1 To support victims of clergy sexual abuse
2 To support priests of integrity
3 To shape structural change within the Church.
Goal 1 – To support victims of clergy sexual abuse
As the Irish bishops’ own 2005 document ‘Towards Healing’ acknowledges, victims of clerical child sexual abuse are usually very seriously affected by this experience, and the wounds may last for life. Victims may well feel deeply isolated from their community. They may also experience deep alienation from their Catholic faith, and feel unable to continue practising as Catholics. This is all deeply wounding for the whole church. We have not yet even begun to measure the depth of this wound.
Everything we know about the problem tells us that healing can only begin when victims find a safe context in which to tell their stories. This may well happen in a counselling relationship, but often this alone does not allow victims to feel once more fully part of their own community. Ideally the church community itself needs to become a safe and welcoming place for survivors. This is where Voice of the Faithful can help – by creating a safe space for all those traumatised by abuse to tell their own stories in their own time.
Victims also need to feel that their fellow Catholics have not forgotten them, and that they are determined to put right those aspects of church life that endangered children.
Even yet there has not been a full acknowledgement from the church leadership of the harm caused by church structures that ill treated victims for a second, or even third or fourth time, after the initial abuse. All of us have been aghast to find that bishops too often showed more concern to hide what had happened than to act as caring shepherds should – and even continued to hide behind aggressive lawyers who set out often to re-victimise the victims in order to minimise compensation by repeating the common tactic of the original abusers – to blame the victim for what had happened.
All of this has raised a very serious question over the authority of the bishops’ claim to the trust of their people and to be seen as caring shepherds. Jesus instructed Peter to “Feed my lambs.” Instead too many lambs have been sacrificed to protect the status of the clerical church and the unaccountable power of bishops.
Voice of the Faithful protests strongly against these betrayals of our bishops’ apostolic responsibility, and finds serious fault even with the papacy in this regard. (For example for continuing to honour Bernard Cardinal Law who was forced to resign his role as Archbishop of Boston when it was revealed that his negligence had caused serious permanent injury to, and in some cases even the suicide of, members of his own flock.)
We raise our voices in protest, asking when we will get leadership worthy of the example of Jesus. Asking also how our bishops propose to restore our trust – which they have too often bankrupted.
As far as we are aware, not one bishop in Ireland has faced a gathering of his flock to account fully for what has happened. This is called a failure of ‘accountability’ – a key principle of Christianity. VOTF will not rest until this principle has been accepted and implemented by all bishops, including the pope, because nothing of any importance can be taught by our bishops until they have recovered their integrity.
So our first goal can be summarised as total solidarity with victims and survivors of abuse, with the aim of healing their wounds, restoring their faith and changing our church to make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again.
Goal 2 – To support priests of integrity
By ‘priests of integrity’ we mean priests who have honoured their vocations and served us faithfully. We include in this the great majority of priests, excluding only those who have preyed upon children and other vulnerable members of the community. We especially honour those priests who have taken personal risks to recover our church’s reputation for integrity.
Most priests have been severely shaken by these events – especially because their lives are often lonely, depending heavily upon the good opinion of the community. Blameless themselves they have often felt that the media portrayal of the child-abusing priest has pointed a finger of accusation at all priests.
We stand with them also, honouring the service they have given us and ready to do whatever we can to restore their morale. We believe that a new collaborative relationship is needed between priests and people, ending the lonely isolation in which too many priests live. We invite them to join with us in fostering that new relationship.
Goal 3 – To Shape Structural Change Within the Church
By ‘structure’ here we mean the organisational framework within which the church operates. We mean especially the problem that the church’s diocesan and parish organisation usually operates without any kind of structured input from lay members of the church, by right of Baptism. In church law, for example, a parish priest is not yet required to have any kind of elected council or committee to advise him on the pastoral needs of the parish community. An incoming parish priest may dissolve any such structure set up by his predecessor – and this threatens the very continuity of the church at a time when priests are ageing and not being replaced.
To those who try to argue that the teachings of the church do not allow structural change there is a simple answer: the pope doesn’t agree. Speaking to our Irish bishops in 1999 on the occasion of their regular ad limina visit to Rome, Pope John Paul II said:
“There is likewise a need for new forms of prayer and apostolate, new structures and programmes that help to build a greater sense of belonging to the ecclesial community, a new flourishing of associations and movements capable of showing the perennial youth of the Church and of being a genuine leaven in society.”
(Pope John Paul II, Ad limina address to the Irish bishops, 8th July 1999.)
Far more recently Pope Francis has said: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, way of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can suitably be channelled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (Evangelii Gaudium § 27)
There is still no sign of most Irish bishops responding to this so obvious need in our Irish church. We in Voice of the Faithful feel that this is a serious failure of leadership, because many of those currently leaving the church are doing so because they feel entirely excluded from it. We feel it is now essential for lay people to demand those ‘structures of belonging’ that the pope recommended. In the aftermath of the shocks of the past few years, many bishops speak of the need for greater lay involvement. It is surely time to move from words to action.
It is often said that the church is not a democracy. It is clear also, however, that it is not functioning as an autocracy either – a system operated by individuals in isolation. It was this very system that gave a small minority of unscrupulous priests the power to prey upon the vulnerable, and deprived their families of any real power to protect them. It was also this system that allowed negligent bishops to hide the problem for decades, and to favour the abuser over the victim.
And even had there been no abuse problem the changes that are now taking place in our society would require us to put an end to the ‘them and us’ division between people and priest. Collaboration is clearly the way forward, and new truly representative structures are required at diocesan and parish level to create a collaborative relationship.
These structures will implement the principles of representation and mutual accountability. Lay people too share in the prophetic, priestly and kingly role of Christ, by right of baptism and Confirmation. We need to be accountable for this high responsibility, while the priest needs the confidence of his parishioners also that he is observant of their needs and vision.
Dioceses need such structures also, to inform the bishop of the needs of the diocese, so that resources can be gathered and deployed effectively to meet those needs. At present there is a huge gulf in most dioceses in Ireland between the bishop and most of his flock – and not just because of the child abuse issue. Lack of accountability has eroded to a dangerous degree the respect that is due to the office of bishop, and fostered widespread alienation from the church.
Structural change is therefore an essential goal of Voice of the Faithful. Further information on the detail of this will be found on the main VOTF site, linked at the top of this page. We will be flexible on matters of detail, but we cannot compromise on the principle. Our Irish church cannot survive, or regain the respect of its own members, without radical organizational change – the ‘structures of belonging’ that Pope John Paul II recommended on the threshold of the 21st century, and that Pope Francis has advocated in 2013.