An open letter to the Catholic Church on the protection of minors

I would like to preface this letter with a personal disclaimer and trigger warning:

This letter discusses the ongoing Catholic sexual abuse scandal. It contains coarse language, because sexual abuse is an emotive issue. It also contains specific understandings of Catholic teaching. You may disagree with my choice of words or application of scripture, in which case I would encourage you to find your own means to express to your local Bishop why immediate action is required. The top-down approach has continued to fail. It is time to compel the Bishops to do their job.

I have been employed by and personally know and respect Bishop Patrick Dunn of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, a deeply learned and pastoral minister who has truly dedicated his life to the service of others. I also see a man who is chronically overworked, and who I believe has been poorly advised on at least some of these matters, no doubt by sincere individuals with the best of intentions. I have addressed this letter to him as my local Church representative, while acknowledging that his own role is largely as an inheritor of this tragic legacy, and one who has taken steps in the right direction – but is still some way from a credible destination.

16 March 2016

Dear Bishop,

Enough is infinitely too much.

It isn’t a pleasant issue. Few issues that matter are. But for far too many of us, it’s also one that’s close to home.

Clerical abuse.

And it’s more than an issue: it’s a betrayal, perhaps the most horrific that can be inflicted. There is no question about that; nobody minimising the impact or the horror of abuse. The evasions only start when it comes to the Church’s response.

So this is an open call to the Bishops of the world, beginning with our own Bishop of Auckland, Patrick Dunn. The Body of Christ and the secular world are united on this. Some can’t speak of it. Some want to hide it, argue the extent or the impact; but all can agree that it needs to be made better. Not right. You can never make it right. This is a legacy that will justly cling to the Church, and perhaps inject a humility that is too often lacking.

But you can take action. With the dismissal of Peter Saunders – and let’s not pretend it’s anything else – from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Curia has once again taken a stance that is morally and theologically indefensible.

The Commission has argued that long-term policy development is their priority, whereas Mr Saunders contends that the Commission should also be focused on the immediate, individual cases that are being improperly handled by Dioceses. And there are many.

In scriptural terms, the Commission prefers to ignore the multitude at the door for the comfort of hypothetical victims, who are so much easier to confront.

As one of the two – only two – abuse survivors on the Commission, a single vote has managed to silence Peter Saunders’ voice. You may disagree with him. You may debate his recommendations, or offer alternatives, but you cannot ignore the victims who believe that he has clearly articulated their collective concerns, and he must be reinstituted as an active member of the Commission. Voices of dissent and challenge are essential to change, and the entire process appears disingenuous when the Church marginalises them.

As would-be Apostles of Christ, this situation calls on the Bishops of the world to once again aspire to their calling.

Whatever you believe of Peter Saunders’ methods, his concerns are echoed by a multitude of victims. The Church’s absolute first priority in this situation is not policy, or even reparation: it is protecting the children of the world from the predators who still take advantage of the Church and its sanctuary for their own depravities. Peter Saunders has done much to illustrate how far the Church still has to go in this mission, and it is a sickening picture.

The public perception of the abuse crisis is that the Church now hands all abuse cases over to the appropriate authorities. Why wouldn’t they? While this may be the case in all right-thinking Dioceses, it is still not Church policy or universal practice, and this is unacceptable.

Some Bishops have justified this approach – and it’s the only defence I’ve heard – by raising the spectre of unjust accusations as a threat requiring careful management by the Church. However, this response raises several obvious problems:

  1. The burden of being unjustly accused, while horrible, remains by any measure lighter than the burden of being abused.

    Studies disagree on the rate of false accusations of childhood sexual abuse, but none place it higher than 10%. Using this worst-case figure, if nine in ten abuse claims are founded, then society and the Church is compelled to first safeguard the alleged victim and prevent the potential for further abuse of them and other victims, before examining the veracity of the claim.

    Put this in context: for every ten cases you investigate to protect the priest involved, nine minors continue to be abused while you fail to escalate the case to the legal system. At least nine more victims, directly harmed by an inaction that has also caused immeasurable harm to the Church.

  2. False accusations of abuse occur in both secular society and among accused priests. While the inclination to defend your fellow ministers is admirable and well-intentioned, what moral authority allows a priest to receive preferential treatment over his flock? Remember to render unto Caesar: Priests, servants to all, must not be elevated above the justice system, even where it might operate in a flawed context. Working to fix the system is admirable; circumventing it is criminal.
  3. No matter how gifted your Pastoral Assistants and other staff, they lack the physical, psychological and legal resources of a police department, and are simply not a credible avenue for investigating abuse.
  4. The opportunity to gather evidence of abuse, as with any crime, diminishes over time. Potential witnesses forget details, physical evidence is compromised, and objectively assessing the case becomes more difficult with each passing day. To return to the rare case of a false accusation, it is in the priest’s interest to get the authorities involved sooner, not later, so that any exonerating evidence can be recovered.

