I was asked to write this article as a Catholic: as a Catholic the reality that a pope has to summon bishops from any part of the world to discuss child abuse in which Catholic clergy have been involved is distressing. As a European citizen the fact that the horrors that have been uncovered in Ireland are so significant in number, so long term in nature, and so shocking in their depravity means that one can only be aware that words do not do justice to the plight of those whose lives will have been so gravely harmed. In such circumstances only prosecution where prosecution is due is an appropriate response. Prosecution and, no doubt, fulsome apologies and financial reparations – even though no amount of cash can ever restore the locust years of a stolen life.
But as the Irish bishops travel to Rome, deeper questions will have to be asked. While on the one hand the virtues of a richly lived life of faith can give rise to striking acts of altruism – Desmond Tutu and Kim Dae Jung are but two examples – the Irish experience seems to point to an equally compelling reality: namely that parts of the Catholic communion have, at times, developed the propensity to turn in on themselves without confidence, self awareness or care. The violent whisper that can urge some clergy, and others, to "protect the church from scandal" at the expense of a child's human flourishing must never again be tolerated. Neither must the impulse to do the wrong thing be legitimated by only blaming its extent on the perpetrators of the acts rather than all those who, somehow, became involved by sins of omission and commission.
But it would now seem that the Holy Father sees this. That is why the Irish bishops are going to Rome so that this may never happen again – not in Ireland and – one would hope – not anywhere. It will be salutary for them to note that Archbishop Nichols and the English bishops have, in the last decade, had some criticism from Rome for imposing stricter child protection policies than the Vatican would have expected (or felt comfortable with). Learning from best practice in the UK voluntary and statutory sectors, Archbishop Nichols took church criticism on the chin to make sure that the English church put its house in order.
The Catholic church – like so many communities – is at its best when it gives rise to characters who are true to human rights in all their forms, passionate about the defence of the poor and zealous in their enthusiasm for practical acts of human kindness. When the church turns in on itself with fear, deceit or self interest, it lets itself down and – more importantly – has shown itself to have the capacity to let down a generation. Just as many might move away from a locality that had become divided, depraved or broken, if such patterns were repeated there will be many who might never bring themselves again to enter a church door. Indeed it would even be likely that no conscientious Catholic would ever wish to be approached to write on this topic, or any other linked to their church, ever again.
Keith Chappell, based at the Las Casas Institute on Ethics, Goverannce and Social Responsibility at, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University and is a specialist on Christian social thought.