Catholic Church will survive abuse scandals, says English bishop

As a devout Roman Catholic, Kieran Conry is already in the minority in this predominantly Protestant country.

But as a bishop here in southern England, Conry has distinguished himself from other clerics by speaking out about the child abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church and departing somewhat from the Vatican’s line that Pope Benedict XVI is the target of a media-driven mudslinging campaign.

The spreading scandal has presented the Catholic Church with perhaps its gravest crisis in years, with criticism coming from unexpected quarters.

On Saturday, Jewish groups reacted angrily to a sermon by the pope’s personal preacher comparing criticism of the church to anti-Semitic persecution, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, remarked that the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost “all credibility.”

Conry, 59, who headed the Catholic Church’s media office in London for seven years before becoming bishop in 2001, spoke to The Times on Good Friday at his home in Pease Pottage, about 30 miles south of London.

Is the church being singled out for criticism, as the Vatican has complained?

It’s got all the ingredients of a good media story. It’s got sex, intrigue, cover-up, scandal, celebrity, so it’s an ideal story . . . especially [at] Easter, when all the media do religious stories. . . .

On the other hand, I wouldn’t agree that the media are engaged in a witch hunt against the Catholic Church. . . . That’s the media’s job: look at institutions like the church and see, are you doing your job, are you doing what you say you’re doing. If we’re not, then it’s right it’s exposed and we’re chastised and told to get our house in order.

What about the Vatican’s allegation that there is an “ignoble” attempt to smear Benedict personally?

I don’t see what benefit there is in that. Obviously for a journalist to get a scalp like that would be a great coup, but there’s bound to be an interest in Benedict’s personal involvement in either the Murphy case from the States or the cases in Munich. . . .

I think we have to know all the facts. So from the ‘70s, in Munich, we need to know who said exactly what and to who. . . .

The ‘70s was a quite different era. I was in Birmingham, in England, in the ‘80s, and there was a case involving a priest in the parish next door to me. The common gossip was that this man was too close to children. We thought, yeah, that’s not good, get him away from them, so they moved him on. But then a few months later, the whole thing comes out; he was abusing children.

We didn’t have the language [to describe it]; we didn’t have the concept.

But child molestation was a crime already in the 1970s. There was already a legal language to talk about it.

The legal language might’ve been there, but the common language wasn’t around. For instance, it wasn’t till a few years ago that the word “pedophilia” appeared in an Italian newspaper. In many cultures it’s just not talked about; it doesn’t happen.

In other institutions devoted to the public good, such as the police or the government, we expect leaders to be sacked or to step down if there’s severe dereliction of duty on their watch. Shouldn’t this apply to bishops and even the pope himself?

Certainly . . . if you can establish clearly there’s been a dereliction of duty.

You’d have to be quite clear that the pope was somehow (A) personally involved, and (B) clearly had failed in his duty, and I think on both of those counts there isn’t a strong case.

There’d have to be a very strong case to say that somehow he was actually responsible for wrongdoing further down the line. That’d be a case that would be hard to prove. I can’t see the benefit of getting the pope to resign, or indeed sufficient just cause at the moment. . . . You’ve spoken of “generations of damage” to the church. Can the church recover, and if so, how?

It will recover; it’s always recovered from damage, the damage done by the Reformation, for instance, and various times in the past.

The problem with this is it’s not a [single] incident that’s damaged the church. I was talking about cases now emerging in Germany, beginning in Italy. . . . My fear is that it’ll get worse before it gets better. That might be generations, the constant drip-drip of more sexual abuse cases.

Is the church therefore fated to go from crisis to crisis?

It depends on how you understand “church.” The church is an enormous institution, and perception of it in most people’s minds is actually fairly local. The church locally, I’d say, is still doing quite well. . . .

The pope has blamed the secularization of society as the context for this abuse happening. Do you think that’s fair?

I can’t see the sense of that at all. I think it’s easy for the church, especially when it’s sort of cornered like this, to point and say it’s not our fault.

But I don’t think secularization has anything to do with it. Child abuse has been going on since Adam and Eve came out of the garden. It’s not a new phenomenon. Its emergence into the public forum is new. But 1,000 years ago, adults were abusing children sexually and physically. . . .

Is there any excuse for not turning a priest suspected of abuse over to the police, and just handling it purely internally?

No. We’d be in deep, deep trouble. . . .

If a case comes to us, we look at it, in the first instance, and say, does there seem to be any substance in this case, and straightaway hand it to the police. That’s been our practice since ’94.

There’s been no suggestion that it would be handed to the Vatican. In the case of a priest convicted, and therefore the canonical process, that’s handed to the Vat, if we want this guy laicized [defrocked]. . . . But certainly it’s not been the practice here that an allegation is handed straightaway to the Vatican, or even dealt with internally by the local church. . . .

Do you have high hopes for the pope’s September visit to Britain?

I think the Catholic community will respond well. . . . It was 1982 when the last pope came here, so a whole generation has not seen a pope in this country.

To meet personally, he’s a gentle, kind, good man, and I hope that’ll come across. But people perceive him in this country through the media. He’s in a difficult place. There’s no way knowing how he’ll be received.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens. September’s a long way off.