the Irish bishops, in full regalia, seen kissing the papal ring. Such archaic public ritual does little to focus on the core issue; rather it promotes this ‘other worldly’ attitude that appears to be above and beyond the situation it was supposed to be addressing. I respect the office of the papacy and the person of our current pope yet these gestures of support and respect made to him by the bishops should have taken place in private and the press images would then have focussed on the heartfelt, honest and serious discussions which did indeed take place. Like many other Irish Catholics, I waited eagerly to read the Papal letter; which did address the issue of sexual abuse and firmly addressed the perpetrators. Yet I was very disappointed that the Vatican’s part in the cover ups was not admitted. They are still in denial here, and until they do admit such guilt and blame there can be no healing. I applaud the great work done in recent years to ensure the safety of children and the new advice given to all clergy (quoted above – Paragraph 11 ref) about making known all such incidences to the legal authorities.

In the past, even when priests did report such cases to their bishops, the bishops did not act by passing on files and information to the Garda (Irish police force) but instead simply removed the offending paedophiles from one situation and placed them elsewhere in circumstances where they could again target children. The social situation of the time, thirty or forty years ago, lacked the psychiatric knowledge of later decades and so slightly explains why the secrecy and moving on of priests was the norm for dealing with the issue – it was mistakenly believed that the offender could change his/ or her behaviour (sexual abuse was also committed by some female religious) – through prayer and with the help of counselling or therapy – but like alcoholism or any other addiction there needs also to be a removal from the source of temptation. In later decades especially since widespread allegations of paedophile priests and religious brothers became public we have had this knowledge and so there was no reason to persist in using this old outdated model.

I am aware of various statistics quoted about sexual abuse; that clerical offenders are only a small percentage of clerics – like any other sector of society such as parents, teachers, sports coaches, uncles and so on; and that the clergy as a whole are shamed and tainted by association. The real problem lies in the special position of trust held by religious people in the lives not only of children but of the laity as a whole.  Like many Catholics, I feel shamed and angry and betrayed. I am often asked to justify ‘Why I continue to be part of this Church?’ Indeed many people are so hurt that they are unable to remain in the Church. Others respond like St Peter: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’ I recognise too that our primary spiritual relationship is with the Divine, whom our Church names as God, yet the Divine is within each of us. I applaud the advice now given to all bishops by the Pope.

A Way Forward

The way forward, then, as I see it, is for small groups of people to meet regularly to share and heal their hurt and express their painful and angry feelings, to share scripture, to meditate, to discuss, to pray. I will participate in or facilitate such groups wherever I can.  If we can ground ourselves in Christ’s Love – in God – in the Spirit, then there is a way forward for the Church. But surely what the Church is to be must grow from our own healing and from the healing of all those who were and are victims of abuse.  Healing too of the abusers for we all share the same human nature and the same divine essence. We all carry within us the same potential for good or evil acts and it is possible that if we had the same background and life situation as an abuser that we too could offend in the same way.  ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’

Compassion then is the way. Compassion for our own pain; compassion for those abused and their families and friends, compassion for the 95%-97% of clergy and religious who are not paedophiles; and compassion for the bishops, priests and higher members of the hierarchy and at the age of 83, compassion for our current Pope. Compassion too for the many, many people – clerical, religious and lay – who feel as I did, lost, saddened, betrayed, disheartened, abandoned and bewildered. Yet the old structures must go. Compassion must be accompanied by justice. I believe that a new way of ‘being church’ will come from the laity. Yes we do need structures but structures allowing people to humbly serve as Jesus both showed and encouraged us to do when he washed his disciples’ feet at the last Supper. Hans Kung outlines six ways that the Bishops can help to heal the Church – one of which is to assist such small groups of people as I envisioned in the paragraph above; but first, he says that the bishops must speak out in their own right as bishops at local level tending to their flocks. We too, the rank and file of the Church, also need to speak out.


  1. I don’t think you should be worrying about how the church and it’s leaders have let you down, you should focus on your prayers to God only. The Catholic religion has indeed gone and I believe we are moving into a more spiritual world where nobody is better than anyone else. Priests bishops all that nonsense, do you actually think God would want you to be worshipping these people and not Him. I don’t think so. God wants us all to live as one as we are of his flesh, remember nobody is better than anyone else, we are all the same and if you think anyone is better than you, well that’s sad and also worshipping false idols!!!

    • Hi Trisha.
      Thank you for reading my blog article and for your response.

      Yes, I agree we are in an age when people are opening up to Spirituality – and yes I do believe that the old way of ‘being in Church’ is passing away. What the future Church will look like remains to be seen. Maybe its current form will pass away. The word ‘church’ means community so a church is really the community of its people which can take many forms.

      No, God does not want us to worship priests or bishops. They are only messengers; it is the message that is important. The message that we are all the same at our core; that we are one, that we are all connected; that we are each capable of and worthy of love, and of being whatever our spiritual path calls us to be. This then is where we find the divine mystery for God is within.

