A news conference took place yesterday in Lourdes, where the Catholic bishops of France were meeting in a plenary session. The president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, announced that Cardinal Ricard of France – the former Archbishop of Bordeaux and previously president of the bishops’ conference on two occasions – had written a letter in which he admitted to having abused a fourteen year old girl some forty years ago, whilst he was a parish priest.
Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort also added that presently, eleven French bishops or former bishops are being (or have been) investigated by the authorities for abuse – primarily for it’s execution, but in two instances for covering up that abuse.
In his letter, the Cardinal asked forgiveness from “all those I hurt” – leaving the distinct impression there is more yet to be revealed in this case and that there may be more than one victim.
This revelation comes to light one year after a French report into clerical sexual abuse estimated that there have been some 216,000 victims of priests and other clerics over the least seventy years in the Church in France. That report described the degree of cover-up of clerical abuse as “systemic”.
In January last year, Bishop Michel Santier of the French diocese of Creteil, retired two years earlier than is usual, attributing this to “health reasons”. It was only a few weeks ago – ten months after the ‘retiral’ – that the diocese finally confirmed that the Bishop had been credibly accused of sexual abuse one full year beforehand and ordered by the Vatican to live a life of prayer and penance. The events themselves had apparently occurred around twenty years beforehand.
There are a number of issues involved here.
The first is that these men – and all the others in similar situations, whether already known or still to be revealed – are saying one thing publicly and doing something entirely different in private. Living a life founded on hypocrisy is not a good thing for any priest – it necessitates a life which is increasingly one of lies and duplicity; lies corrode and destroy the integrity of the person – and their ultimate revelation destroys trust in that person and in the institution which they represent.
The second issue is that those who become aware of such a situation will usually – and I say this based on what the Church has now revealed in many situations – become complicit in the evil already perpetrated. Such persons – fellow priests and very often bishops – have covered up for the initial perpetrator and in doing so, have allowed this evil to continue and added a further level of evil to it.
Now the third issue. To achieve the second issue, the victims of such evil have been ignored, silenced, broadsided and had their reputations (and sometimes sanity) destroyed by the “men of the Church”, which has eviscerated their lives entirely and removed them from any possibility of living a life of faith. The effects of such abuse are absolutely devastating at every level and in every way to the victims and – often – to those close to them. Such abuse destroys lives and it often ends lives.
Bear in mind that while all abuse is equally evil, there is a particular viciousness involved when that abuse is perpetrated by “men of God” and is then compounded by the Church.
Bear in mind something else, too. All those names which have become public so far have generally come into the light through the astonishing determination of victims, and only very exceptionally through the honesty of the men of the Church – these have, for the most part, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the public square despite their denials, their very deliberate and protracted obfuscation, and their outright lies. Note that in the case mentioned above, the public were told the Bishop had retired on ‘health grounds’ – a complete lie; this removed any possibility of public accountability or justice and it showed no integrity whatsoever from these “men of God”. The Vatican, too, did nothing to bring the truth to light – this was not simply a local lie.
Fourthly, note that this particular Cardinal was working in the very Dicastery in the Vatican charged with the investigation of sexual abuse by clerics. How on earth can the fox guard the chickens?
There is also a fifth issue present.
Speaking at the news conference in Lourdes, the president of the French bishops’ conference is reported to have said –
“All of us are shaken, personally and in our apostolic authority in the service of the Lord Jesus and the people of God, by suffering a collective criticism for a matter that most of us have had nothing to do with.”
I was astonished to read this line. Astonished that in the face of such blatant and widespread corruption even within the ranks of bishops, this bishop felt stung at the thought of guilt by association, of being ‘tarred with the same brush’. This really summed up the attitude of the Church hierarchy – all that really matters to them is their own good and their own reputation and their financial interests. For the bishops, this is not – nor was it ever – really about the good of the victims who have suffered so atrociously; it was only ever about themselves.
