Theologian Gerry O’Hanlon has been reflecting on the recent extraordinary summit on clerical sexual abuse convened by Pope Francis in Rome, and attended by Cardinals and Bishops from all over the world. In this interview with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications he welcomes the fact that a ‘culture of denial’ around the extent and impact of abuse, still operative in may countries, was openly challenged at the summit. In that regard he cites the powerful address given by Nigerian nun, Sr Veronica Openibo, head of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (see photo). Standing close to the Pope, she challenged those present on their hypocrisy and mediocrity in responding to what is a crisis for the whole Church.
The former Irish Jesuit Provincial also singles out the criticism and unmasking of ‘clericalism’ in the Church as significant, particularly since it happened in such a public forum with so many clerical figures present, including the Pope who has been scathing on the issue. We don’t fully understand paedophilia, he comments, but the contributing factor to the widespread cover ups that were part of the problem was due to “a sense of entitlement, known as clericalism’, and exercised by those in power.
He also discusses the impact the clerical sexual abuse scandal has had on ordinary Catholics, acknowledging that for many people it is a very painful thing to say nowadays, “I am a Catholic”. He notes that the issue has deeply impacted on so many people, and they are hurt and angry. He recalls being with the Pope here in Ireland just after Francis had met with some survivors of sexual abuse, during the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. “He was shattered”, says Gerry, “And I understood exactly how he felt, having listened to victims myself. It’s harrowing.”
Gerry O’Hanlon holds that these encounters and this openness is,”part of a necessary process that the Church is going through, so much better than the denial of the past”. He believes that the Church as an institution has learnt lessons, and that into the future, it will be a place worldwide, where children are safe and protected.
He is adamant also that those who have abused or abuse children must be brought to justice and face the consequences of their actions. But he is also concerned about a prevalent discourse that is vengeful and without mercy. He says that at the core of Christian faith is a belief in the mercy of God. He recalls that in his study of theology one of the questions they explored was whether God wanted to save everyone. “If you want to hold a hope that everyone will be saved then you have to say that Hitler, that Pol Pot, that Stalin, that the paedophile priest and the Bishop who covered up, somehow all are covered by the mercy of God. It’s counter-intuitive and a huge scandal and yet it is at the core of our Christian faith,” he concludes.