Yesterday the BBC was lamenting the fact that the Pope in Britain had failed to give a clear “I’m sorry” apology for the abuse scandal, such as (apparently) he gave in Ireland. I heard part of his speech. He said he was deeply sorry, and that he was shamed and humiliated. That seems to me a much more sincere and comprehensive apology than a simple “I’m sorry”.
But of course an apology is only the first step. The Church needs to understand why these dreadful events happened, and how to prevent them. We are not dealing here with a mere handful of cases, but with endemic abuse across many dioceses in many countries, and over several decades. While there may have been no organised cover-up, there seems to have been little appetite in the Church for reporting offenders to the civil authorities, as ought to have been done.
As for the “Why?”, it seems to me self-evident. It comes down to priestly celibacy. The Book of Common Prayer commends marriage “for the avoidance of fornication”. This is a doctrine which the Catholic Church should contemplate with care.
That said, I have been saddened by the outburst of aggressive atheism and secularism which has greeted the Pope’s visit.
I have a high regard for Professor Richard Dawkins. I once met him briefly in Brussels. I have read most of his books. I stand in awe of his erudition, his clarity and comprehension, his capacity for communication. But I am disturbed by the strident and shrill tone he adopts against people of faith. Science should by all means defend itself against myth and superstition, but if (as I sincerely believe) science is broadly right, then it will win the argument against religious creation myths – indeed it has already done so amongst most educated people, including many Christians. But Dawkins should play the ball, not the man. He would achieve more with a more measured approach.
I imagine many Christians today feel under threat. The newspaper headlines about Christmas/Winterval, about the exclusion of faith groups from the public space and civic programmes, about the banning of Christian symbols, have become almost clichés. Indeed I see a kind of parallel with smokers, who are also persecuted, and forced to indulge their habit out in the rain. I am neither a member of any organised religion (though I feel a cultural affinity with the Church of England), nor am I a smoker. But as an MEP I represent a great number of Christians, and smokers, and they have rights too. At least they have a right to respect for their views. We don’t have to agree with them, but we must recognise their right to disagree with us.
I am also alarmed by the attacks on faith schools. On almost every measure, faith schools typically deliver better result than non-faith schools. To seek to close down our best schools on ideological grounds is simply perverse, given the parlous state of British education. (But please note: I exclude from this analysis those faith schools that draw on a single ethnic or linguistic demographic. Such schools may be divisive. Pupils from such backgrounds especially need a broad engagement with British culture and British values. They are unlikely to get that in a madrassa).
So please, Professor Dawkins, a little more respect, a little more dignity, and the common courtesy which a visiting Head of State is entitled to expect.
An earlier draft of this piece contained the phrase “systemically pædophile”. This seems to have caused some offence to a number of Catholics, which was not my intention, and I regret it. As a courtesy to those Catholics, I have revised the article, removing the offending words. All I meant was that, sadly, child sexual abuse has been extensive and widespread in the Catholic Church. That is a matter of public record and cannot be disputed. I hope that Catholics will also note that I defended the Pope’s apology, argued forcefully in favour of faith schools, and lamented the strident atheism of Professor Dawkins.