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Pope Francis has issued new rules closing some gaps in the way the Catholic Church handles clerical child abusers, and with those in authority who fail to deal with them satisfactorily. Bishops will be in future accountable to archbishops and both of them to Rome; religious orders must comply; secrecy may not be imposed on victims, who are therefore free to complain to the civil authorities; local secular laws on child protection must be obeyed. These rules are good as far as they go. But that is not nearly far enough.

The fundamental flaw in the Vatican’s approach is to treat sexual abuse of minors as a “delict” against the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, as though the evil in child abuse consists in the violation of priestly celibacy. It does not. That way leads to excuses and to reduced culpability on the grounds that paedophilia is compulsive. And it ignores the fact that some abuse has a sadistic element that may not directly involve genital activity. As the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales will have heard from victims at their meeting in Valladolid last week, the heart of the evil of child abuse is the emotional harm done to the abused child, that often leaves whole lives devastated.

If anything, the abuse of children is a serious contravention of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill”, which has always been interpreted as a strict ban on the infliction of injury, including torture. Victims of abuse by a priest can suffer a lifetime of mental illness, which surely qualifies. And the damage to their Catholic faith is in many cases total, which may constitute an offence against the First Commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” – at least as elaborated in the Catholic Catechism. Yet that lists abuse as an “offence against the dignity of marriage”.

Clearly Catholic sexual ethics has much more work to do on this subject. The focus must shift decisively from the abuser to the abused. Victims are briefly mentioned in the new motu proprio, which would have done well to echo the famous clause one of the UK Children Act 1989, which states: “... the child’s welfare shall be the paramount consideration”. Too often the Church has seemed to put the welfare of the priest concerned above that of the child.

Once this point is taken, child abuse becomes an issue for the whole community, not just church officials. The absence of any independent lay involvement in the procedures described in the motu proprio is a major omission. Indeed, as is its failure to obligate the reporting of offences to civilian child protection authorities. This is an open invitation, which in the British case should be taken up by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse when it reports, to amend criminal law to make the reporting of such cases mandatory, with penalties attached. Such laws work well, for instance, in most Australian jurisdictions.

The new rules are a welcome step in the right direction. But there is not enough here to satisfy confidence, inside the Catholic community or outside, that the Church has finally put its house in order.





The European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom next week are unlike any in living memory, but no less important for that. The meaning of the outcome may be clouded by personality issues, however, in particular how long Theresa May can hang on as Tory leader and prime minister. The dominant personalities are Nigel Farage, who has taken his new Brexit Party to the top of the polls in just a few weeks, and Boris Johnson, who is increasingly seen as the probable new Tory leader. But as well as signing the political death warrant of Mrs May, the campaign so far has also seen the eclipse of Jeremy Corbyn, who has failed to dominate his own party let alone the public debate. Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are both seen as colourless equivocators-in-chief who have tried to face every way in order to preserve party unity. Compromise is the stuff of politics but the partisan nature of the Brexit debate has left little room for it. So the two least compromising positions are the two options which the public could find most appealing. These are that taken by the Brexit Party – unconditionally in favour of leaving the EU immediately – and by the Liberal Democrats – unconditionally in favour of remaining. The Lib Dems deserve to do well as the voice of common sense on this occasion. They are likely to attract many Labour voters who do not want to leave the EU and want a second referendum to reverse the first one – a protest vote from within the Labour Party, against the tepid ambivalence of Mr Corbyn and his team.

These elections were never expected to happen, as the 2016 referendum result in favour of leaving the European Union was supposed to have been implemented by now. But that process has reached a sort of stalemate, and these elections have become a trial of strength between the contesting positions. It is all about sending a message, not policy – except on the one issue. And the message likely to come from an overwhelming number of voters will be one of gross dissatisfaction at how the two-party system has let the country down.

The Brexit Party has no policies apart from a nodeal Brexit and no seats in Parliament, and the Green Party has just one. Hence the Lib Dems may be the only mature political institution able to take advantage of the new form of politics the country seems to want. And north of the border, the Scottish Nationalists – equally unequivocal about wanting to remain in the EU – will also benefit from the uncompromising national mood.

The Brexit Party will sooner or later have to decide what it means by “leave”. Restoring the Irish border? Imposing tariffs on EU imports? Banning all EU fishing in UK waters? Visas for travel south of Dover? Even without such detail, the discussion of which would open up left-right splits in its own ranks, the Brexit Party may turn out to have the life expectancy of a spring mayfly. But it will have existed long enough to deliver a possibly fatal blow to the Tory party. In the wilderness of British politics, tectonic plates are shifting and an earthquake may be imminent.

2 | THE TABLET | 18 MAY 2019

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