LONDON (UNITED KINGDOM)
La Croix International [France]
July 5, 2022
By Penelope Middelboe
Could co-production be the key to tackling clerical abuse?
“The Church as a whole must embark on a world-wide process of truth and reparation [beginning] with the acknowledgement of responsibility.”
This assertion by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE) in France is the starting point for this article.
We all want a Church that is safe for everyone: free from physical, spiritual, emotional, institutional and reputational abuse. We want healing in all its complexity for the victims, both the abused and the abusers.
And we want fit-for-purpose procedures to prevent abuse, and to deal with it, whenever and wherever it occurs.
Yet sadly, there seems to be a huge distance between what we say we want and what we are prepared to make happen. And there is genuine disagreement about whether the truth is liberating.
I am one of the small core team of Root & Branch, an online, international forum for Catholic Church reform. We are all volunteers and our only funding is from donations. Prayer is at the heart of all we do.
We are trying to stay within the Church and grateful to the clergy and religious who work with us. As co-responsible members of the Church, we and Scottish Laity Network co-hosted four online talks about clerical abuse, alongside some of its survivors. The talks were entitled Stolen Lives.
On a recent webinar for The Tablet, sponsored by the Pastoral Review, I and the other panel members were asked what gave us hope for the future.
I found myself quoting Tom Doyle, one of the Stolen Lives speakers, an American priest who has worked with survivors and their families for 37 years. ‘Survivors,’ he said, ‘hold the key to our future Church.’
I had to add that I had not ‘unpacked his statement yet’ but that it gave me hope. So I ask you to bear with me now as I try to ‘unpack’ what Doyle’s words might mean.
A sense of optimism and hope
At every step in our planning of Stolen Lives we consulted with, and spent time getting to know, a number of survivors of clerical sexual abuse who trusted us enough to try working with us.
These brave women and men, one a former priest, are all still seeking reconciliation with their battered Christian faith. They tell us that they found the experience of working with Root & Branch healing, in strong contrast to their experiences with Church authorities.
These consultant survivors enriched the content of the talks in ways we could not have imagined, creating a fledgling sense of optimism and hope shared by our online audience.
Survivor RC-A711, who prefers to remain anonymous, wrote at the conclusion of the talks, ‘the final product felt such a good fit. This is what I meant when I talked about real co-production.’
Co-production? We were immediately struck by that word. What did RC-A711 mean? Could ‘co-production’ help us understand why survivors might be the key to the future? How would we extend such ‘co-production’ to a whole-Church approach to the crime that is clerical abuse?
The Tyrant and the Child
I should like to take you to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkino Faso. It is the late 1990s.
I am one of two script and series editors on the largest co-production in television. S4C (Channel 4, Wales) and Channel 4 Schools have commissioned an animated series of 15- minute films for children that will reflect the culture of each of the 39 co-producing countries.
It is going to be a brave attack on the ‘Disneyfication’ of animation, which has meant that children in poorer countries have never been able to see their own culture creatively reflected on their TV. It will be costly and difficult.
Télévision nationale du Burkina has bought into this unique co-production. Quality talent will be found and paid for out of the general pot.
The one condition of engagement for animators, designers, writers, musicians is our insistence that each film authentically carry the voice of the host country.
Each TV station pays according to a sliding scale according to their country’s GDP. HBO will pay £18,000 per film: Burkina Faso £500 for all 39 films.
Before contracts were signed the biggest funders, HBO (USA), TF1 (France) and ZDF (Germany), assumed they would be part of an editorial panel alongside the UK initiators S4C and C4. But the UK commissioners said no.
A panel of decision-makers who considered themselves superior to the rest would contradict the aim of the series to bring about equality for all.
For the very first time the big hitters, with their sense of superiority (underpinned in this case by economics), would not be allowed to interfere.
Instead two independent, objective experts – I and the other script editor – will see fair play. Burkina Faso comes up with a story called The Tyrant and the Child.
The tyrant is untouchable in his vast, mud palace, with ferocious guard dogs and a female favourite who does his bidding. He terrorises his subjects in their mud huts. He banishes anyone who stands up to him.
Eventually he exiles every adult to the desert to die. But one child finds a way to outwit the cruel dictator and rescue the female favourite.
The film looks, sounds and feels authentic. It is adored by its home audience. Internationally it wins many awards. Nobody has ever seen anything like it.