“Through some crack,
the smoke of Satan has entered the Church.”
Pope Paul VI
This evil is now known to be so deeply entrenched within the structures of the institutional Church, so incredibly widespread, that it is found in the dark corners of so very many dioceses, in every nation and upon every continent. If you think this is over, you are greatly mistaken. Consequently, we can no longer speak of “the occasional bad apple” – it is not occasional, nor is it just ‘some’; it is many. It is case after case, relentlessly and seemingly without end. So much so that I find it impossible to look at any priest and not unintentionally find myself wondering what kind of man this is in private. Similarly with bishops – I wonder what they know that is yet to come into the light; whether they, like so many of their brothers, have covered-up for abusing priests or bishops; and whether they, too, have inflicted unimaginable damage upon the innocent victims of such “men of God”.
This is all now to such an extent that the very institution itself is poisoned. It’s structures are poisoned. The Church has not simply lost, but has actively discarded, its own moral good standing and authority. It has lost the trust of the faithful, the People of God.
Someone asked me earlier this morning if I actually believe that ‘the smoke of Satan has entered the Church’. Yes, I believe precisely that. Where God is at work, so is the Destroyer.
The Demon will do everything in his not inconsiderable power to destroy the Church and her work, in whatever way he can. If you cannot yet see his presence, then look for his mark – division. Where division is present, he is there. He divides bishops from each other and from their priests; he divides the priests and bishops from the faithful; and ultimately he divides the Church herself in such a way that her very foundations are rocked.
But note well – to succeed, the Deceiver requires the willing co-operation of humans; and in these past decades, so many priests and bishops have given him their allegiance in one way or another, implicitly and explicitly – and the fruits of that infernal union are now coming into the light. But to be very clear on one point – the culpability belongs solely to these “men of God” – those who have abused, those who are abusing now, those who cover up that abuse, those who lie about what they know and so make it possible, and those – particularly in the Vatican – who work to hide things from the people of God in order to place the reputation of the Church far, far above the good of victims and of the people of God themselves.
Has the smoke of Satan entered the Church? Yes indeed. And through which crack has it entered? It has entered precisely through these “men of God” – they are the crack which disfigures the integrity, the goodness – the holiness – of the Church, leaving both themselves and the Church herself open to the work of the Tempter, to whom they have succumbed. Now, this crack has become a great scar.
But how, then, to respond.
While the Church is a physical and temporal institution, it is also the Mystical Body of Christ; if the Father of Lies can destroy one, he will destroy the other. He may come close to this aim – but he will never succeed.
The Church will suffer greatly through all this evil – and this is rightly deserved. Bishops and priests will be mistrusted at ever greater levels and they have brought this upon themselves. This ‘collegiality of distrust’ is a small part of the price which must be paid, of the reckoning which must be made. Further, many souls will abandon the Church as a result of this self-inflicted wound which the Church has brought upon itself. The Church will shrink in numbers, in power and in influence – and it seems to me this is a good and necessary thing, for she has aligned herself far too greatly with the political kingdoms of the world, when her eyes should have been fixed elsewhere – not upon herself, but solely upon the One whom she claims to represent. She has forgotten His own words that “My Kingdom is not of this world”.
The Church will lick her wounds for many decades to come but they will not heal, because she has not seen the need for genuine penance and for real restitution. It is only by means of that necessary penance, undertaken in a spirit of profound humility, that she will one day shine brightly once more; and that day will come – but not yet.
Speaking personally, I struggle enormously with the Church; were it not for the local Church, where I see the authentic good of the people of God all around me, and for the Sacramental life offered by the Church despite her immense faults, I would have left her already. I know so many have left already and I understand their reasons for having done so. I pray that one day, this might change; and that between now and then, these souls do not abandon God no matter how tempted they are to do so.
I pray for the Church. I pray for her every single day. I weep for her. Yet I understand that while purification is painful – it is necessary.