Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman




Contact address: Mr.P.J.Oudsingel 136, 6836 PT Arnhem, The Netherlands





Dear Pope Benedict

On March 19, 2010 you sent a ‘pastoral letter’ to all Catholics in Ireland, in connection with the disclosures about sexual abuse committed by ministers and other members of the Church in Ireland. As a study group for good church governance we read your letter with interest, and we feel invited to react to it. We are doing this because we consider your letter as also addressed to the Church Universal, and consequently also meant for the Church in our country. For your letter deals with a problem which unfortunately has also presented itself, or may do so, elsewhere.

In this open letter we take into account that a pastoral letter is a genre of its own: its subject cannot be treated extensively and exhaustively, and its content cannot be evaluated along strict and systematic theological criteria. Moreover, as you will see when you read this open letter, we are not dealing with every item discussed in your letter – we have selected a few items that touch upon our field of interest: church order and the way it is applied, whether laudably or debatably.

First of all we want to express our respect for the courage your letter shows in acknowledging so publicly all these painful incidents. In particular it strikes us that not only the perpetrators of abuse are called to the dock, but also the ecclesiastical authorities who should have prevented this sexual abuse or at least should have acted more firmly. You use hard words here: “sinful and criminal acts”, “the inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities”, “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church”, “the failure to apply existing canonical penalties” and “inadequate procedures in determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life”. Having to write such things about the failings of your brother bishops must have been an extremely painful experience for you.

In our opinion you might have rounded off this indictment with an acknowledgement that these scandals once again prove that our Church as a whole, and not only in a number of isolated cases, is a Church marked by sin. It this and other instances our Church is an accomplice rather than a victim: we ourselves have sowed the weeds among the wheat. On behalf of the church community you express shame, regret and compassion, but no real excuses are offered.

In your analysis of the situation in Ireland you also pay some attention to history. You call upon the Irish to reflect upon the “generous, often heroic contributions” made by past generations to the Church and to humanity as a whole, and you hope this memory will inspire them in the future. Such a suggestion is beautiful and sensible, but we think it is also a bit black-and-white: in the past, too, members of our Church have failed and misbehaved, and by no means every ‘ancestor’ has set an immaculate example.

But even if the past could be qualified as exemplary the question is urgent why and how, a few decades ago and so unexpectedly, such a ‘decay’ set in. In your letter you point to two possible causes: a “rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society”. Such general statements do not really offer much help. Not every change, be it slow or fast, is of course an improvement, but without permanent renewal a Church cannot be the living body she is called to be also in our period of history. And sometimes a high pace of renewal and change is required because arrears are to be made up. And as to secularisation, for us this is not only a negative concept: secularisation can also mean progress and emancipation, clarification of positions, and working towards a clear and manageable distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.

Your analysis is worked out further when you mention the neglect of former devotional practices such as “frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats”. With all respect for these practices: has neglect in these fields really, in a definable period and with a specific impact in Ireland, led to a climate in which sexual abuse was given extra chances? And is it realistic to expect that restoration of these practices will effectively prevent new scandals? Is the individual conversion of ‘sinners’ the only medicine?

We think that attention should also be paid to possible structural causes, and that we must have the courage to ask whether there may be specific ‘catholic’ causes and conditions which form a breeding ground for sexual abuse. We offer two points for reflection.

A striking phenomenon in our Roman-catholic church community is the existence of all kinds of rather closed views and systems. Thus we have a strong hierarchical structure in which nearly all control and responsibility – governmental as well as moral – rests with a clerical professional group that is clearly distinguished from ‘ordinary’ church members. This leads to rather strict bonds of authority and obedience. Moreover, the fields where this separation is strongly stressed and experienced are also closed living environments: residential institutes such as convents, seminaries, boarding schools, or other premises for ‘church life’. In such communities undesirable situations and relationships develop more easily than in open groups. It is rather ironical that communities in which mutual relations should be irreproachable and exemplary, are now exposed as breeding grounds for sexual abuse.

An even more striking phenomenon in our Church is the fact that the great majority of ministers and other leaders are expected to live in sexual abstinence, because of ordination or religious vows. Especially in our more liberal and sexualised society, in which, moreover, the celibacy rule for priests is broadly challenged, this is no simple endeavour. So it is no surprise that many people wonder if there is a connection between sexual abuse and celibacy: perhaps these celibates seek a ‘solution’ for personal tensions and frustrations in intimate contacts with the young people they meet in their daily lives and work: altar servers and choristers, members of youth groups, pupils in schools, boarding schools and seminaries.

A connection between celibacy and sexual abuse is a matter of suspicions and feelings rather than of certainties based on scholarly research and statistics. And the fact that the accused and convicted priests and religious form only a small minority in their entire group, forbids us to draw hasty and generalising conclusions. But a flat denial of any connection is equally irresponsible, given the bewildering number of cases that have come to our notice.

Further research on these two points is urgent, and far-reaching  practical conclusions cannot be excluded a priori.

Finally we think an observation is due concerning the management in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. If the Irish, and other, bishops and religious superiors have failed so badly, were they perhaps insufficiently prepared and coached? Inadequate response on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities - your own words – is understandable, for the matter was delicate and rather new, they were not prepared for the crisis management expected from them, and the all too human wish to prevent the loss of reputation and financial disasters could easily prompt them to cover up things. They are entitled to some understanding if they acted objectionably and clumsily.

Can ‘Roman’ coaching and management in this delicate matter be improved? It is satisfactory that bishops and other ecclesiastical authorities are now offered help in devising procedures for dealing with complaints, and that full cooperation with secular authorities in criminal cases is strongly urged. We think it is useful and desirable that the bishops’ lines of action are coordinated and supervised by the Curia. It can also be useful that dossiers prepared in dioceses are passed on to ‘Rome’, because this may help to get a good global picture of the extent of the problem, and may also contribute to consistency in dealing with both victims and culprits – provided any impression is prevented or removed that reporting to the Curia is part of a campaign to cover up painful facts.

But all such measures are only medication after the disease has broken out. Prevention must be given a prominent place on the agenda, even if we shall have to admit realistically that in a sinful church with sinful members no absolutely watertight series of preventive measures – in the form of better selection, training and coaching of the responsible people – can be devised.   But we think that a thorough reflection on possible structural causes deserves at least equal attention.

It is not an easy job to be a pope in a time in which the face of our Church turns out to be so disfigured. It affects both our credibility and our self-confidence. This open letter intends to show that we share your dismay, but perhaps you can also do something with our comments on your letter.

Yours in Christ,

On behalf of the Study Group for Good Church Governance,

Ruud Bunnik, chairman.

Arnhem, December 2011.

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