Sister of Charity Nuala Patricia Kenny said recent cases of abuse and sexual scandal convinced her that "we had not finished the job" of addressing clerical sexual abuse. Register file photo

British conference looks at relation between power, abuse in Church

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • September 6, 2012

VATICAN CITY - The "most tragic wound" of clerical sexual abuse will not heal without a response from the entire Catholic Church — hierarchy and laity together — said the chief Vatican investigator of abuse cases.

"I think that slowly, slowly, slowly we are getting toward a response that is truly ecclesial — it's not hierarchical, it's the Church. We are in this together, in suffering (from) the wound and trying to respond to it," Msgr. Charles Scicluna told Vatican Radio.

The monsignor, whose formal title is promoter of justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke to Vatican Radio during a Sept. 4-5 conference in England titled "Redeeming Power: Overcoming Abuse in Church and Society."

The European Society of Catholic Theology sponsored the conference at St. Mary's University College in Twickenham as part of the International Network of Societies for Catholic Theology's three-year research project on "the power of theology to overcome power abuse in Church and society."

Scicluna told Vatican Radio the conference was an important part of the ongoing conversation about how to empower all members of the Church to prevent abuse and promote accountability.

"We are accountable not only to God, but to each other and to our peers in how we respond to difficult questions, including sin and crime," he said.

The monsignor said Pope Benedict XVI is setting an example for the whole Church when he discusses the abuse crisis, repentance and reform of Church norms with bishops, priests and laity.

Marie Keenan, a social worker and psychotherapist who has worked with perpetrators and survivors of clerical sexual abuse, told Vatican Radio that the Church has been slow in responding to the abuse crisis, "but I think that we're moving in the right direction and I think this conference is part of that."

Keenan, who lectures at University College Dublin, said she is concerned that clerical sexual abuse is sometimes seen as "a problem of individuals, either individual perpetrators who were devious and managed to get through the doors" of the seminary undetected, "or bad or erring bishops who didn't have the right heart or spirit or intellect or knowledge or something."

The conference is part of an effort to look at relationships and structures of power within the Church and determine how they may have contributed to the crisis. Keenan said that without addressing those broader issues, the Church risks placing too much trust in the important psychological tests designed to "screen out deviants."

Relying exclusively on the tests is dangerous, she said, because "some of these men chose an abusive road not because they were deviants to begin with, but because something happened to them in the course of their life, either in formation or priesthood or living their life that wasn't picked up on and with which they weren't helped adequately." At the same time, she said, "even with the same formation and the same lifestyle, many, many men don't turn to abuse," so there must be a recognition that Church culture hasn't caused everyone "to use their power position in an abusive way."

In addition, Keenan said that in her research "I found no evidence that celibacy is a cause of sexual abuse." While "there may be good reasons for the Church to rethink the celibacy issue, it's not because of the child sexual abuse issue," she said.

Sister of Charity Nuala Patricia Kenny, a pediatrician and retired professor of bioethics in Canada, said recent cases of abuse and sexual scandal convinced her that "we had not finished the job" of addressing clerical sexual abuse.

"The Church, in the area of policies and protocols, surely now has become a world leader," she said. But as she told the conference, "we have been a slow learner on this one."

Catholics, she said, need to reflect on the question: "How does power and our sense of Church, how has the inactivity of the laity, our inability to have good, positive, loving experiences between priest and people in our Church that would make us a healthy Church — how has all of that made us continue to deny, to fail to accept the difficult challenges" posed by the abuse crisis?

Kenny, who has been a religious for 50 years, said there were days "when I had to kneel, kneel, kneel at my desk and literally hold on to the New Testament because I've been so overwhelmed by how much harm has been done, not just to the individual victims, but to the whole body of Christ."

"I'm not a woman who breaks down easily and cries, but I have wept about this issue," she said. "On the other hand, I can tell you that I know in my heart that the Holy Spirit is leading us somewhere graced and I am perfectly prepared to do whatever I can with the grace and energy the Lord gives me to contribute to that.

"Walking away is not an option because it belongs to my baptismal commitment," Kenny said. "This is my Church."

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