12Nov People power – a stranger at the Catholic church’s door

Joanna Moorhead
People power is all around: think the Arab spring, the protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the national outpouring of outrage over phone hacking and, before that, MPs’ expenses. This week, popular democracy came crashing in on yet another institution in desperate need of reform – the Catholic church, which has been a bastion of power for one of the most tightly-knit, elderly male oligarchies of all time.
What has happened over the past few days might not have looked particularly dramatic, but it has shaken the powers that be in the Catholic church in this country to their core. And although ordinary people didn’t seem to be in the vanguard in the same way they were in the Arab spring, they have played a key role.
What’s happened is this: First, Lord Carlile’s report into a Catholic school in west London, St Benedict’s, has concluded that the monks who run it have been guilty of a “lengthy and cumulative failure” to protect the children in their care from abuse, and that the school’s organisational structure lacks “independence, transparency, accountability and diversity, and is drawn from too narrow a group of people”. It recommends that the Benedictine monks who set the school up should forfeit control of it, and two trusts are now being set up to remove “all power from the abbey”. The new body, says Carlile, should have policies and procedures that are clearly understandable to outsiders, and should have monitoring safeguards in place.
Second, a high court judge has ruled that the church is responsible as an organisation for crimes committed by its priests. This follows a case in which a former resident of a Catholic children’s home in Hampshire alleged that she was raped and assaulted by a priest. Lawyers for the diocese involved, who are arguing that the relationship between a priest and a bishop is different from a normal employee/employer situation, have said they will appeal.
That case is likely to drag on for some years (and will do the church no end of PR disaster along the way); but both it and the Carlile report have something important in common, which they share with other popular movements of recent times. It is this: ordinary people, long repressed and silent, but with great power when they do choose to act, have spoken out. If former pupils from St Benedict’s School in Ealing had not come forward; if the woman from the children’s home (and she is not alone; others are alleging similar abuse) had not spoken out, the changes we have seen this week would never have happened.
And they are enormously significant, because power sharing is an entirely novel concept for those at the top of the Catholic church. Transparent, Lord Carlile? Independent? Accountable? Diverse? Oh, dear me: the bishops may need some explanation as to the very meaning of these concepts. And as to the idea that policies and procedures should be put in place at St Benedict’s that are understandable to outsiders: well, I imagine there are a few splutterings over breakfast cereal at bishops’ residences around the Catholic dioceses of the country this week.
I have been a member of the Catholic church all my life (albeit, sometimes, hanging on by my fingernails); and for me, as for many other Catholics, the problem is that the men who control the church do not see democracy as containing any inherent value. As far as they are concerned, power isn’t devolved from the people, it is imposed from above – from God himself. They believe in a God who makes his wishes known to a small and select group of individuals, individuals who happen to be exclusively male, and rather elderly.
I don’t believe in that God any more, and I suspect and hope that many of my fellow Catholics feel the same. I don’t believe in a God who would not merely allow, but actively want power to be concentrated in the hands of a tiny (male) minority, while the majority had to do as they were told until they discover that what they are being told has been shot through for decades and even centuries with lies, cover-ups, smokescreens and an inability to grasp nettles. I believe in a God whose truths and goodness are located, not in the minds and hearts of a small number of men, but in the minds and hearts of a large number of women and men who care about one another and the wider community and the church itself, and whose views have for too long been ignored.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and its untenable power structures won’t be dismantled in one either. The Catholic church’s Arab spring will take many years, probably decades, to achieve. But hear this, bishops and priests: our spring has started, and this week’s developments were important milestones. And know this too: the church that will emerge from the ashes of the old guard will be better, and bigger, and kinder, and more honest; it will be transparent, and accountable, and independent, and diverse. But best of all, it will be more Christ-like, too.

5 Responses

  1. Sean (Derry)

    So “a former resident of a Catholic children’s home in Hampshire ALLEGED that she was raped and assaulted by a priest.” and the ACP publishes an article by Joanna Moorhead (no friend of the Catholic Church) who uses this as a stick to beat the whole church. ‘Allegations’ are not always true as we know from the recent case of Fr Kevin Reynolds.
    Lord Carlile’s report covered a 40 year period. But let’s look closer to home, with regards the HSE and just an 18 month period. 35 young people who were known to social services have died over the past 18 months as a result of suicide, accidents and drug overdoses. (And that’s just the ones who died). So if the St. Benedict monks are guilty of “lengthy and cumulative failure” regarding a relatively small number of cases of abuse (most unproven) then what is the state guilty of?

  2. Kathleen O'Connell

    Dear Ms. Moorhead:
    I am one who hopes that what you portend will come to pass swiftly and (emotionally) non-violently without the heirarchy throwing guilt and obedience out irrespective of Gospel values to divide the faithful. Because we know change takes time and the men in power don’t usually give it up graciously or without inflicting more wounds, I hope that we can join together as faithful people accross the globe to love and support the people in the pews as transformation evolves. May we stay in touch?
    Kathleen O’Connell
    Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.

  3. Brendan Peters

    I don’t believe in that God either, Joanna. The most empowered I’ve ever felt in my life has been on marches with thousands of other like-minded people from all walks of life (Drop the Debt, Birmingham 1997 and Make Poverty History, Edinburgh 2005). When enough people ‘mobilise’ the mountains can begin to move and so it will be now with the institution of the Church. Thanks for your inspiring thoughts, Joanna.

  4. Martin

    The preoccupation with power misses the point: holiness.

  5. Wendy Murphy

    Joanna is speaking about holiness Martin, read her last paragraph again.