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Child sex abuse: A catalogue of failures in the Church and apologies are not enough

Catherine Pepinster says the recent damning report from IICSA into the Catholic Church’s response to child sex abuse reveals an institution that has lost its moral purpose

When the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its report into the Roman Catholic Church this week, the public could have been forgiven for thinking they had read it all before.

It referred to the lack of support for victims of abuse by priests and monks; the alleged perpetrators being given more help than those they abused; and poor safeguarding – the same catalogue of failure as was exposed in its previous report into the Church of England, published in early October.

Here are two Christian institutions whose raison d’être is not only love of God but supposedly love of one’s neighbour, and yet both let down the most vulnerable in the most appalling way. If the Churches are meant to stand for anything else, that is surely a clear moral code. Yet, as Tuesday’s report on the Catholic Church said, the “appalling abuse” meant its moral purpose had been betrayed.

Tuesdays’s report said that between 1970 and 2015, the Catholic Church in England and Wales received more than 900 complaints involving 3,000 sexual abuse incidents, while its Church of England document reported 390 clergy members, and other church leaders were convicted of abuse between the 1940s and 2018.

When abuse in the Catholic Church first started to be mentioned decades ago – and it has happened in the Church across the world, not just in this country – one popular theory was that it was caused by its clergy having to be celibate. Lack of fulfilling sexual relationships, went the argument, caused Catholic clerics to assault children. But the abuse of children by Anglican priests who have every right to marry – and indeed by pop stars like Gary Glitter, who make no vow of celibacy – surely puts paid to that argument.

Instead, there seem to be three common denominators regarding abuse in the Churches: access, power, and trust.

Clerics have particular access to children – or at least they did, before we all became more aware of the risks. They come into contact with them through worship and sometimes through schools. In the Catholic Church, this access was particularly prevalent. Young males would serve as altar boys and spend time alone with priests. Priests and monks would also be responsible for many boys’ education, through schools run in connection with the Catholic Church or by orders of monks.

Being ordained also gave the clergy power. People who suspected abuse might not report it because they were daunted by taking on a particular cleric and even the entire institution of the Church.

And then there was that final, crucial aspect of the whole terrible story of abuse: trust. People trusted the clergy. Parents trusted priests to care for their children. Other adults assumed that members of the clergy were people of integrity who would not abuse the young and the vulnerable, and who would live according to a strong moral code. They did not expect people in positions of responsibility to collude with one another to ensure that those who had done terrible things evaded justice. But that happened time and time again. Wrongdoing was hidden. Sometimes abusers were moved from one neighbourhood to another to quash rumours or get them away from victims, as if the victims were the cause of the problem.

It is going to take a very long time to rebuild that trust. Leaders of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have issued apologies for the way in which they failed to protect children and enable a culture that facilitated abuse. But the apologies are not enough. As the IICSA chair, Professor Alexis Jay, said: “While some progress has been made, there still needs to be lasting change to culture and attitudes to avoid repeating the failures of the past”.

The progress she mentions includes the acknowledgement that the problem of abuse has been widespread. More needs to be done in both Churches in terms of safeguarding. Talking to survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church makes this very clear: they have often found that some people working in safeguarding show a distinct lack of empathy and block their inquiries about their cases. Survivors call this suffering secondary abuse or being re-traumatised. That they have to endure that suffering after all they have been through, and all the courage they have shown in speaking up, is particularly terrible.

There are also calls for more independent oversight of safeguarding. After all, the Churches have previously said they would organise their own child protection and they failed. And now, the trust necessary for such responsibility has gone and it will take a very long time for it to be repaired.

But there is one other deeper question that Christians must ask themselves. If one of the problems in this awful saga is that clergy who perpetrated this abuse continued with it because they were given second chances after pleading forgiveness, does this suggest the Church has been too understanding? Have the people who paid the price for the ideal of redemption been the victims?

However important it is to forgive sinfulness, something has surely gone wrong if Christianity is a faith where the sinner finds salvation at the expense of the innocent.

Catherine Pepinster is the author of Martyrdom – why martyrs still matter (SPCK)

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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