The Catholic Church has been around for a long time

It is hard to imagine anyone writing historical novels without taking some interest in the role of the Catholic Church down the ages. That institution has been an influence on so many people’s lives and on so many of the great movements and events in history. Not only European history. Some people say that today it is in crisis and perhaps in terminal decline. They should read more history. The Church has been through a lot of crises and many periods of decline.

A monk writing the history of the Catholic Church. Geoffrey of Monmouth?
What’s the current crisis in the Roman Catholic Church?

Pope Francis has just issued an apology for the sexual and other abuse inflicted on a huge number of women and especially children by priests, monks and nuns. He has also apologised for the cover-ups and lack of action by the hierarchy. Many people say this is too little and too late. He is about to visit Ireland, where the scale of the problem has been particularly bad. How will he be received? Can he put right what is wrong?

Is there anything else to worry an Irish Catholic today?

The numbers attending church services and otherwise engaged with that institution have reduced dramatically this century, as is the case elsewhere. The abuse scandal is not unique to Ireland either. However, the change is the more dramatic and its impact more traumatic, because of the huge influence the church had in Ireland for centuries.

Should Protestants feel smug at Catholic woes?

Some probably do, but it would be a big mistake. There have been abuse scandals involving Protestant clergy, although not as widespread as among Catholics, as far as we know. Anyway, bad publicity for one church does not equate to good publicity for others. Today, some secularists regard Islamic terrorism as an argument against all religion.

Why did so much abuse happen within the Catholic Church?

I expect there are many answers and I don’t claim any special inside knowledge. However, one factor I can’t ignore is the structure and culture of that church. An authoritarian hierarchy and a deferential laity is a recipe for corruption and the misuse of power of one kind or another. There is one thing I can say from personal experience. When I have looked into the finances of Catholic schools and other bodies, I have found that people were often reluctant to question the actions of a priest. When I wanted to see receipts or asked for an independent check on money handled by clergy, I was met with gasps of horror by lay administrators. Whilst I do not say financial malpractice was absent from Protestant or secular organisations, I do say there was more of a tendency to regard vicars or ministers as accountable to others on Earth, not just to the ultimate Judge.

Does this matter if you are not a Catholic?

Yes. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

All power tends to corrupt: absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely – Lord Acton.

Pope Francis needs to address the whole structure and culture of the church he leads. He will need a lot of help. He will need to pray for a miracle. Fortunately, they do happen.

Abuse of any kind, whether the exception or the norm, needs to be condemned and steps taken to prevent it. There is also a need to help the victims. However widespread it was, it makes no difference to the message the Catholic Church, along with Protestants and other Christians, proclaims. The call to Love God and Love your neighbour is as relevant and necessary now as it was two thousand years ago. The example of Jesus and his teaching are worth following. I hope the Pope will say so.

Not all Catholic clergy are abusers!

I also hope we all remember the other victims of this scandal. The many thousands of loyal, honest, loving priests, monks and nuns who have worked hard to put Jesus’s teaching into practice, helping thousands of people with all kinds of needs. They will be ashamed of what they have heard and feel they are held guilty by association. May the Pope give comfort and encouragement to them.

Too little and too late? We’ll see!