A Letter to the People of my Parish (to be published in the next bulletin, 2 September 2018)
In the last few weeks, the news has been full of the failings of the Catholic Church – from English monasteries to American dioceses. Most of the public responses to this have been expressions of shame and regret; Pope Francis has acknowledged that the church has been “slow to respond” and has called the whole church to a time of “prayer and fasting”. To pray and fast in this way is a way of those who are guiltless expressing regret and sorrow for the guilty members of our own body, and solidarity with the victims – we are not personally responsible, but Pope Francis has echoed the words of St Paul: when one part of the church suffers, all suffer with it.
Spiritual actions are important – but practical responses are necessary. Let me state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any member of the Catholic church, ordained or lay, has been guilty of any criminal act (sexual or otherwise), the right course of action is to report that person to the police, without delay. There is no need to be concerned about any “scandal” that might be caused by doing so – the guilt for the scandal lies wholly on the person who committed the crime. If we refrain from alerting the authorities, we add the scandals of “cover up” and “not preventing future crime” to the original offence. (Click for CrimeStoppersUK.)
The Catholic Church also has a very clear teaching on sexual morality. The only appropriate place for intimate sexual acts is between a man and a woman who are in a marriage blessed or recognised* by the Catholic Church. All other acts of sexual intimacy, even between consenting adults, are immoral. Our Lord spoke clearly about the need to restrain our lust, and St Paul’s letters – the earliest writings we have from the Christian Church – also speak clearly about avoiding sexual immorality. So let me also state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any person holding a position of authority in the Catholic church, ordained or lay, is sustaining an immoral relationship which is not, however, criminal: this should be brought to the attention of the Catholic leader in a position of authority over them. Any person who is in such a situation should cease their immoral relationship and make use of the sacrament of reconciliation; or if not prepared to do so, should resign their position of authority in the Catholic Church.
Sexual immorality is not the only kind of immorality; it is not the only reason we might raise a concern about a person holding office. But such immorality takes place in the context of a deliberate choice to pursue a particular relationship; it is more public and more intentional than other kinds of fault. We might also, of course, express concern about violent behaviour in a person responsible for pastoral care, or when a person responsible for teaching the Catholic faith expresses views clearly at odds with Catholic teaching.
It is true that the Catholic Church teaches that every human being has the “right to a good name”, and that “detraction” is a sin. The sin of detraction does not apply when you report a concern to the authority which is duty-bound to conduct an impartial investigation to find out whether the concern is justified; nor does it apply when you need to warn a third party who may be at risk. It does apply if you needlessly repeat the allegation to third parties who are not in a position to investigate, and have no legitimate need to be informed.
I make these statements not because I expect that they apply to any current situation in this parish, but to underline the seriousness of how we have failed as a church. The greater responsibility is on our senior church leaders to handle these matters appropriately; but we are all free to approach the police or social services, or notify our concerns to a higher tier of authority in the church when they seem to have been ignored by a lower one.
Let me be clear that I am not asking for tale-telling about someone who has had a single moment of moral weakness which they might then regret and repent. The heart of the message of Christ is that when we fail to live up to the high standards to which he calls us, forgiveness and mercy are offered to us freely. But to obtain forgiveness we need a “firm purpose of amendment”, a resolve not to fall back into the pattern of immoral behaviour. And we have learned the hard way that those who commit the more serious offenses cannot be trusted to mend their ways after a simple warning; reconciliation to God does not automatically mean rehabilitation to a trusted role in the community.
Sometimes situations arise which are not black and white, but tinged some shade of grey. If they concern a child or a vulnerable adult who may be at risk, the right thing to do is always to take advice. You can ring our parish safeguarding co-ordinator, Gareth Hayes (details are on the front cover of every parish bulletin) or the Diocesan Safeguarding Office (029 2036 5961). If you are really not sure whether to report a situation, you can telephone anonymously (dial 141 before your call to block your caller ID), you don’t have to give your name, and you can describe a “situation” without giving the names of the persons involved. You can then get advice on whether what you know is at the level where you have a legal or moral responsibility to pass on the information to police or social services, and on the most appropriate way to do so.
It is not enough for us, as an institution, to hang our heads in shame; we must pledge ourselves, one and all, to act with the utmost integrity. Every person who holds office in the Catholic Church is a forgiven sinner; no-one who remains in office should be an obstinate sinner. This is the balance of justice and mercy to which Our Lord calls us, and we are all responsible for upholding this standard. As we start this new academic year, let us make a new beginning and build a better church.
If you have been personally affected by criminal or immoral behaviour and need support, there are organisations and individuals ready and willing to help: you may wish to contact Grief to Grace, find a counsellor recommended by the Association of Christian Counsellors – or even contact a local priest or deacon. The vast majority of clergy will deal with you sensitively and compassionately, unlike those few whose reprehensible behaviour has been highlighted in the media of late.
* The Catholic Church recognises as true marriages any civil or religious wedding between an unmarried non-Catholic man and an unmarried non-Catholic woman. More complex rules for recognition apply when a Catholic marries without the Church’s blessing or when a divorced person enters a second marriage. I do not wish to spell this out in detail here; I simply wish to acknowledge that there are marriages which the Catholic Church recognises as valid even though they are not blessed by a Catholic ceremony. However, a non-Catholic married to a non-Catholic is unlikely to be serving in a position of teaching or governance in a Catholic context.