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Clerical abuse: enough is enough

Annemarie Paulin-Campbell reflects on the horror of clergy sexual abuse as recently revealed by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, detailing the horrific abuse within six dioceses in Pennsylvania, USA. She argues that “unless we swiftly address the systemic issues that have given rise to such atrocities, we cannot move forward with integrity” and appeals that all bishops should “[a]part from following protocols…. ensure that complaints against priests are properly dealt with by civil authorities.”

The Grand Jury Report on clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania was recently released. It details horrific abuse by 300 priests of at least 1000 victims. It exposes an entrenched culture of covering-up such abuse by Church authorities.

These revelations have rightly evoked angry responses globally. Clergy sexual abuse is one of the most psychologically and spiritually destructive things a person can ever experience.

Pope Francis wrote a strongly worded letter to the whole Catholic Church expressing shame and sorrow. He said that no effort should “be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening.”

However, he says little about what concrete things will be done to change the Church.

This is a Kairos moment for the Church. The time for band-aid approaches is over. Unless we swiftly address the systemic issues that have given rise to such atrocities, we cannot move forward with integrity. The blame-game and scapegoating of some groups must stop. We face a deeply rooted institutional crisis at the heart of Catholicism.

First and foremost, among the issues needing urgent attention, is clericalism and the abuse of power. Pope Francis says: “To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to clericalism.” Priests are part of the community of baptised believers, called by God to pastoral care and service. There are many dedicated priests who are men of integrity; they too are appalled and deeply distressed by the situation. It is when power, status and privilege distort God’s call that terrible things happen. Unfortunately, lay people were taught to put inordinate and uncritical trust in priests, further exacerbating the situation.

The conflation of ordination with decision-making power in the Church is a key problem. Priesthood needs a servant-leadership approach.

We need to rethink making celibacy a pre-requisite for priests. It is a particular call and gift of its own. By linking it with the priesthood, we place unnecessary pressures on those who may have a genuine call to the priesthood but not to celibacy.

The issue of women’s inclusion in decision-making and ministry also needs attention. In addition to the abuse of children, the abuse of women (especially women religious which too has been in the media recently) is, in part, the result of power exercised over them by priests. Women, therefore, are disempowered.

Seminary formation is a key concern. Priests are trained away from the realities of life; they are told they are “set apart” and even dress up to further entrench this. Many start their training immediately after school. They may never have had the experience of adult life in an ordinary context. The psycho-sexual development of students should be a critical part of their formation; currently it is inadequate.

Bishops need to be held accountable. Apart from following protocols, they must ensure that complaints against priests are properly dealt with by civil authorities. We need to expunge the medieval prince-bishop model we still emulate and reject the pomp and ceremony around bishops. They must be shepherds. Lay people must have significantly more say in the running of the Church on all levels.

We must confront this horrific evil head-on. Prayerfully. Discerningly. Courageously. We owe it to those who have been so grievously hurt and to the future generations. Enough is enough.

Images: Unsplash | Rux Centea

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell currently heads up the Jesuit Institute School of Spirituality (JISS). Annemarie is a Catholic laywoman who has studied and worked in the area of Christian Spirituality for the past 16 years doing spiritual direction and retreat work, and training spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition. Her particular focus is the training and supervision of spiritual directors and retreat givers. A related area of interest is in the interface between Christian Spirituality and Psychology. Annemarie's doctoral research is on "The impact of imaginal and dialogical processes on shifts in image of self and image of God in women making the Spiritual Exercises as a 19th Annotation Retreat." Annemarie is also a registered psychologist (and life coach), and has worked in particular in the areas of trauma counselling and community psychology.

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