The recent conviction of Cardinal Pell confirmed for many people their view that the Catholic Church is an irredeemable institution doing far more harm than good for the world. But is this entirely fair? The abuse of children by clergy is horrific but what is perhaps more devastating is the cover-up that has followed many of these cases, resulting in them only coming to light many years later. This represents a gross failure by the leadership of the Church both to live as they preach but also to protect the most vulnerable in their care. It is right therefore that these questions are asked, and that the Catholic Church is held accountable. However, in forming a judgment, it is important to look past the headlines and media frenzy to the day to day impact and actions of the Church.
Headlines of child abuse dominate the media, as they rightly should. The impact of such abuse on minors cannot be brushed aside or downplayed. It causes long-lasting damage both to the individual and their family. Yet these headlines often have the effect of obscuring the work that the vast majority of Catholics, clergy and lay people, do. This is important because the image that is presented of the Church is very institutional, resulting in a distorted view that ignores the individuality of those that make it up, a minute amount of whom have been accused of child abuse.
The work that these individuals do has a worldwide and long-lasting impact. The Church is the largest non-governmental aid provider in the world. While official figures put spending at anywhere between £2 – 4 billion, this often ignores the smaller scale individual projects that any of the 200,000 parishes operate at a local level. These are projects that have impacts on real people, often the poorest and most vulnerable in society. They fill a gap that the state often leaves and are often much closer to home than they might first seem. The Santa Marta Group chaired by the Archbishop of Westminster is leading the way worldwide in fighting modern slavery and counts members of the government among its members.
While much has been made of the failure of the Church to act on abuse cases, this is not the full picture. It is true that the response has often been non-existent or slow. Yet in many other areas, there has been concrete action. In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops introduced mandatory reporting guidelines among other measures and as a result abuse cases dropped dramatically. Measures such as these are effective and have been adopted by other conferences all over the world. Their effectiveness led to David Gibson, a reporter for the Washington Post, writing, “the Catholic Church may be the safest place for children. Whatever its past record, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has made unparalleled strides in educating their flock about child sexual abuse and ensuring that children are safe in Catholic environments.”
Does any of this excuse the horrific abuse suffered by children or attempt to excuse the massive failings by the Church? Of course not. There have been and still are inadequate responses to this issue. The Church must and should hold itself to a higher standard especially as it claims to teach with moral authority. Despite this, the view that it is irredeemably rotten is not one that I think can be reasonably held. Yes, there have been many significant failings that it needs to be held accountable for but at its core, the Church is served by people seeking to make a positive impact on the world and without them, many of the poorest in the world would suffer. Running hospitals and providing education throughout the world, the Church is often there when nobody else is, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and comforting the sick and dying.
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