There are societal problems with false accusations and the difficulty of recovering unjustly damaged reputations, but the bottom line is that these are a clear minority of cases and that children continue to be abused when priests and Bishops are too slow to take action. We must fix the societal problem, but our first responsibility is to the nine in ten legitimate cases, and ensuring that these children are out of harm’s way immediately.

There are no two ways about this: top-down policy or not, Commission oversight or not, Peter Saunders or not, every Bishop must enforce this simple requirement to protect the children of his Diocese and end the environment that allowed abuse to continue for so long.

When an accusation is made, the police are involved. If you cannot do this, resign now and save the Church another decade of hypocrisy.

Which brings us to assisting survivors of sexual abuse. Once you have safeguarded the current generation of children, you need to step out from behind the bulkheads of public relations and administration, and really confront the situation surrounding victims of sexual abuse. It appears far less nuanced when it must be lived every day.

The absolute minimum assistance that should be offered to a victim of Priestly abuse is:

  1. For the Church to financially recompense them for every hour of counselling they have had to undergo, and every hour to come.
    This cannot be limited with phrases like “within the financial means of the Diocese.” While the Diocese has a single asset or a single cent to their name and an abuse victim requires treatment, that money is theirs. End of story, as far as Christ would be concerned.
    A Church that is physically destitute but morally just is a far more potent vessel, and it would be better to tear the human organisation down and start again than to continue on a course of hypocrisy for the sake of material greed. Humans are loss-averse, we know this as psychological fact. But Bishops have a responsibility to transcend such material inclinations and put the lives of victims first.
    And remember: unlike any other perpetrators of abuse, the Church enabled and then knowingly concealed abuse while simultaneously claiming the highest moral authority. This makes the Church uniquely culpable, and there is no mitigating this requirement while maintaining the Church’s credibility.
  2. For the Church to provide an appropriate level of financial restitution for the suffering and personal consequences of priestly abuse.
    This will, where possible, be guided by other abuse survivors and cannot come with any requirements attached. You cannot, in any conscience, buy the silence of an abuse survivor.
  3. For the Church to stop trying to play shepherd to these victims, when that opportunity is well and truly past.
    The impulse to want to ensure the victim is getting the best treatment possible is understandable, but the Church has already failed in her duty of care: you have no tenable position to manage, oversee or investigate the victim’s treatment choices, duration or outcomes.
    The Church is the aggressor in this context, and you do not get to manage anything. Treating victims as incapable of discerning their own treatment choices is patronising and itself perpetuates the Church culture that allowed and concealed abusive behaviour.
  4. A recognition that, in most cases, the victim is irrevocably disillusioned with the Church. While clergy and committees will and should pray for victims of abuse, proceedings should contain an awareness of possible discomfort and triggers, down to practicalities like ensuring that meetings are not held on Church property, and putting the well-being of the victim first.
  5. A full and honest apology. You cannot make this if you are continuing to contest victim needs, deny restitution, or request name suppression in credible abuse cases. This parallels the sacrament of reconciliation: forgiveness is not granted unless you make an honest and unfeigned act of contrition to every single victim.

Until you meet these basic requirements, then you are not dealing with the sexual abuse scandal; you are a part of it, and not fit to wear your mitre.

Once your own house is in order to such minimum standards – and ideally well above them – then comes the big question: will you stand up to the Curia, as a Bishop of Christ, and tell them that enough is infinitely too much?

The world is watching.

The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated an entire section to recognising those who would take advantage of the Church for their personal ends. False prophets, it called them. People who would take on the mantle of priest and teacher, and commit selfish deeds in its name.

If the earliest disciples of Christ could see that this would be a problem, and openly discuss it in their teachings, how the hell did the Church get so far off track? When did reputation become something that you own, rather than earn?

You don’t automatically get your reputation back. You are all part of a broken organisation. But you do get to choose whether to fix it now, or let it fall in face of continued hypocrisy and denial.

The Church has already lost many members. Victims of abuse, their families and friends, and those like myself who simply cannot tolerate the continued missteps that betray the beautiful words and intentions of the faithful.

