After the flood of revelations over child abuse earlier this year, emerging in country after country to ever greater outrage over abuse, cover-up, and claims of inadequate institutional response, the flow of big, really scandalous news stories has pretty well dried up. There's a limit to just how long the press can continue discussing the precise degree of personal culpability of then Archbishop Ratzinger in Munich, or of Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF- and a limit to how long readers or television viewers will continue to pay any attention.
Sure, there continues to be a steady trickle of local news stories concerning one or other clergyman being accused or coming to trial, and we now have fresh complaints that the newly released revised guidelines don't do enough, and will be ineffective. I don't believe thought that most Catholics will pay enough attention to these details to be seriously bothered. So does this mean that the whole affair will slowly die a death, with bygones allowed to be bygones, and the present dealt with means that while not perfect, will at least ensure that it is never again quite as bad as it was?
Not a bit of it.
It should be obvious to all that whatever the outcry may have done or not done to remedy the problem of abuse, there has been a major impact on the entire structure and internal relationships inside the church. Ordinary Catholics on all continents have had their confidence in the church authorities severely shaken. In many regions, they are formally resigning in significant numbers. Where they have not resigned, they are not attending Mass as often, or withholding contributions to church coffers, or are simply feeling more confident in openly defying the supposed authority of the Church, even to the extent of accepting women bishops or other unauthorized Eucharistic celebrants. (Perhaps this is why there is after all a macabre logic to linking paedophilia to women's ordination: the problems the church has had with one have increased the appeal of the other).
I have not seen any reports of the impact on local priests, but there must have been some. They will have been angered in the same way as ordinary Catholics, and for additional reasons too: many will feel that the shadow of suspicion will now fall unfairly on them personally, and they will certainly find that as the men on the ground, they are the ones that will have to deal with the impact of greater lay resistance or outright hostility.
It is certainly clear that the bishops, collectively, have been affected. There have been unprecedented increases in veiled or direct criticisms from the bishops, on the institutional procedures, on the institutional culture, and even on each other. This is not surprising. They are the ones shouldering the blame for cover-ups and protecting abusive priests, but many will feel they were simply following CDF rules, rules the Vatican has been claiming were simply misunderstood.
What of the secular authorities, and their relationship with the Church? In many countries, political, judicial and police authorities have clearly demonstrated a far greater assertiveness towards the church than ever before, instituting inquiries, summoning clerical representatives to testify, and allowing court cases against the church to proceed. In Venezuela, President Chavez is seriously talking of revoking the Vatican's diplomatic status, a move that has growing support (outside of government) in many other countries as well - notably right here in the UK.
The Vatican itself, though, appears largely unchanged. It is the institutions fundamental disconnect with real life beyond its borders, I believe, that was a key part of the problems in the first place, and that has not changed one iota. It is no wonder that the latest revisions to procedures strike so many observers as simply tinkering with detail, rather than the deep-rooted reform that is really needed. I will return to the subject of the Vatican's response to changing relationships below.
The impact has to be substantial, but it will take time before we can really evaluate the impact. Some sources are suggesting it will be huge - "you ain't seen 'nuttin yet."
Recall that one of the immediate consequences of the early revelations in March was that many countries instituted their own inquiries into the history of abuse . cover-ups, and the causes. These inquiries have not yet reported their findings, but when they do, if there is any evidence of complicity or negligence on the part of the church authorities, you can bet that the whole sorry mess will be all over the papers, internet and TV screens yet again. I for one will not be betting against the likelihood of further evidence of malfeasance being uncovered.
It was an analysis of the dramatic developments in one of these investigations, in Belgium, that caught my eye. At NCR, in an article analysing the seemingly heavy handed recent actions of the police there is a throw-away line that had me catch my breath in awe at its implications. It is a statement by an unnamed Vatican source, so we cannot evaluate its reliability: but the content, to my mind, had a ring of at least plausibility, given my analysis of the situation sketched above:
Pope Benedict XVI has announced the creation of a new department at the Vatican: the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization. The pope hopes this new office will clear up problems created by secularism in Western Europe. What the pope might not fully realize, however, and what his new department will not likely clear up, is the impact of current European-wide tsunami of people coming forward with reports of sexual abuse in the church. A canon lawyer who has been working with abuse cases for the past 10 years, but is restricted from speaking on the record, said in a long phone conversation recently that we are witnessing just the start of an immense reporting of sexual abuse and the start of an ecclesiastical revolution. It is unclear whether the Vatican can even understand what’s really happening.
When the current investigations have run their course, there may well be a "tsunami" of revelations. In Ireland, as in the US, there had been media reports for years, before anybody really took serious notice. It was not until after the government investigation reported, that the story really caught fire. Across Europe, the other countries are currently at the stage Ireland was at before the Ryan and Murphy reports. What will be their position after the investigations are complete?
The Vatican, meanwhile, has demonstrated once again how desperately out removed they are ftom reality. Instead of attempting to grapple with the real issues, of the institution of a celibate, all male clergy starved of any life of emotional intimacy, of a highly centralized power mad structure that lends itself to abusive power relationships, and a totally inappropriate regime for the selection and training of candidates for the priesthood, what has it done? It has created a program to "re-evangelize the West", apparently in the belief that is the secular culture, and not their own institutional faults, that is to blame for the mess - and tinkered with its existing procedures.
It is unclear whether the Vatican can even understand what’s really happening.
Indeed. It is no wonder that there is said to be a major ecclesiastical rebellion brewing. The bishops are themselves not exactly in close touch with real people and their lives, but they are certainly more so than the Curia. Note too, that the most vocal criticisms have come from bishops and Cardinals with responsibility for real dioceses - not the Vatican bureacrats, with nothing more to think of than institutional rules and politics.
Get your lifebelts ready. You'll need them when the tsunami hits.