When they are required to address the evil of sexual abuse by priests, religious and others within the Church, it is not uncommon for those wanting to protect the ‘good name of the Church’ to refer to the perpetrator as a ‘bad apple’, or some such. It’s a way of cocooning the offence, of hiding from the truth, of suggesting that the perpetrator of the evil is a rarity, an aberration, within an otherwise sound and holy community, and that all we need to do is to identify the offenders, root them out and put in place measures to minimise the risk in future.

That way of presenting the matter is an insult to the abused and it won’t do. Lives have been ruined, victims have taken their own lives, not just because of the abuse itself but because the system, the Church, has grotesquely let them down. Yet, in one way, the ‘bad apple’ image can serve a purpose, because the rest of the saying is, ‘One bad apple spoils the whole barrel’ and there is no escaping the appalling truth that the twin scandal of abuse and then of wholesale, systematic cover-up means that there is something deeply wrong not just with the occasional, individual ‘bad apple’ but also with the fabric of the barrel itself. Closer to the mark, surely, are Jesus’ words: ‘A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit’ (Matthew 7: 18).

The Holy Father articulated this in his own way when he said, in his Letter to the People of God, ‘Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons… supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ”no” to abuse is to say an emphatic ”no” to all forms of clericalism.’ And that is why he has called a synod of bishops next year to explore ways of addressing the evils implicit in clericalism by tearing open existing structures of control so as to involve the laity in the process of decision-making within the Church. This is not a new idea: it was all there in one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church. Here is what I said about this in a previous newsletter article: ‘In article 37, [the Council Fathers] envisaged a way forward for the Church in which the laity would not only be permitted but even at times obliged to express their opinion on matters concerning the good of the Church, and with proper structures in place to enable this to happen. This process of consultation and collaboration was not to be a matter of occasional, one-off consultations but should be part of a ‘familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders’ that would lead to ‘a great many wonderful things: …in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders…’ while their pastors, ‘aided by the experience of the laity, [could] more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world.’

Lumen Gentium came out almost sixty years ago but, since then, what? The answer is, not a lot. While there has been talk from time to time of ‘collaborative ministry’ between clergy and laity, what this has often meant, though it varies from parish to parish, is that lay people have been allowed to read at Mass and distribute Holy Communion, and not much else. That is not collaborative ministry: it is clericalisation of the laity; it is not empowerment but containment, fobbing the people off by letting them help out on the sanctuary. Yes, more enlightened parishes have engaged the laity in often truly remarkable ways, with catechesis and other pastoral programmes; but at the level that truly matters within the governance of the Church, the laity have been systematically kept well out of the way until church leaders were forced by the law to admit lay people into the process for investigating sexual abuse.

There is a famous story of an encounter between St John Henry Newman and his bishop, Ullathorne. In response to Newman’s campaign to involve the laity in decision making, the bishop sneeringly asked, ‘Who are the laity?’ Newman replied that the Church would look foolish without them. Yet in many ways, too many within the Church, over a century and a half later, would still prefer to behave as though you don’t matter, as typified by the jibe that your role is to ‘pray up, pay up and shut up’ just as you did in the past. It is the laity’s acquiescence in being marginalised like this that has allowed the forces of clericalism to retain a stranglehold on the Church, so creating, as one victim of sexual abuse told me, the conditions for the perfect storm of sexual abuse and systematic cover-up.

If you see your role as one of ‘pay up, pray up and shut up’, that is indeed your choice. But is it the right choice? Do you really want to see a perpetuation of a system that the Holy Father himself has told us is no longer fit for purpose? If you want to influence the way the Church is run in the future, please do make your voice heard. The consultation phase within our own parish on the forthcoming Synod is coming to an end, but it is still not too late to have your say about the parish, or about the Church in this country and throughout the world – an email to the parish office or a note dropped through the letterbox will be fine – you don’t need to say who you are if you don’t want to. Surely we owe it to ourselves to make our views known; surely we owe it to those who have suffered the trauma of abuse to support the Holy Father’s wishes to open up the Church and root out any systemic rottenness that still lurks there? Let me remind you one more time of what a female parishioner told me – she is herself a mother: ‘If women had been involved in running the Church, none of this would have happened because the abusers would have had nowhere to hide.’

At 3pm on 2nd February, the Feast-day of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, we will pray the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady in solidarity with the victims of sexual abuse within the Church. During Lent, one of our Friday evening services of the Way of the Cross will be offered for Victims. You will be able to follow the services live via the webcam.

Deacon   Sean