It was difficult not to feel sorry for Bishop Kirby of Clonfert when he was confronted by the press and asked to comment on the most recent chapter in the shocking and, apparently, never-ending, saga of child abuse in the Catholic Church. His attitude, demeanour and responses had all the sad characteristics of the biblical lamb being led to slaughter.
He repeated what is now becoming a church-mantra. He knows now what he did not know then. And nobody would doubt his sincerity. He describes his “gross innocence and naivety” in his perception that if he moved the offender away from access to the victim, that all would be well. He said that, at the time, he saw the offence as “a friendship that crossed the boundary line.”
While accepting the Bishop’s sincerity, most ordinary women would read his comments with a certain perplexity, if not incredulity. The Catholic Church, of which he is such a distinguished member, has, historically, set down the most rigid standards for women in the control of their fertility. Family planning which involved any methods, other than “the natural,” was condemned, despite the fact that such planning may have been in the pursuit of giving children the best possible care.
The church was professionally knowledgeable and prescriptive on the nature and minutiae of women’s fertility and yet was, apparently, innocent and naive about the recidivist nature of paedophilia. And while most ordinary mothers in ordinary streets where children played in my youth, would not know the word, they would recognise the danger which the condition presented to their children and without being explicit, would warn them accordingly.
“Be good-mannered but never take sweets from, nor accept any invitation to, so-and-so’s house.” Without being sensationalist they would often recognise unhealthy tendencies, but they did not expect to find these in the church to which so many of them gave their loyalty and devotion.
Could some of the troubles in the context of child abuse in the Catholic church have been prevented if women had a voice in its governance? Almost alone amongst the world’s institutions, and particularly amongst its sister Christian churches, it still excludes any input from half its membership - women. Their experiences, accumulated wisdom, intimate knowledge of chid-rearing, have all been ignored in the past, and continue to be ignored in the present.
In the comments from Bishop Kirby, and indeed in many official church comments on the now several reports on child abuse within the church, there would appear to be a recurring explanation of “not knowing then.” Was this a genuine or a chosen ignorance? For the past half century (at least) studies on the nature of child-abuse have been coming into the public domain, and were forming part of professional evidence in our courts of law in incidents of criminal prosecutions.
These studies confirmed that, such was the nature of the offence, “curing” the abuser was almost impossible, and that the best that could be achieved was containment, by monitoring, supervision and sanctions. Relocation which the church used in dealing with its offenders, was not an effective option, as experience has how unfortunately confirmed.
It would be assumed that this information would have been available to the hierarchial departments of a church which has always claimed the high moral ground. Indeed, as we were so often told in our schooldays, all the faults and failings of humankind, however heinous, would not surprise any confessor.
Yet, while many women (especially many poor women) were subjected to the disapproval of their church if they chose to plan the spacing of their children, the abusers of children suffered little more than the inconvenience of relocation.
While many have left, there are still many, many people in the pews of our Catholic churches, including, perhaps, a majority of women. They are there (and I am one of them) because of their intrinsic belief in the Christian message. Formal letters of apology have been read to us. Statements have been made in the media. Explanations given, as in the case of Bishop Kirby, about not knowing, and not apprehending, and about taking what was perceived to be the most appropriate action at the time.
But no effort has yet been made in talking with the people in the pews. There has been no engagement in a two-way dialogue leading to a process of reconciliation.
And women? Well, their inclusion in a meaningful conversation is not even a speck on a distant horizon!