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A Cancer In The Body

A Cancer In The Body

For years, nay decades, when reflecting on the paedophile crises in the Church in the west, Indian Catholics would smugly tell themselves, “Oh, but that happens over there. Our traditions here are far better. Our priests are different.  They are holier, more dedicated…”  Such naiveté is touching, and only reveals how out of touch most are with Indian realities.

For what is the prime Indian reality related to women and gender issues?  It is that India still lives in a feudal age, dominated by patriarchal attitudes, which reveal themselves in aggressive behaviour towards all those considered “inferior” – and first among these are women of all ages, and children of both sexes.

This applies across the board to all groups and communities. Sadly, it also applies to the Catholic clergy, even though they are by definition celibate, and therefore by tradition and custom, generally not seen as culpable in matters of sexual transgression.

But the facts challenge this general perception.

A recent report from news agency UCAN stated,

  At least five major incidents of child abuse involving priests have been reported in Kerala during the last two years. Only one among the accused in these cases has been convicted…

…and went on to name the accused in each instance. It also added,

“It is unfortunate such cases are being reported frequently. If this is the situation, the Church will have to think of framing a protocol for priests and nuns who interact with children,” said the spokesperson of the local bishops’ conference.

A protocol for priests and nuns who interact with children?   Yes, perhaps. But isn’t there a gender policy approved by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India since 2009?  All it needs is to be implemented.  Will it?

This news item must be read in the context of another, more public event: the resignation of Marie Collins, a high-profile member of the commission advising  Pope Francis  on ways to protect minors from sexual abuse by the clergy.

Ms Collins expressed her frustration over what she called reluctance among the Catholic Church’s hierarchy to implement the commission’s recommendations — even those approved by the pope.  “The lack of action,” she wrote, “is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.  I feel I have no choice but to resign if I am to retain my integrity.”  Her words are distressing to all who pinned their hopes on Pope Francis’s decision to resolve the paedophile crisis speedily after years of ecclesiastical evasiveness. .

But Ms Collins’ candid outburst introduces us to another aspect of the culture of the Catholic clergy.

Most celibate priests are not sexual predators, whether of children, adolescents or women. Most of them are good men, and dedicated to their calling. But almost all of them, especially those in the higher ranks of the Church, are complicit in ‘covering up’ and ‘rationalizing  away’ –  any threat to the clerical system of which they are  part, be this  sexual crime,  financial theft  or  the manipulation of the system to one’s own private benefit.  Simply put, rarely will anyone speak out and ‘rock the boat’. They have been trained to conform, not to confront.

This is what clericalism is, the belief that the Church exists solely for the benefit of a small but powerful oligarchy: the clergy and the hierarchy.  Entrance into this coterie is through the rite of priesthood and vow of celibacy. And over the centuries the clergy has become a privileged caste, protective of its own, defensive against outsiders. As one Australian bishop described it, “The marginalization of women and the laity is part of this culture of clericalism that contributes not insignificantly to the abuse, sexual abuse crisis.”

The culture of celibacy is corrupt, not because it makes priests sexual predators. It is corrupt because it is a culture of criminal complicity, of collusion and of cowardice.

As the perpetrators of sexual crimes and financial embezzlement belong to a closed and exclusive culture, with its own archaic laws and hidden legal proceedings, they remain virtually untouchable. Moreover they enjoy enormous deference from law enforcement and the courts, as well as from ordinary Catholics, many of whom will never accept “washing Father’s dirty linen in public”.

It is clericalism then that reveals the Church for what it is – an obstacle to unity, and to dialogue with the other Churches, with other faiths, and with the modern world. It is clericalism which locks the Church in a time warp of its own making, which has created a self-righteousness quick to judge and condemn, slow to show mercy.

Is there then no solution ?  There is, and it lies in transparency and accountability. But these are not values learned from within the church structure but from without.

A hierarchical model sees change coming from above, from popes and bishops. And what it sees, it can control.  A democratic model sees change coming from below – from the subalterns, from the peripheries, from the outcastes. From women . It is open-ended, diverse, pluriform and confusing. All that we’ve been taught to suspect.

Harvey Cox once predicted, “Women will re-make the Church.” About time too. Now we can better understand the resistance.

#(Published on 13th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 11)