IT WAS famously said of Watergate that it was not the original crime — a burglary of the offices of political opponents — that was the real scandal. It was, rather, the cover-up. If that is the lesson of history, it is one that the Churches have singularly failed to learn, Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike.
In recent days, we have had the unedifying spectacle of Lord Carey in the witness box at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, where, unlike the Prince of Wales, he was subject to cross-examination by Fiona Scolding QC (News, 27 July). Across the Tiber, as it were, the Archbishop of Adelaide, the Rt Revd Philip Wilson, has finally been shamed into tendering his resignation — or has been told privately by Pope Francis that he has to go.
What the two senior clerics, Anglican and Catholic, have in common is not sexual misconduct, but the inadequacy of their handling of crimes by others. Both men have mouthed the correct words of revulsion against sex abuse, but both have been found wanting in their actions.
Lord Carey, in mitigation, spoke of the different social attitudes to sex abuse in the “pre-Savile era”, and of his inability, when confronted with the allegations about the disgraced prelate Peter Ball, to “believe that a bishop in the Church of England could do such evil things”.
That was an incredulity that society then generally shared, of course, even where it did not embrace the Church’s foundational commitment to forgiveness after repentance. But Lord Carey was disingenuous in relying on shifting social attitudes as an excuse. Once Ball had accepted a formal police caution — which constitutes an admission of guilt — after committing an act of gross indecency, there was no way that he should have been supported by Lord Carey, given his lack of remorse.
It was similarly extraordinary that Archbishop Wilson refused to resign after becoming global Catholicism’s most senior cleric to be charged and convicted for failing to report an abuser priest to the police (News, 25 May). He had shown “no remorse or contrition”, according to the court that has sentenced him to a minimum of six months’ imprisonment. He had even resisted calls from the Australian Prime Minister to resign.
The abuse itself continues. Only a few days ago, a former Archbishop of Washington, DC, 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick, had to resign as a Cardinal and was ordered by Pope Francis “to a life of prayer and penance” as he awaits the outcome of an ecclesiastical trial for the abuse of seminarians, including an 11-year-old boy.
Archbishop McCarrick has also been removed from public ministry pending his church trial, which the Vatican clearly expects to end with a guilty verdict. This represents a step change for the Vatican, as did Pope Francis’s recent demand that several bishops in Chile resign after allegations that the Church there, at the highest levels, colluded in the cover-up of sexual abuse.
Has a watershed truly been reached in wider church consciousness? Will Lord Carey retain his permission to officiate in church services? Will Archbishop Wilson offer compensation to those he has wronged? Or have the Churches still not fully realised that apologies, and pledges about policy and procedure changes, are not enough? Action is required if faith in the institutional Churches is to be restored.