Canada’s Catholic bishops are set to approve a long-awaited document on sexual abuse when they meet for their annual plenary Sept. 24-28 in Cornwall, Ont..
The new document, entitled Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Faithful of Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation comes as the Catholic Church grapples with a worldwide crisis from Chile, to the United States, to India, to Germany and other European countries.
In response, Pope Francis has called an extraordinary synod of bishops for Feb. 21-24, summoning the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences to Rome.
Sister Nuala Kenny, a retired pediatrician and professor, author of Healing the Church: Diagnosing and Treating the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis, said she cannot comment on the Canadian bishops’ new document because she has not seen it. However, she warns the Church must address the “systemic, cultural, and environmental factors” that give rise to sexual abuse.
The problem has been “misdiagnosed,” said Kenny, who served on the committee that produced From Pain to Hope in 1992, the Canadian response to clerical sexual abuse and the first document of its kind in the Catholic Church. That document provided 50 recommendations to guide dioceses in developing their sexual abuse protocols.
Historically, “the Church’s response to this issue of sexual abuse is secrecy, denial, minimization of the harm done, protection of image, of institution and of offender and avoidance of scandal,” Kenny said.
While professing her love for Pope Francis, she questions whether the February synod will do much good. “Even calling all of the presidents together is not going to work if lay people not involved.”
And the lay involvement cannot be “in a token way,” she said.
“If you are in a situation of endemic illness, and you do not even know you are, you need help to understand the effect of your self-centered and self-interested behaviours.”
Using the image of the Body of Christ, she compared the exclusion of lay people to the head telling the feet they don’t matter. Without feet, the Church “doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” she said, and she “can’t go anywhere.”
The Canadian bishops new document had been approved in principle at the 2016 plenary. Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at the time, told the 2016 plenary he anticipated its release in 2017 if no major revisions were required.
The new document Moving Towards Healing: the Canadian Experience would follow but not replace From Pain to Hope, Crosby had said. “Our experience is so much broader now and so much deeper. This will present a lot more information along the lines of From Pain to Hope but updated.”
Kenny said she expects the new document will be released after the bishops approve it in Cornwall.
Sister Kenny participated in the 1989 Winter Commission struck by the St. John’s Archdiocese into abuse by Christian brothers at the Mount Cashel that identified cultural and systemic issues the Church has never dealt with, she said.
“The crisis is not about individual clergymen offending against priesthood,” Sister Kenny said. “The focus historically has been on the rotten apples. There are individuals who sinned, but the crisis in the Church is the culture that in any way would have fostered the inappropriate behaviour and more importantly the leadership response to that.”
The first part of the crisis involved the public revelation that priests and bishops do offend, she said, noting in the late 1980s the whole of society was becoming aware of sexual abuse in families and other institutions. Sister Kenny lamented there were better laws for the protection against cruelty to animals than there were for the protection of children.
The Church has responded with “policies, protocols, screening,” she said. While those are necessary, they do not get at the “environment, the culture and the response,” that underlie the crisis.
“It’s been misdiagnosed,” she said. This misdiagnosis is the reason “this thing has become such a horrific, overwhelming crisis for the Church.”
Kenny likened the misdiagnosis to a doctor treating a headache and prescribing pain relief medication without finding out the underlying cause is a brain tumor. “If no one gets the diagnosis right, the patient dies,” she said. “There are certain aspects of the clerical culture that cause endemic illness.”
The culture of the church has been characterized by “secrecy, denial, an insensitive response to victims,” Kenny said. “If you look at those, they are absolutely characteristic of the history of the Church as far back as you can go.”
“These are the responses in Australia, in Cape Breton, in Newfoundland, in Louisiana, where the first American scandal broke,” she said. “They transcend national culture. The hierarchical and clerical nature of the Church has created a culture that makes it extremely difficult for the culture to diagnose its own disease.”
Sister Kenny said the special status of clergy, and that of Olympic coaches, and of Hollywood producers, enables this culture.
“If you began to think you were different from others, higher than others, you were not going to be held to same level of accountability,” she said, noting this is “dangerous to the clerics themselves.”
Kenny said studies of secular literature on institutions such as banks that violated the public trust by acting in opposition to their professed values show the problem was “all about silence, all about focusing on rules, laws and suppression of dissent rather than the formation of conscience and virtue.”
These studies have “tons of lessons for the Church she said. “We have no tradition of mutual, respectful dialogue.”
The last three months — from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and revelations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians spanning decades as well as new allegations involving minors—has been “the last straw” for many Catholics, she said.
“The credibility of church leadership to act as Jesus would want is at stake,” she said. “We do have to have a profound conversion of mind and heart to mind of Christ.”
While policies and protocols are necessary, “we have policies that were disregarded,” Kenny said. “If you are depending on rules and regulations and codes of conduct, if you are not forming virtuous character,” an abuser “will spit on the document,” and think “it doesn’t apply” to him.
While statistically the levels of molestation and sexual abuse of minors has declined, Kenny said “it has nothing to do with Church protocols,” but with “social vigilance and legal protections.”
“That it’s taken protocols and policies serious is an important issue,” she said. “That’s not cause and effect; that’s an association.”