Combating clericalism and sexual abuse


(St. Edmund's Church, England where Deacon Sean Murphy Serves)

By Deacon Sean Murphy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the crime of sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable people at the hands of clergy, religious and others working in the name of the Church.  I referred then to Pope Francis's verdict, in his Letter to the People of God, that this appalling scandal, and the systematic covering-up of the crimes, was attributable to an over-concentration of power in the hands of clergy.  'Clericalism,' the Holy Father wrote, 'whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons... supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ''no'' to abuse is to say an emphatic ''no'' to all forms of clericalism.'  His message was clear: the clergy's monopoly of power within the Church has to end. 

How, is another matter, and we can be sure that it won't be easy.  Clericalism has been around for a long time and challenges to it have been systematically met with blanket opposition from those who wield power in the Church.  When Newman published his article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine in 1859 he incurred the wrath of the English hierarchy and the Pope and was denounced by one cleric as a heretic.  Such contempt for the laity, their role being 'to pray up, pay up and shut up', ran both deep and wide.

With the calling of the Second Vatican Council, change seemed to be in the air.  One bishop actually attacked clericalism as one of the major evils that had blighted the Church for centuries and the Council Fathers seemed to agree.  In their document, Lumen Gentium -The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, they set out their view of the role of the laity.  In article 37, they envisaged a way forward for the Church in which the laity would not only be permitted but even at times obliged to express their opinion on matters concerning the good of the Church, and with proper structures in place to enable this to happen. This process of consultation and collaboration was not to be a matter of occasional, one-off consultations but should be part of a 'familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders' that would lead to 'a great many wonderful things: the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders...' while their pastors, 'aided by the experience of the laity, [could] more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world.'

 If change had seemed to be in the air, in the air is where it remained, because that vision of clerical-lay collaboration bears no comparison with the reality of 2021.  How little things have changed is illustrated by the fact that, at an ordination Mass last September, Cardinal Nicholls reminded the deacons and priests being ordained that they were not being ordained so as to be 'constantly giving orders'.  Why, more than 50 years after Lumen Gentium first appeared, did Cardinal Nicholls feel impelled to give such an instruction to men who had undertaken several years of formation in a Church supposedly committed to the ideals of the Second Vatican Council?

No, the Church remains as clericalised as ever: that is what Pope Francis was saying; that is why the abuse continued; that is how it was so successfully covered up.  As I noted in my earlier article, one female parishioner had remarked: 'If women had been involved in running the Church, none of this would have happened because the abusers would have had nowhere to hide.'  Can anyone seriously doubt that in the Church as envisaged by Lumen Gentium such an abomination could have persisted?  Would a Church in which the laity were 'permitted... even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church'... have allowed such cover-ups?  Would 'spiritual leaders', 'aided by the experience of the laity...regarding both spiritual and temporal matters', have come to the conclusion that The Good Name of the Church trumped the rights of innocent victims, allowing lying perpetrators to be moved from parish to parish while the victims were silenced and denounced as liars?

So what is to be done? To answer that, we need to look at why nothing has been done before.  In my earlier article, I pointed out that a constant source of grief for victims is that so few decent, ordinary laypeople and clergy have been prepared to walk with them on their journey, helping them as they try to confront their traumatic experiences.  It is as though most of the rest of us are looking the other way.  The only explanation I can think of is that victims of abuse are not alone in having been traumatised: could it be that the mass of decent people have also been spiritually traumatised, by the discovery that, among the clergy and religious whom so many of them had been conditioned to hold in high regard, there lurked specimens of unspeakable depravity, who could tell a victim, 'This is our secret, between us and Jesus.'  Yes, that really happened.  Unable to cope with the realisation that the Body of Christ, the Church of which they were a part, had harboured such villainy, could it be that a traumatised laity either left the Church or, with no way of making their collective voice heard, chose to keep their heads down and retreat into their own personal little world of faith? 

We should not despair of change however.  True to his word about the need to root out clericalism, the Holy Father has called a synod in 2023 to explore ways of giving substance to the vision set out in Lumen Gentium of a Church in which the laity will play a proper role in the Church.  There are already good people among the clergy and the laity who work actively to help victims.  This requires skills and depths of commitment that not all of us possess.  But even if we are not able to help in this particular way, we owe the victims something better than just sitting back.  In my next article I will explore ways in which all of us, and especially lay people, might push to be empowered to replace those structures in the Church that have long been unfit for purpose and which allowed the perpetuation of evil.

Page URL: