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Canada and the Vatican; God and priests

April 3, 2010

Famous Vatican staircase.

Giuseppe Momo architecture at Vatican Museum. Image courtesy Flickr user 'cybernyber.'

Easter, 2010. I sometimes entertain notions of similarity between Canada, my home country, and another place for which I have much affection, Ireland. Despite differences in size, culture and demographics, history and language, we share not just a kind of “commonwealth” connection but also many ties through family, music, and religion.

And it’s that last one, this Easter Saturday, that brings much anger and sorrow: the Catholic church in Ireland and its role in the sexual abuse of children and then the cover-up of that abuse. Always, these two go hand in hand: first the sin, then the denial, a pattern as old as the Easter Story, integral to it. This week, holy to many Christians, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times takes on the Pope, the U.S. Catholic League, and various Cardinals – Dowd suggests a cover up of clerics at the highest level.

That a woman writer can now do this, centuries after such an action would have resulted in a burning, empowers me to ask questions of not just the Pope and his cardinals, but of Christians in Canada. Consider this: “…the primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, came under pressure to stand down after he admitted being at a meeting where children abused by the convicted paedophile Father Brendan Smyth were forced to take a vow of silence.” It bears repeating. 

Children, abused in the care of Christians, were asked to take a vow of silence: Don’t speak, don’t name, don’t implicate. Canadians must immediately think of our Indian Residential Schools. Should Canadian Protestants and Catholics band together and ask for what Dowd calls, “an inquisition for the Pope?” Is that anathema to believers, and sacrilegious?

The novel The Bishop’s Man, a Giller Prize winner (2009), explores the abuse of children by a man of the cloth. The setting is southern Cape Breton Island, but I read the location as a “Canadian Everyplace.” The novel is yet one more reminder that Ireland isn’t the only place where church and state and social organizations, charitable clubs, schools and residences, have been sites of a particular privilege: that of access to children where such access is unquestioned, un-policed, and protected from investigation in the Name of the Father.

Although I might here dare to join with an American female writer in questioning a Pope, my courage fails me at the thought of questioning this Canadian institution, when it comes to the issue of access to young people in organizations.  What questions of culture, practice, regulation, policy inquiry, judicial proceeding do we need to examine in order to prevent the abuse of children, of young people, when they are under the care of others?

As unfashionable, as taboo as it might be in “intellectual” circles, I confess to still holding onto my own faith, broken and lapsed though it might be. I was baptised and confirmed in the United Church of Canada, and we United Churchies can’t be too smug reading the news about Father Lawrence Murphy of Wisconsin, abusing as many as 200 deaf children. We have our own terrible legacies, as do other Christian denominations – all of us worshipping our monotheistic male deity. In reading this morning’s U.K. papers, about Ireland, we might think of Canadian history, where the deep influence of the Pope and his cardinals is still felt, particularly in Quebec, in Atlantic Canada, in Manitoba and other towns and cities where the faithful gather. So much good, so much to cherish and so many questions. Should the news of the Vatican’s handling of sex abuse, the news of yet another “Irish question,” what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls a “colossal trauma,” fill us with the fury of a Medusa? Are we asked to contemplate, this Easter, the role of Christian enterprise in the abuse of children in Canada?

I dedicate this post to the memory my father, a United Church Minister, who taught me to ask questions and who believed with all his heart in the promise of redemption.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim Gallagher permalink
    April 7, 2010 12:54 pm

    Very good article; ironically I was just at the Vatican a few weeks ago as some of these latest revelations came to light.

  2. Cary O'Malley permalink
    April 4, 2010 8:18 am

    I agree with Anne in the above comment. I also think that Itss almost as disgraceful to cover up and deny the crime as the crime itself. The denial weakens the Catholic Church where an admittance of wrong would start a long denied healing process. I was disgusted by the comments yesterday by the Pope’s representative when he compared the accusations against the Church to persecution of the Jews. Such comparisons only point out how isolated the Vatican has become. If it is their power they seek to hold onto don’t they realize that ultimately their power rests on the support of their followers. I can’t see how the denials and counter accusations do anything to create support among their believers. The most moving ceremony I’ve ever seen in Parliament was the admittance of wrong and apology to First Nations people for the abuse they received in the Residential schools. The Catholic Church would do well to study that example. Cary

  3. anne hopkinson permalink
    April 4, 2010 7:22 am

    You shouldn’t have to ask for an inquisition of the Pope. The Pope should have the moral stamina and the Christian certainty to know right from wrong. He should believe in his own religion and follow its doctrines. He should have the courage to confess. He should repent. He should ask for forgiveness. Isn’t that what the Catholic church asks its believers to do? He could make his penance, pray for redemption, and receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Let the Pope do that. How can he not do that? I don’t think he’ll risk it. The Vatican is all about getting and keeping power. And if thousands of children are sexually abused in the process? That’s the price of power. Of course the Pope doesn’t pay the price. He collects it and hides it away. And that’s not the route to redemption.

  4. April 3, 2010 7:14 pm

    A fellow UC minister’s child, eh? Thanks for this, and for the poetry links!

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