BY THOMAS MOODY
In 1996, Charlie Rose interviewed Seamus Heaney, the poet, Harvard professor and newly minted Nobel laureate. Heaney described by way of anecdote the difference between growing up Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. He recalled going to his Protestant friend’s house on Christmas morning to see what he had been given by Santa Claus “and he had got a little — well, quite a large — battleship with little guns on it and everything. And it was a kind of Royal Navy — it was total loyalist, Protestant, unionist, British, and imperial thing. And what had I got? I’d been given a kaleidoscope. I thought — when I look back on it, this is a totally Catholic gift, you know — inward wonder, but no real possession.”
In the same interview, Heaney made the distinction between what it is to be Catholic and what it is to be Catholic in Northern Ireland; that is, the distinction between the spiritual and social roles of religion. Heaney spoke of the radiance of inner Catholicism he experienced as a child, the “sense of eternity and the sense of grace and God-filled space…the older I get, the more important I think that inner expansiveness of consciousness and the actual supernatural sense of a universe drenched in radiance [is].”
The Catholic Church has done its best to extinguish this radiance. Last week’s findings from a Pennsylvania grand jury, that over a period of six decades at least 1,000 children were abused by 300 Catholic priests, were shocking but not in the least bit surprising. Included in the report was that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2006 and close ally of Pope Francis, helped cover up abusive behavior in his diocese. This is what we have come to expect from one of the moral arbiters of the world. The crimes committed by the priests in the diocese of Pittsburgh may have been unspeakably abhorrent — giving gold crucifix chains to boys being groomed for abuse, so that pedophile priests could easily identify their victims — but they were in no way remarkable for an institution which has, for the better part of a century, operated as a haven for sexual predators.
The radiance that Heaney spoke to in his interview with Charlie Rose is a similar radiance to the one I experienced growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Australia. The Catholicism in which I was raised was intensely spiritual, but unlike in Heaney’s case, it played no social or political role in my family’s life. Australia of the 1980s was not a sectarian society, and my father dismissed the Vatican’s social positions on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and divorce. However, this took nothing away from the supernatural sense of a universe drenched in radiance, as Heaney put it, that was engendered in me through Catholicism. These notions of eternity and grace taught me to consider the world as something more than just a material place. They are lessons that I cherish.
Yet these lessons are constantly challenged by the actions of the Church. It is not merely the revelations of abuse but also the organizational coverup that continue to appall. Ten years after I had graduated from my Catholic high school, St. Ignatius College, Riverview, I was sent a letter informing me of the sexual abuse committed by priests at the school, and which the church had covered up for over five decades. The school had only sent the letter because it was being taken to court over abuse claims. A good friend of mine from school, who was a recent father and whose own uncle had been a Jesuit priest, rang me up shortly after, shocked and angry, and told me he would not be baptizing his son.
When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, there was much hope among Catholics like myself, who felt that spiritual element of Catholicism still had something meaningful to offer in the 21st century, and that the Church could regain some of its lost moral authority. For a while it seemed that faith was not misplaced, as Francis inspired even non-Catholics with his charitable mission and his focus on human communion, rather than making proclamations that merely fueled the flames of the culture wars.
It is with more sadness than anger, therefore, to see that the Vatican yet again is failing to react in any meaningful way to another child sex abuse scandal. It is a sadness in resignation that the new pope has done nothing material to alter the position of the Church when it comes to its own crimes. The statement the Vatican provided last week, which was inexcusably short on the details of how it plans to hold those responsible to account, was followed up on Monday by an equally weak apology from the new pope. Pope Francis continued to reference the Church’s crimes as either occurring in the past, or as potentialities to be prevented in the future. There was a total disregard for the importance of the present.
These criminals need to be held to account now. Since many of the crimes are beyond Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, it is for the Church itself to enforce the justice it claims it is so eager to see achieved. It is also the Church that should be the most repulsed by the acts of its priests, inverting the sacred image of the cross and turning it into a designation not for salvation, but for condemnation.
On Saturday, Francis will be visiting Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. At the event, the pope will be joined by three cardinals who have each been accused by the survivors group End Clergy Abuse of covering up child sexual abuse claims against Catholic priests. The pope should either cancel his trip or not allow those accused to be included in the event. This is the Catholic Church’s last chance to regain any semblance of authority.
To come down hard and swift on those who participated in the decades of abuse — particularly those cardinals and bishops involved in covering up the crimes — would send out a message that this is indeed a new era for the Church, an era of humility, care and above all, humanity. Instead, in the Vatican’s silence and neglect of the present, all we can hear are the echoes of the old institution that believes it is above the law of man.