The Contradiction of Justice

on Thursday, 10 April 2003. Posted in Issue 44 Ireland: Facing up to a Multicultural Future?, 2002

Brian Lennon, SJ

Justice is about right relationships

Justice is about right relationships, respect for others, above all about the protection of the weakest in society. Child abuse is about as basic a contradiction of justice as there is. All child abuse is awful but it has been a particular shock for Catholics to realise that some priests whom they trusted and respected have been involved in it. However, the most difficult aspect to comprehend of the Church’s response to Clerical Child Abuse was the policy of moving offenders to another location where they had the possibility to re-offend. This policy was tantamount to putting the ‘good name’ of the Catholic Church above the safety of children..


The role that the Catholic Church occupied in the public and private lives of many Irish citizens is key to understanding the sense of moral outrage and anger that has greeted the recent Prime Time documentary. In its teachings the Church has always been very exact in what is acceptable and unacceptable in every aspect of physical and sexual relations of its members. The Church has taken high profile positions on moral issues such as abortion, divorce and contraception. Also the Church has been a great advocate of justice for the poor, the vulnerable and the most marginalized members of Irish society.  But when called upon to exercise justice to protect the most vulnerable, that is, our children, it was found terribly wanting. The horrific nature of child abuse makes the policy response all the less understandable. It appears in not wanting to cause scandal to its members the Church has been a source of a deeper and more fundamental scandal.

The suffering caused by abuse is incalculable. It is impossible for those who have not experienced it to imagine it. For some the pain has been so great that it has led to suicide. Some have suffered – and continue to suffer - in silence. Others have gone public and called their abusers and the Church to account. Lay Catholics, priests and bishops who have been scandalised by the institution’s response have also suffered, but this is in no way comparable to the pain of those who have been abused.

Many of the victims who have gone public have said that they did so to protect children from future abuse, and also because they want the Church to recognise and accept the wrong it has done. They are entitled to both.

There are a number of tasks to be faced:

  • One is that the State pursues criminals no matter who they are or what their status is;
  • secondly, to ensure future protection for all children;
  • thirdly, to give a measure of justice to victims.
  • fourthly, to face questions about the treatment of convicted abusers after they have served their sentences;
  • fifthly, to find symbolic and practical ways in which the Church can show its repentance and,
  • sixthly, for the Church to find ways to reform itself.

In the eyes of the State...

In the eyes of the State all citizens are subject to the same laws, and have the same duties and rights. The fact that a suspect is a priest or religious should makes no difference. That is – or should be – obvious. It is up to the Garda to pursue criminals, both to protect children from further abuse and to give a measure of justice to victims. Where evidence is insufficient the State needs to make decisions about the advisability of public enquiries.

Canon Law is important for members of the Church. From the State’s point of view it has – as the Minister for Justice recently put it – an importance similar to that of the rules of a golf club. Courts respect to a degree the internal rules of organisations, and on that basis may give some weight to Canon Law. This may be relevant when dealing with issues of confidentiality. In some circumstances, as for example with journalists and lawyers, confidentiality is respected. Again it is for the courts to decide if Church confidentiality should be legally respected, and if so to what extent.

The conviction of their abusers is part of the justice to which victims are entitled. Justice vindicates the victim. It says clearly and publicly that it is the perpetrator and not the victim who is guilty. Often victims imbibe deeply the message given them by their assailants that the abuse is their fault, that they are non-persons, that they are there to be used and abused, that they are objects of power. Public justice can do something to counter this.

Clearly justice also involves due process. This is not only for the sake of the accused but also that the truth may emerge. We have seen in other contexts, such as that of the Birmingham Six, the damage done when the desire for results leads to false convictions.

Pursuing criminal charges, where successful, helps give a measure of protection to children because it puts abusers behind bars. But child protection also needs a culture, a strong ethos in organisations, good protocols, evaluation of their implementation, and a public awareness of what constitutes good and bad practice. The Church, especially given its failures, should be at the forefront in ensuring all these exist in any organisation linked to it. For this there is need for on-going, independent and public evaluation of the effectiveness of the Church’s child protection practice.

There are no simple answers to questions about treatment of convicted abusers. Where should they live? What limits should be put on their movement? What guarantees can be offered that they will not offend again? How can we ensure that children will be protected? Both the State and the Church need to address these issues.

Actions - not words

The most cogent way in which the Church can show its repentance is through actions, not words – although words are important. Only when people see Church leaders actively involved in dealing with abusers, cooperating with Garda enquiries, helping and supporting independent enquiries, will they begin to believe that child protection and not institutional protection is the priority for the Church.

The reform of the Church was never more urgent. The crisis has highlighted the lack of accountability of Church leaders to its members. That fact has been obvious for many years, but the abuse has brought home to people in a new way the dangers of non-accountability. It is not easy to be optimistic about the possibilities of change. The structure of the Church as a whole is deeply hierarchical and patriarchal and many are still in denial about the size of the task involved in confronting it.

There is a need for deep learning, which can only come from deep listening, before any move to new structures is made, although new structures to empower lay people will be needed. However, lay people will not engage in listening exercises, such as diocesan assemblies, if these are merely designed to allow them vent anger. There has to be the possibility of change at the end of the process.

So what is the answer? Again, like many, I have no idea. There are no easy solutions. Many now despair of the capacity of the institutional Church to change. It is up to those of us who remain committed to it to show this need not be the case. As Bishop Willie Walsh said recently the Church is subject first and foremost to the law of Christ, which is the law of love. Anything that does not serve this should be removed.

While nothing will undo the harm done it is good at least that the abuse issue has been exposed and in such a way that Church leaders and the State have had at last to confront the problem. It is not unreasonable to hope that this may lead to greater protection for children.

Nothing less than a deep, effective and transparent commitment to the protection of children and justice for victims will do