My worst nightmare

Every priest and religious in active ministry today share one common nightmare – that he will receive a phone call from his bishop/congregational leader informing him that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against him.

To be falsely accused of any crime is bad enough but nothing, except perhaps murder, compares with being accused of the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable person. In most cases, you are instantly and very publicly removed from office, and even when there is no official explanation for your removal, local people will soon start to put two and two together. There is the shock, the incredulity, the shame (even though you are innocent), the helplessness, the vulnerability. Your world comes crashing down. You are made to feel guilty even before you have a chance to defend yourself.

Even when your family and friends believe and support you, you feel totally alone. You are stuck in a nightmare and you don’t know when or if you’ll ever get out of it.

You hope for the total support of your bishop/superior, but his first instinct will be to protect the interests of the church. As it has always been. In the old shameful days of the past, protecting the interests of the church meant ignoring the cries of those who were abused. It was an unforgivable act that destroyed countless lives, and for which the church continues to pay a heavy price. Now it means letting clergy hang out to dry, even when the allegation is anonymous and clearly spurious.

Because of the church’s past sins, allegations of abuse must always be treated with the utmost seriousness. The victim(s) must always come first. And the vast majority of allegations of abuse are one hundred percent genuine.

But if the allegation is anonymous, or if it is clearly false, the accused priest needs to feel supported by the church. That does not always happen, as Fr Tim Hazelwood describes in The Tablet newspaper (see his story on the Association of Catholic Priests’ website). What happened to him is every innocent priest’s worse nightmare. It is mine too.

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My tears for a lost innocence

The choir began the hymn and suddenly I felt the tears trickle down my cheeks. It was no special occasion and it wasn’t a particularly beautiful rendition of the hymn. It wasn’t even a very good hymn. “Our God Reigns” has never been popular with the liturgical types. So, why the tears?Because that is a song I associate with my young days, the days of youth and optimism, and those are long gone now.

“Our God Reigns” reminds me in particular of the pope’s visit to Ireland in September 1979. I was at the youth Mass in Galway, having entered the seminary just two weeks before. And at the Mass, where the warm-up acts included Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, I was allocated a seat in the section close to the altar, the section reserved for priests and seminarians. The pope was just one hundred yards away.

I was 17 years old. I was innocent and naïve and awestruck and, like so many others present that day, swept away in the euphoria of it all.

We were celebrating the swan song of the church in Ireland during those three days of the pope’s visit but we had no idea that is what we were doing. The hundreds of bishops and priests and religious present must have felt a warm glow of satisfaction and assurance as they gazed out at the vast sea of faces. The future of the church in Ireland seemed secure. All those young people had travelled to Galway from every corner of the country tired, but full of faith and vigor and love for the church, and singing “Our God Reigns.”

The day before almost the entire population of Dublin had gathered in the Phoenix Park in another extraordinary display of faith and emotion. The church was safe for several generations more.

I was 17 years old and had no cynicism in me, or disappointment or disillusionment with the church or the world. My experience of both had been nothing but positive. Full of zeal, I wanted to make my contribution.

It’s hard to believe that was almost 37 years ago. The young clergy who had brought bus loads of teenagers to Galway from all over the country are old and wearied now, morale is sapped, the energy and exuberance of those days long gone, as churches empty and monasteries close and parishes cluster and vocations disappear.

The tears I shed were for the innocent, fragile me of all those years ago with my naïve enthusiasm but also for the church that through arrogance and complacency and abuse of power lost the love and trust of its people and won’t ever get it back.