David Pilgrim is Professor of Health and Social Policy in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology
“On his return from the Middle East, Pope Francis told journalists that the clerical abuse of children was akin to conducting a Satanic Mass. No doubt this dramatic analogy will hit the spot for many concerned Catholics. However, with a wider lens, we can see that it still restricts the analysis to the preferred discourse of the church alone.
Today, there are a billion Catholics and although this is a large audience, the church is not the whole world. Many outsiders will see a simpler truth, without invoking the devil as a benchmark of justice and morality. This is a legal and ethical matter, which cannot be left to the church to act as judge and jury about its perpetrators within. This is the third pope to condemn child abuse and the third to meet and pray with a sample of survivors.
As if it is an internal crisis
The church is still dealing with this matter as if it is an internal crisis, with no reference to civil society and its general rule of law.
What Pope Francis will be tested on now is his commitment to political innovation. He has been a canny choice by the hierarchy, because by standards of the past, he is very un-Pope-like. Humble, a friend of the poor and of those in other faiths, in ordinary terms he seems like a decent bloke. Being very special and very ordinary is a difficult performance to juggle, especially when under the glare of constant publicity.
First he could remove all clerics who have been convicted within national jurisdictions; astonishingly this has not happened on every occasion by any means. Second, he could admit and broadcast loudly that perpetrators (who by the way are not all male, despite the common media representation of ‘paedophile priests’) have been accused of criminal, not just unholy, acts. Third, and following from this, he could condemn his own bishops across several countries over the years, who have refused to cooperate with police investigations, kept secret files about abusers and accommodated the latter by moving them from one parish to another.
He may have the honest impulse to commit himself to such actions but there are forces of reaction to contend with. The Catholic Church survives because of its conservatism. ‘Keeping the faith’ means preserving the status quo, not an imagined future with its traditional authority in the dustbin.
Put differently the Church authorities have to indulge in high risk behaviour about a ‘double bind’. The latter term technically has three elements.
First, an injunction exists in a system (in this case to do the right thing and confess all to the world about child abuse). Second, a contradictory injunction also exists (in this case to protect the reputation of the Church and preserve its hierarchy and authority over the laity). Third, there is no escape from the field; there is a state of systemic entrapment.
The Church is struggling like a worm on a hook, just like its victims struggled in the past and who are still enraged. They were entrapped, physically, psychologically and spiritually. They were isolated children who could not escape from a form of abusive authority that derived its mandated power from God.
Simply tell the truth
So maybe the Church is now replicating the very dynamic that afflicted its own victimised children. And, like those victims, it needs to simply tell the truth as a first step in producing justice. That is the only true escape route now for the Church: one after another rhetorical papal statement or internal investigation is not escaping the field but remaining trapped within its boundaries.
Pope Francis may now opt to make that choice about full transparency and accountability but the limited talk of ‘Satanic Masses’ and the track record of his two predecessors do not auger well. Whatever happens, the world is watching and its judgment is what matters for the survivors of clerical abuse, not the eventual policy created and enacted by the Vatican and its power hierarchy.”