      Yet for me, Catholisicm in its essence – its purity – is still a valid spiritual path for many, many people.
      If you have seen my book review on Willigis Yager’s book ‘Mysticism for Modern Times’ you will see that he looks at the essence of spirituality and yet leads people to that deeper path through their own belief system.

      Yes too, my relationship with God is central and permeates my life but I am human and my emotional reactions as they occurred were what was going on in me and in many others. To be spiritual does not remove our humanity.

  2. I commend you on your simple, yet well constructed, web-site.
    There is nothing that a person can feel, or do, that is not a feature of his or her humanity. There is nothing outside, or beyond, our humanity, that is available to us as human people.
    To promote otherwise is to avoid the empowering understanding of what it is to be human.
    To pass over to any other party, in whatever form it is perceived, the awe inspiring capacities that are a feature of every human person, whether they are exercised or, for whatever reason, not, is a monstrous discount of those same capacities.
    I urge to to embrace, and not to discount, all that you are.

    • Hi Andrew, Thank you for your comment.

      You say: “There is nothing that a person can feel, or do, that is not a feature of his or her humanity.”

      I agree yet I also believe that we can transcend our ordinary humanity. Eckhart Tolle teaches that there are two differing levels of consciousness; the first is our everyday thought dominated level where we focus on all the activities that are parts of our lives. The second, deeper level is an Awareness of the ‘I’ who can observe the thinking mind and the behaviours and the other objects that we live and work with. Being fully human means living from this deeper place in us – our essence which is one with the essence of everything else which exists. Living in this way brings compassion and joy and peace and creativity into our everyday lives. Such is the teaching of all religions and philosophies at their core – the teaching of all the mystics. Since no one can conceptually understand this mystery at the core of existence there is no great need to agree on a definition of what it is while at the same time we can all experience it. Such too is the essential message of the Catholic Church which has meanwhile been lost to many among the dogma and the scandals and the institutional structures.


  3. Being present in the present is our ultimate goal and well done for your work in helping us towards that goal. However, each of us has a long struggle trying to overcome the bits that drag us into the past or else we think we can plan for all eventualities for the future and forget to live in this moment.
    As to one commentators suggestion of the death of the Catholic church, perhaps this is the rebirth we are witnessing. For there is a need for real values, the formation of an awareness of truth in our conscience. The problem with dispensing with the Catholic church is that we throw out standards through which we form our conscience and we do need standards. It is clear to see that many people have lost a grip on understanding any kind of truth. Some suggest that what the conscience dictates is good enough, but life around us guides and perhaps kills the conscience so that what one person thinks is wrong is ok for the next person. But there is one truth or maybe most of us are like Pilate who declared ‘Truth, what is that?’.

    Yes strive to be in the present. Strive to be totally in the present and dispense with anything which removes us from the truth. Seek the truth.

  4. Hi Seamus,

    Thank you for your comments. You say:

    “Being present in the present is our ultimate goal. . . However, each of us has a long struggle trying to overcome the bits that drag us into the past or else we think we can plan for all eventualities for the future and forget to live in this moment.”

    This is exactly how the human mind works; but we can use things to remind us to come back to the present – such as the phone ringing, or a doorbell – or when switching from one task to another. We can take one or more conscious breaths at these times and that brings us back into presence.

    Yes I agree with you that society needs values. You are concerned that by abandoning the Catholic Church people will lose their sense of values. Historically the Western world developed values from the Graeco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian cultures and the Chuches have contributed hugely to this. Yet society today is changing rapidly and many people are rejecting these traditional values – for many reasons – such as materialism, new cultural influences, the global nature of society, and so on quite apart from the scandals in the Catholic Church. It just seems like this is the last straw for many people who are either hurting or scandalised or both.

    I think the only answer is to trust the process. The essence of Christianity – the message – is still valid despite everything. The Spirit is at work in our world and in our crises. I think values ultimately come from personal awareness; from people going inside themselves and connecting with their deeper selves.

    You challenge me when it comes to defining truth. For me Truth is less a concept and more of an experience. Whole lifetimes have been devoted to searching for truth. It is the quest of scientists, philosophers, theologians, artists, prophets, mystics and poets. No one has a full explanation, nor can they, since the very core of reality is grounded in the mystery we call the divine, (which for me is God).

    I think it comes down to living an authentic life which means being aware and living with integrity and actually honouring what you believe is right in concrete situations. Truth and values and the future of religions and churches are such vast issues, yet it comes down to each person living out their truth.

    We are only beginning this spiritual exploration of what it means to be a human being; what it means to have a spirituality. This can only be good.

    For the recently beatified John Henry Newman, conscience was paramount but this needs to be both a fully formed and and an aware conscience. Awareness is key to all spritual growth and awareness is another way of saying ‘Be present now’.

    Trust is vital. Jesus said that ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and so also is truth. Going within then is the way to listening to our deeper self and listening for what is authentic, what is true.


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