LAST THURSDAY was the (optional) feast day of St Peter Damian, shown here. He was a Benedictine monk active in Italy in the 11th century, about the time of the Battle of Hastings; somewhat reluctantly he was made a bishop and a cardinal. He was renowned as one who tried to stamp out abuses and scandals among the clergy. Over the years I haven’t had a great devotion to him, partly because I read somewhere that one such scandal was the existence of married priests, who were seen to be ill-disciplined (they also had a tendency to leave presbyteries to their their children); although in this period they weren’t validly married and their partners were what in a later age though not our own) would be described as concubines or mistresses. He also tried to stop clergy from making money out of the sacraments (the sin known as simony); and he also battled against the scandal of clergy abusing children and being treated too leniently by their superiors.
Whether by accident or design Peter Damian’s feast day was the first day of the special summit of bishops and cardinals in Rome to address that same issue. In a way it is both disturbing that we face at least one of the same problems as people faced in the Church a thousand years ago; I imagine the penalties for clergy who committed such crimes were more severe. For us, the scandal of children and young people in the Church being assaulted or raped by clergy is the defining issue for our age: not because it hasn’t happened in earlier periods, but because modern communication enables more people to know about these crimes, and also because we do have, thankfully, a stronger sense, even compared to the Italy of St Peter Damian, of the rights and dignity of children – I imagine in the 11th century the focus was on the priest’s lack of chastity rather than the sufferings of his young victims.
What makes the issue so difficult is its tendency to re-emerge in different ways, bringing new problems. For linked to the abuse of children is growing evidence (long hidden) of the abuse and exploitation of nuns by priests and even bishops in different parts of the world. At long last this is coming to light, and the crimes committed need to be made public and the perpetrators punished both in civil courts and under Church law. As with the abuse of children, there needs to be ‘zero tolerance’ and Religious sisters and others who can ‘blow the whistle’ about this need to be free to do so and not intimidated by bishops or their superiors into keeping quiet. That this intimidation has happened is a sign that the Church institutionally is still getting things very badly wrong. There are many other examples, in this country too: while we know that good child protection procedures were set up some years ago, it is also clear that in many settings (for example, boarding schools) they weren’t followed. Laypeople have a right to be angry with their pastors when mistakes continue to be made, again and again – I am afraid many in authority are running out of excuses. There are even horror stories which suggest that clergy are criticised or pressurised when they preach about the scandals – it is surely our duty to do so.
Of course some people do make the same responses as they always do – there is child abuse in other parts of society (true), we have enemies in society (true), it’s the same in other churches (true), and so on – but these considerations should not distract us from facing up to the real moral evil in the midst of the Body of Christ on earth which this scandal represents.
As with other moral crises, we are given an opportunity as a result of what has happened. We can grow in our understanding of the dignity and rights of children, young people and women; we also have the chance to make decision-making in the Church more transparent and accountable; by showing real penitence, by avoiding excuses for bad or incompetent conduct we can set an example to the world; we can work hard to try and support and care for the victims of these heinous crimes, to listen to them, to try and heal the damage done to them by those consecrated to be ministers of love who have so badly spurned the gifts of God’s grace; we have the opportunity to be open about this, and if necessary challenge those in authority who get things wrong.
This weekend pray particularly for Pope Francis, that God may give him the strength to root out this wickedness, to be a new Peter Damian for our age.