As part of his World Youth Day visit to Sydney this week, Pope Benedict XVI said sorry to those Australian children, now adults, abused by Catholic clergy over the last several decades. This apology followed soon after another, made in the US to those abused there.
An apology is better than nothing; and it's certainly better than the years of John Paul II's papacy, during which the Church not only failed to report clergy abusing children to the authorities, but at times relocated abusers into new environments in which they could continue to offend. However, it seems that some clergy still fail to register the seriousness of the Church's failure to protect it's children: Bishop Anthony Fisher, organiser of World Youth Day, recently complained about advocates for abuse victims 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. In another stunningly misguided response, the Congregation for Catholic Education released the 2005 document Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders. The document is regarded as the Church's official to the child abuse issue, and implies that paedophilia can be curbed by preventing from entering the clergy (in the words of JPII) 'those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture"'.
The thing which haunts me most about the Church's history of child abuse is the terrible aloneness which victims must have felt. Some abused children were directly in the care of the Church, in orphanages or other institutions, and had absolutely no one to turn to for protection. Others lived with parents to whom they could not confide the abuse, since to make such an allegation against a member of the clergy was - and still is - unthinkable in many Catholic families. The loneliness and harm caused by abuse do not end with childhood, of course. Bishop Fisher's appalling comment, quoted above, was made when he was questioned by media about the Church's handling of allegations against a Melbourne priest. This same priest had raped two sisters when they were children; one of the two had recently killed herself at the age of 26.
The Church has offered monetary compensation to abuse victims, mostly in the US, where millions upon millions of dollars have been spent. Like the word 'sorry', monetary compensation can never be adequate; but justice demands that the mistreatment of victims be recognised somehow. What disturbs me about this compensation is not so much that it tries to put a monetary value on something priceless and irreplaceable - a childhood free from fear and unhappiness - but that monetary values must vary according to where in the world a complainant lives, and how much cultural capital he or she can bring into a fight with the Church. It seems reasonable to assume that the abuse taking place in the US, Irish, Canadian and Australian Churches has also occurred amongst much poorer Catholic communities in Africa and South America. I guess we can also assume that these poorer victims - who can't afford to engage lawyers or lack the wherewithal to use the media to embarrass the Church - are less likely to receive any compensation at all, no matter how inadequate. Some human lives are just more priceless than others, perhaps.
It may be horrible to try to put a monetary value on childhood, but it's surely worse to give it no value at all. A childhood taken is a childhood taken, no matter where in the world it was lost.