Accountability – For whom?

I have been watching with interest the media coverage of the first meeting in Rome of the newly established Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Catholic Church. This body carries on its shoulders the expectations of many millions of interested observers all hoping that it will guide the Church down the right path to a position where we can all be confident that vulnerable children will be safeguarded in its care. The signs so far have been encouraging in that emphasis appears to be placed on establishing how accountability can be strengthened when the abuse of a child is suspected or discovered.

Holding people accountable is an essential requirement of a responsible organisation. However from a safeguarding perspective, it is not enough to focus only on those who have directly harmed a child when pursuing accountability. It is also necessary to look at and address the issue with regard to those in leadership who have failed to discharge their responsibilities adequately. This is not comfortable territory for many in the Irish Catholic Church, because if you examine the abusive career of most of the offenders that have been identified and brought to justice amongst the clergy, you will find a list of missed opportunities to intervene and prevent further abuse. Superiors, and sometimes peers, failed to act and as a consequence abuse continued for longer than it should.

In addressing this issue, it is necessary to reflect on why such a situation has been allowed to exist for so long in the first place. The abuse of a vulnerable child is an abhorrent act which has a profound impact on most people who come in contact with it. Why then was “a blind eye” turned to its existence so frequently when it was suspected or known about in the Church? I do not believe that there is one definitive answer to that question but there is evidence that is relevant to aiding our understanding that has emerged from within the Irish Church.

It would appear that to many in positions of authority in the Church, the situation of the priest and the suffering of the child was viewed differently by them as opposed to the rest of society. Too little attention appears to have been paid to the suffering of the child. The existence of the abuse failed to give rise to sufficient concern to motivate people to take actions to protect children at risk. On the other hand, the offending priest was often treated quite differently. They were viewed as temporarily distressed by “an illness” frequently associated with excessive alcohol consumption and moved to a new location.

A response of this nature could only take place if the suffering of the vulnerable child did not command a strong emotional response from those coming in contact with it. It is hard to escape the conclusion that it was seen as being less important. Occasionally, statements have been made by senior clerics that are revealing because they betray an underlying attitude to the abuse of a child by a priest that is really concerning. When these have been brought into the public domain, they have quite rightly given rise to much anger. However, the question does arise as to how many share that view but have not expressed it?

When you consider the performance of the Catholic Church in Ireland to date with regard to holding offending priests accountable the objective observer would have to grade it as unimpressive. Without the intervention of public scrutiny, it was lamentable. Furthermore few in positions of authority have lost their jobs as a consequence of failing to discharge their responsibilities. It is encouraging, however, that in recent years some have and one would hope to see that process develop further. Being forced to act through public pressure is much less impressive than initiating action as a result of adhering to your own internal framework of acceptable and unacceptable actions.

If you are committed to holding people accountable, you should also welcome transparency with regard to your practice. Having an independent party review and comment on your assessment and decision making should be viewed positively.

In seeking to develop an accountability framework for the Church, the new Commission faces some major challenges. Some of these relate to the structure that the Church has and how power is held and exercised currently. I would suggest that creating a new set of rules to be adhered to will not in itself be sufficient to bring about change as these can be ignored. There has to be a mechanism that allows for decision making to be examined and scrutinised regularly by an independent body that has the authority to do this. The Church has access through its membership to a large number of experienced and qualified lay people who could be deployed to support this process across the different Church authorities.

My justification for asserting that there is a need for this to happen is simply an examination of the situation that existed in the Irish Catholic Church. Not all directives issued were followed. Rules were ignored and when you look at the findings of inquiries in Ireland,there is clear evidence to confirm this.

Ultimately what you want to achieve is a situation where all can be confident that there is no priest in ministry today that has harmed a child, and no one in a position of leadership that has failed to act to protect a child from an offender when they had just cause to do so. Increased accountability means increased transparency combined with greater lay involvement, and more professionalism in the safeguarding decisions made in the Church. It also means a shift in the power balance within the Church through the introduction of an accountability framework that is robust, independent of the hierarchy, and itself subject to scrutiny. None of this should be unachievable if there is sufficient will for it to happen.

The extent to which accountability has been successfully developed within the Church will be assessed through an objective examination of the evidence. Who has been held accountable and in what way? For these questions to be answered by the members of the Church, there has to be more open communication between those in authority and those they are leading. This information in many areas is guarded and shielded even from the lay faithful of the Church itself.

Creating greater accountability is the right path for the Church to travel. However, the journey that the Catholic Church has embarked upon is one fraught with many challenges. The many millions who want the safeguarding practice of the Church to move way beyond the current assessment made of it by the United Nations recognise that, and desperately hope and pray that the members of the Commission will succeed in their task. The rest of the Church and the world is waiting and watching intently.