“Oh, when will they ever learn?”

by Russell Pollitt SJ

It’s hard to be Catholic these days. In the light of the Academy Award winning Best Picture Spotlight, and the high profile Royal Commission Inquiry into Vatican’s finance czar, Cardinal George Pell’s dishonest handling of sex abuse cases in Australia, many Catholics may be asking the question from the 1955 hit by Peter Seeger: “Oh, when will they ever learn?” And, it’s not an unfair question.

A few weeks ago, I saw the movie Spotlight. Watching the film was a disillusioning experience. I could not help but feel angry and deeply ashamed. While it’s a fact that some people are psychosexually damaged (often abused themselves) and they, in turn, could abuse others, the way that authorities in the Church dealt with (and continue to deal with) the abuse of children is disgraceful.

Many priests, who were convicted of abuse, are serving prison sentences. What has magnified the problem is the fact that many, in authority, who either turned a blind eye or did not act on allegations of abuse, are still in power.

It’s distressing that Spotlight did not suddenly uncover the problem. Decades before the Boston Globe’s team investigated the story, people like American psychotherapist Dr. Richard Sipe, had warned that there were a number of psychosexual issues amongst clergy that needed attention. Sipe was an ordained priest. He worked, as a therapist, with clergy. He also taught in major seminaries in the USA. After 20 years he left the priesthood to marry.

In 1990 Sipe startled the Catholic world when he published a book addressing issues like celibacy and sexual abuse. In 1995 Sipe published another study in which he said that 2% of priests were involved with pre-pubescent minors and 4% with adolescents. This suggests that 6% of clergy could be abusers. He concluded that the Church had a systemic problem when it came to dealing with human sexuality. He suggested the Church face up to these problems and others surrounding its teaching and practice on sexuality. Many clergy denigrated Sipe after he made his findings known. Some USA bishops refused to speak to him.

Spotlight is well balanced. It reveals not only the evil and cover-ups by the Church but also the fact that a number of other societal institutions were complicit – the Boston Police, the media, lawyers and even the families of victims. The film tells the story of abuse in the Church. It reminds us too, of a chilling fact: that the sexual abuse of children is not only a problem in the Church; it is a societal issue that needs to be faced.

For many people the Church should be the place where truth is the priority. It failed. The truth was sacrificed. It is still being sacrificed when people like Cardinal Pell – and others – play the blame game and take no responsibility for what happened when they could and should have acted.

In recent years, the Vatican and Bishop’s Conferences have put more stringent controls and protocols in place. Pope Francis has said that bishops who covered-up abuse should resign. All this is a movement in the right direction. However, until we face the more systemic problems around sexuality, that continue to exist in the Catholic Church, we will never be purged from this evil.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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