Canada’s bishops, seen here at their 2017 plenary, are poised to approve a new document on sexual abuse at this year’s plenary. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Canadian bishops set to approve abuse document

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  • September 18, 2018

OTTAWA – As the universal Church reels in crisis, Canada’s Catholic bishops are poised to approve a long-awaited document on sexual abuse.

Titled  Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Faithful of Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation, the document is expected to receive final approval during the bishops’ annual plenary Sept. 24-28 in Cornwall, Ont. It comes as the Church grapples with a worldwide crisis from Chile, to the United States, to India, to Germany and other European countries.

In response to revelations of sexual abuse committed against thousands of minors and vulnerable people by priests and bishops, and coverups by the Church hierarchy, Pope Francis has called an extraordinary meeting of bishops for Feb. 21-24, summoning the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences to Rome.

The Canadian bishops’ new document on sexual abuse comes 26 years after From Pain to Hope, a pioneering study from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) which provided 50 recommendations to guide dioceses in developing sexual abuse protocols. It was the first document of its kind in the Catholic Church. The latest document was originally approved in principle by the bishops in 2016.

Sr. Nuala Kenny, who served on the committee that produced From Pain to Hope, has not seen the new document, but warns that the Church must address the “systemic, cultural and environmental factors” that give rise to sexual abuse.

The problem has been “misdiagnosed,” said Kenny, a retired pediatrician and author of Healing the Church: diagnosing and treating the clergy sexual abuse crisis. 

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 meeting will do much good. “Even calling all of the presidents together is not going to work if lay people are 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-centred and self-interested behaviours.”

Kenny participated in the 1989 Winter Commission struck by the St. John’s archdiocese into abuse by Christian Brothers at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland that identified cultural and systemic issues in the Church. 

“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,” she said.

The first part of the crisis involved the public revelation that priests and bishops do offend, she said, noting in the late 1980s society in general was waking up to sexual abuse in families and other institutions. 

The Church 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. “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,” she said. 

“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.”

Kenny said the special status of clergy 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.

Kenny said studies on institutions such as banks that violated the public trust 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.”

In addition to the sexual abuse document, the plenary will also deal with the results of a joint study into Development and Peace’s overseas partners. Many dioceses, including Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton, have been withholding funds from the bishops’ overseas development agency since reports came out early this year that some of D&P’s partners supported abortion and other practices inconsistent with Catholic teachings.

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