My memories of sunshine in August may now have faded, but the sense of shock and shame that marked that month have not. In many ways it has been the most disturbing of times in the life of the Church for 50 years. The reports and revelations of abuse and neglect, and the dispassionate descriptions of the awful abuse inflicted on so many children, are truly shocking. How could this happen? But it did; and it still does, in many places.
It is right that these crimes are being brought into the clear light of public scrutiny. It is painful, but so necessary. My first thoughts go to those who have suffered. I know, even from my own limited experience, that every story of abuse refreshes the hurt, reawakens the wounds, of childhood terror in those who are victims or survivors of abuse. Their cry is a cry from the heart of Jesus, for they are his beloved and part of his Body. Their wounds mark the very flesh of our Lord.
The devastating effect of childhood abuse is the hollowing out of a person’s capacity to trust another human being. Life without trust in another is a life robbed of so much quality and sustenance. It can be an empty shell. And when that abuse is inflicted by a person whose presence carries with it the sanction of the Church, who acts “in the name of God”, then the trust that is destroyed is trust in the Church, and in the ultimate source of all good, God.
This summer has also revealed shameful behaviour on the part of those whose task it is to care for and protect the household of the Church. Bishops, abbots and religious superiors have failed to be good shepherds – whether through ignorance, confusion, carelessness, misplaced loyalty or a sense of self-preservation. This, too, has damaged the trust that so many priests and lay people give to the Church, and has created an atmosphere of unspoken suspicion and guarded relationships.
A spirit of humble confession of fault and realism about our failures has marked the first days of the Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment, taking place in Rome. There is an undercurrent of anger – especially directed at us bishops – at the damage done to so many and dismay at the many ways in which this is seriously inhibiting the work of the Gospel. Hardly a session is completed without this crisis being brought to the fore, not because this is a Synod about abuse and cover-up in the Church, but because these self-inflicted wounds seriously undermine every aspect of ministry, especially ministry with and to young people.
We are living through a period of great challenge and purification. In the work of the Synod, thus far, there is no pretence. Rather there is a sense of realism that words are not enough, that trust has to be rebuilt. As the saying has it, trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback. This is a humbler Synod than any other I have attended, a pondering on failure, weakness and repentance. Two points of light have begun to emerge, at least in my mind.
After the formal openings, the first person to speak at the Synod was a young woman who told us about her journey through the years of her adolescence into a new maturity. Her testimony, together with many others heard both in our small group discussions and during Saturday evening’s Youth Festival, have described the vivid experiences of vulnerability and fragility that so often characterise periods of intense growth. This is often a key aspect of the existential experience of young people. And here young people and bishops began to find some common ground.
At times, speeches in the Synod have been about young people; at times they have been addressed to young people; but in this theme of fragility and vulnerability, I have had a vivid sense that we have been talking together. As young people listened to us bishops talk about how dismayed we are, how belittled by what has happened, how vulnerable and fragile we feel, they have understood. In some ways, in this experience of painful fragility, we are in the same boat.
It’s a powerful image. The boat of the Church, in which we journey together, is going through stormy waters and there are anxious, frightened glances all round. What will happen next? What more is to confront us? Where do we find a safe harbour? The first disciples of Jesus lived that same experience, even when their Lord was asleep at the back of the boat.
In moments such as these, I find my myself recalling the words spoken by Pope Francis on his very first appearance at the window of the Apostolic Palace. He spoke of God’s mercy and of our need to receive that mercy before we can truly serve Him. He said that unless we are first “caressed by the mercy of God” then we shall not have the capacity to offer that same mercy to others.
The invitation is clear. We are to turn to the Lord, implore him to wake up, and to caress us with his mercy that we may serve him in and through each other. As bishops we do so with humility and with an unaccustomed sense of vulnerability. This strips us of all sense of false superiority and entitlement.
A second speck of light has also emerged for me. It is a tiny distant spot, but perhaps a great summons. The young people with whom we are engaged, either directly or through all the preparatory contributions, yearn for a world more marked by both justice and compassion. They are so keenly aware of the injustices and great wounds in the world around them. They long fiercely for justice to be done. They are also hugely generous and compassionate, wanting to express in practical ways the empathy they feel for those whose weakness is overwhelming them, for those who sink into crime and compulsive behaviour.
I read these characteristics as an expression of a deeply Catholic axiom: that we are to hate the sin but strive to love the sinner. The speck of light I glimpse is the invitation from these young people to apply this ancient axiom to the response we make to the awful sins of abuse and neglect. To do so might be a powerful and radical witness to Gospel truth, in contrast to the ways of the world.
I am very conscious that in our response to abuse and to the failures of leadership in the Church we have much to learn. There are two sources of learning which are shaping what we are doing at present: the lessons of the law and those of social work professionals. In some places, a confused Church leadership is handing over to a body of legal experts the task of responding vigorously to this crisis. In other places, we look more to the expertise of social services, their procedures and practices. As I say, there is much we have to learn.
But there is also a unique contribution that must come from the Gospel. Professional responses often focus on awareness, detection, prevention and punishment. All are necessary for justice and for prudent vigilance. Yet, while certainly being necessary, I wonder if they are also sufficient, at least in terms of the Gospel by which we try to live? The justice of God is always corrective, opening up a pathway of redemption to those who wish to take it, in penitence and self-knowledge. That is not the language we hear about those found guilty of child abuse.
This week I have heard the compassion that moves God to tender mercy finding an echo in young hearts. Can it also find a place in our response to offenders? The hounding of sex offenders does not heal the hurt of those who have been abused. Is there not a better way to be found? This road, on which we may be guided by that speck of light, must have as its first steps the work of open and unambiguous justice for those who have been deeply offended and hurt. It must include protective vigilance at every moment against ongoing risk. It has to include every struggle to ensure that survivors are accompanied on their road towards stable living. Only then may the possibility of restorative justice emerge out of the deep mists of hurt and anger. This possibility, remote as it seems today, may be one of the emerging gifts of this dialogue of faith, marked both by vulnerability and hope, taking place here in Rome between the generations of the family of the Church.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is the eleventh Archbishop of Westminster