Burkina Faso is so poor it is usually invisible. Télévision nationale du Burkina cannot afford to make any films, let alone for its children. But once they are allowed a voice, they take the world with them.
The question is whether the Church is capable of hearing the voice of the child.
Mutual respect, equality of input, equality of resources, support for the vulnerable, listening to and learning from those who are different, transparency and authenticity of voice: these are the values of co-production.
Instead of an inner circle of the powerful, scrutiny is independent and objective.
Are we capable of hearing the call of the child?
In case you share the view of many, that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse is behind us, let us take a glimpse at some (not all) of the news stories from just one week earlier this year.
13 March. Switzerland. Survivor Doris Reisinger, a 39 year-old German woman, who was raped in Rome in her 20s when a nun, by a Vatican official hearing her confession, receives the Herbert Haag Foundation award ‘for freedom in the Church.’
In her acceptance speech, she confirms that her perpetrator continues to this day in his pastoral role.
‘The illusion of the good and trustworthy Church persists,’ she says. ‘This crisis is bottomless. It is the end of the Catholic Church.’
19 March. The Tablet reviews recently released French documentary, Sex Slaves in the Catholic Church.
It asserts that from 1994 until 2015 the Vatican was alerted by internal confidential reports about churchmen who regularly rape nuns in more than 23 countries.
With the complicity of the Church courts the abuse continued (in one case for 60 years).
Their victims have been reduced to silence, often excluded from their community. In one convent 30 out of 50 nuns were forced into abortions. Catholic lawyers prevented its broadcast for five years.
23 March. Ireland. Marie Collins, an Irish Survivor who quit the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2017 in protest at ‘the reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to cooperate’, warns that ‘the Curia reorganization unveiled by Pope Francis March 19 , which will see the commission become part of the dicastery [the Congregation] for the Doctrine of the Faith, will further undermine the work of the body she was once part of.’
She explains that the ‘CDF has a very bad history of dealing with survivors in a caring and healing way; that has not changed in recent times.’
24 March. UK. Danny Sullivan, the last but one Chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (England and Wales), and still trusted by survivors, states that the Church cannot ‘self-police’ abuse allegations.
25 March. New York. A judge releases the deposition filed under New York State’s Child Victims Act, taken from Howard Hubbard, the Bishop of Albany, NY, from 1977 to 2014.
‘Hubbard named several priests who had been accused of sexual abuse who were referred to treatment and later returned to ministry, without notification to the public… Hubbard testified he didn’t report the allegations to law enforcement because he didn’t feel he was required by law to do so, and instead kept the allegations secret out of concern for “scandal and the respect of the priesthood”.’
And it goes on. ‘So do not believe,’ says canon lawyer Doyle, ‘any bishop who says this crisis is behind us.’ Besides, he adds, ‘it cannot be over because there are thousands – millions – of survivors who are hurting and are not healing.’
Tearing the veil of secrecy in two
Let us return to the notion of co-production. I now know that when survivors use the word, they mean a process that started out as a mental health model.
It turns out to be very much the same thing as our 1990s co-production for TV.
How would things change if the entire Church were to dedicate itself to resolving the issue of clerical abuse along these lines?
Why would Catholics prefer a Church in which authorities protect their privileged place, like the tyrant in the story, by exiling the dissenting, the excluded and the damaged to the spiritual desert?
Survivors, their families, their supporters and advocates tell us that disclosure to the Church authorities is retraumatising. The most common ‘official’ response is silence. But there is also
denial, victim-blaming and discrediting.
When RC-A711 put, as requested, all her concerns and complaints into one email in order to share her ‘perspective on how survivors may experience their dealings with the Church’, she was seen by the Church authorities as ‘a nuisance at best and, at worst, being manipulative’.
Many victims are told they are only after money.
Such exhausting battles destroy the one thing that has kept many survivors sane over the period of 20 or 30 years, on average, between abuse and disclosure: the belief that their abuser was just one bad apple and that if they could only summon the courage to tell the Church authorities justice would be done.
Survivors tell us that it is far better for their mental health, and also more likely to result in a prosecution, to disclose what they have experienced to under-funded secular charities such as The Lantern Project, supporting victims of childhood sexual abuse.
