Bishop Barry’s Homily on the Sexual Abuse Crisis

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Catholic Women’s League Mass –Diocesan:  Woolston.

My brother priests, dear members of the Catholic Women’s League, and dear friends in Christ.   

Some words from the first reading can help us to focus our minds on the mystery of the Church.  Gamaliel was a Pharisee,  in fact one of St. Paul’s teachers.  We hear him in the first  reading warning his fellow members of the Sanhedrin against persecuting the Church.  “If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin it will break up of its own accord – but if it does in fact come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourself fighting against God.”

 We understand clearly that the Church is not of human origin – it comes from Jesus himself, the one who fed the crowds of the gospel by multiplying the loaves and the fishes.    As the Catholic faith teaches us,   Jesus still feeds his people – not with bread and fish, but with his Word, and, most wonderfully, with himself in the Holy Eucharist, under the forms of bread and wine.   

While the Church is not of human origin, but comes from God,   it is made up of human beings, all of whom are able to do evil as well as good.   We are living in a time  when the world wide Catholic Church is going through the trauma of discovering that priests  have been guilty of sexually abusing children and young people.   As well, those in authority have sometimes failed to ensure the safety of children and young people in their care and this has sometimes led to the further abuse of children.    Learning about these things causes those who love Jesus and his Church immense sorrow and distress.   As it should.     The abuse of children is terrible.   It is a denial of Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me…”

Many voices are to be heard putting forward explanations and asking for changes and I wish to contribute these ideas to your thinking.

1.  There is great need for compassion as well as anger.  Compassion firstly for the children who have been victims of sexual abuse, whose distress is often life long. They have experienced what no child should have to experience.   The priests who abused them must answer to legal and church authorities and be prevented from ever abusing others.  But they too need our compassion – often they the perpetrators themselves have been abused – all of them are sick men.    Healthy adults do not violate children.     We need also to have some compassion for bishops, especially in past years.   The knowledge about sexual abuse and paedophilia   and the research involved dates from the early 1980s - in former times, it seemed reasonable to treat these men and return them to priestly duties, often following the advice of experts.    Now, in hindsight, we know that it was a tragic mistake.

2.  Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general.   Nor can   the sexual abuse of children or young people be attributed to the fact that priests are celibate.  Throughout society, most such offenders are not celibates - most offenders are married or have sexual partners.    Celibacy does not cause priests to abuse children.  Nor can the sexual abuse of children be blamed on homosexuality.   No evidence exists that sexual orientation makes someone at risk to commit such abuse against children or others.   

3.  In New Zealand,   the Church has developed a careful and transparent process for dealing with any complaint of sexual abuse.   Persons are told immediately of their right to go to the police in order to have the complaint investigated.   If they do not wish to do so, then the Bishop concerned must investigate the complaint, taking every precaution to attend to the claims of both truth and justice.   Every investigation has oversight from outside the Diocese.  A report is prepared and a recommendation made to the Bishop about the outcome of the investigation and action to be taken.

Church authorities have had to learn from the tragic incidents of sexual abuse that have come to light.   One precaution that is now in place means that all candidates for the seminary are screened for any pathology that indicates  later problems and during their formation they are assessed further for any such tendencies. 

Dear friends in Christ,   the present publicity and criticism of Church figures are painful but pale in comparison with the distress of victims of abuse.  If there is evil behaviour amongst priests and even bishops, it is better for everyone, and the Church too, that it be brought to light and dealt with.   Let us pray that God will enable us all to draw good out of evil.

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