Francis has walked down some inspiring paths, but this shadow looms large behind him, as it has for his predecessors. How this plays out – how you respond – may be the difference between a legacy of life or a deepening of the decay.

Demand, then, that Peter Saunders be reinstituted on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and that victims are never again silenced or marginalised, no matter how challenging their voices.

Resolve to call the police immediately when an abuse complaint is lodged, for the protection of all current and potential victims.

Craft authentic and transparent Diocesan policy to engage with victims of priestly abuse and organisational misconduct, that is consistent with your understanding of Christ.

It is time to demonstrate that you are not a false prophet. It is time for the Bishops to stand together, to beg for accountability (because it’s your fucking job) and to remind the Church that her duty is to tend to the people who she has wronged, without guile, without fear and with a transparent commitment to change.

In love and hope,

Peter John Ravlich
Twitter @PeterRavlich

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  • Peter Grace

    Hello Peter
    At first reading I was impressed by the hard-hitting nature of your Open Letter to Bishop Patrick Dunn. However, on reflection and after research, I have misgivings.
    1. Peter Saunders was not dismissed by the Curia. His peers, fellow commission members, asked him to take a leave of absence. Peter Saunders was pushing the commission to go beyond its brief. It’s worth noting that the commission is an advisory body only. The body with the actual power to act in such matters is the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith.
    2. In New Zealand at least, there is no buying of silence. New Zealand has no confidentiality clauses these days.
    3. The NZ Church makes it mandatory to report when abuse is current behaviour with children. However, by far the majority of cases are historic; from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. So most victims are in their 30s and upwards, and reporting can take place only if that is what they want.
    By the way, if you were to analyse clerical abuse for any randomly chosen year in those previously mentioned decades, you might find many hundreds of cases. However, in the United States in 2010, where there are tens of thousands of priests, there were six reported cases. That is six too many, but the picture has changed a lot.
    4. You are right that there is no worldwide requirement for mandatory reporting (although the Church is working on it). Your article, I hope you don’t mind me saying, seems Western-centric. For example, the sexual abuse of children became a crime in Pakistan only last week. Reporting may not be a simple matter in countries like Vietnam, where the Church and practising Catholics are persecuted. In addition, in some countries the police will not accept other-party reporting.
    Please don’t lose the passion, Peter. All the best,
    Peter Grace

    • Thanks Peter,

      Your insights and research are appreciated.

      1) I admit – and I’ve clarified to Bishop Dunn, who raised the same concern, that my use of the term “The Curia” was technically incorrect, and I apologise for that. I used the term casually, to inclusively refer to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (who voted to suspend Peter Saunders), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who have been criticised in the past for both inaction and detrimental action, and the other bodies such as the Vatican Bank who Peter Saunders had reported as impediments to progress in the urgent face of this issue.

      2) While published in New Zealand, the letter was prompted by the recent situation involving Peter Saunders, and informed by interviews and articles with George Pell and other senior clerics around the world. It is good that New Zealand has no confidentiality clauses these days – although I would hope that such stipulations from the past have also been retroactively quashed – but several Bishops around the world, including Pell, have admitted to the recent inclusion of such clauses (although they might and do debate the terminology).

      3) It is undeniable that the incidence of Church abuse cases is lower today than before, and that the picture has changed a lot, but as your article “Church reluctant to look in the mirror” points out, that picture is not yet fully resolved. And as you rightly point out, six is six too many.

      That mandatory reporting is the case in many Dioceses is good, but this is not yet the universal situation, and that provided much of the impetus for this letter: it is particularly directed at every English-speaking Diocese whose Bishops sympathise with the misguided views advocated by a few: that potential false allegations provide justification for not reporting current abuse of children.

      4) My article is absolutely Western-centric, and that’s in part a personal limitation. The Bishops whose interviews partially prompted the letter also happened to be within Western countries, which also coloured my response. As you have pointed out above, I may also have played fast and loose with some terminology, and not all of the content may apply to the current New Zealand situation.

      This is my personal response to global shortcomings I have perceived in recent events, and I stand within my own limited context to offer one biased and imperfect baseline to the English speaking bishops of the world; by which they might measure their own response to the crisis and decide whether further action or agitation of their fellow bishops is warranted. I would encourage others who disagree with any details but empathise with the cause to share their own recommendations to their Bishops, from their own language, context and concerns.

      And it is absolutely true that in some countries some of my recommendations would be infeasible – but that doesn’t mean the Church institution can’t set a high standard within the realities of the local situation. Inertia is a clichéd attribute of the Church, but that should be about perception more than tradition.

      Thanks again for your measured feedback.