In the UK it is the Church’s lawyers and insurance brokers who appear to call the shots.
Even when a survivor has no intention of pursuing any claim, but simply seeks action, or apology, or healing from the Church, safeguarding advisors routinely first seek legal advice which often comes via the Church’s insurers.
In the UK this broker, the Catholic Insurance Service (CIS) is owned by the Bishops’ Conferences of Scotland, England and Wales.
The CIS has unique access to the Church’s own insurance company, Catholic National Mutual Ltd based in offshore Guernsey.
The implication of survivors’ experience is that legal liability would be financially costly: better for the bishops and safeguarding advisors to say and do nothing. Theological and ethical liability does not, apparently, enter the calculation.
But it is the bishops who are condemned by this silence. We need to remember that, from the moment of Jesus’s death for us all, priests no longer have a privileged place in which to hide. The veil of the Temple has been torn in two.
We all have blood on our hands
I started by saying we all want a church that is safe for everyone. But if we do nothing, we become like the crowd in the Jerusalem street in the opening chapters of Acts – people ‘from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2: 5) – we all have blood on our hands.
As Rowan Williams wrote long ago in his classic text Resurrection. Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982 & 2014) ‘the execution of Jesus, as a remembered public event, is presented to the hearers as their responsibility, not a neutral fact.’
Williams points out that Peter preaches the resurrection first to the very city — the very crowd that condemned Jesus to death.
Williams was not specifically writing about the challenge that faces us, but his observation cuts to the heart of our mutual responsibility for the crucifying that is clerical abuse. To what extent have we all allowed this to happen?
In considering those Jerusalem authorities who judged Jesus, Williams says, ‘when I have seen that judging exposes me to judgement, I see that my oppressive and condemnatory role in fact wounds and diminishes me, makes me liable before the court. I am my own victim, no less than the one I judge, and that is why I need salvation, rescue from the trap of the judge- victim relationship…. And so I must look to my partner: to the victim who alone can be the source of renewal and transformation.’
Whistleblower and survivor Brian Devlin, abused in a seminary by his spiritual advisor, writes to me, ‘we are seeing a new movement, a movement demanding — not asking, demanding — reform of the Church. And at the heart of that reform movement are those broken by power abuse in all its forms that has been visited on them by those priests and bishops and cardinals who are a disgrace to the Church. For the Church to renew itself in its beatitudinal values, it must fully embrace, and be led by, those it has harmed the most.’
This surely is the way of co-production.
‘What must we do?’
Can this happen? Not without a sea change in the balance of power, since all abuse is power abuse. Doyle traces the root of the phenomenon of abuse as the ‘intentional mistake’ by the hierarchy of the Church (or perhaps just its bishops) to ‘sacrifice survivors’ for ‘the good of the Church’.
Put another way, Doyle is proposing that the hierarchy has chosen to override Jesus’s principle of unquestioning love, in favour of protecting the image, prestige, power and finances of the governing organisation in the interest of a greater good: the survival of the institutional Church which is ‘essential for our salvation’.
‘This is fallacious reasoning’, says Doyle.
Dare we allow the Church to refuse to compensate victims because it claims to need the money for itself?
Dare we look the other way when, in order in theory to save God’s children, the Church in practice permits priests sexually to abuse nuns and then insist on abortions? Would it not be better to tie a millstone around such a Church and throw it into the sea?
Devlin says: ‘If one single person who has been damaged by the maleficence of priests and bishops still stands up and says, “despite everything you’ve done to me, despite my pain, and my scars I love my Church, I want it back” then that one voice is worth more than all the cardinals and bishops in the entire Church.’
Rowan Williams put it plainly, ‘the crucified and condemned Jesus is raised by God and vindicated. …And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognise him as their hope and their saviour.’
In Acts 2:37 the people, on hearing Peter proclaim the resurrection, ‘were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, “What must we do, sisters and brothers?” “You must repent,” Peter answered.’
Are we as a Church sufficiently cut to the heart conclusively to end clerical abuse in a way that values justice for all? Dare we embark on truly healing co-production?
This article — first published in the July/August/September 2022 edition of Pastoral Review — was a co-production involving survivor consultants and members of the core team of Root & Branch of which Penelope Middelboe is one. Special thanks to A7II, Brian Devlin, Deirdre McCormack, Jon Rosebank and Mary Varley.