23 Mar 2018

NZ Catholic Church still keeping issues behind closed doors

8:29 pm on 23 March 2018

Analysis - The sexual abuse of women by men in positions of power takes many guises, writes Phil Pennington.

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Photo: 123RF

Where it occurs in the Catholic Church, and priests are the perpetrators, Cardinal John Dew, who is also bishop of Wellington, has been uncompromising in the past in calling it out.

It was "professional misconduct by means of sexual abuse" for any priest to have a sexual relationship with a parishioner, he has said.

"It is always, in the case of a member of the clergy, his professional and pastoral responsibility to recognise the vulnerability of the person he's ministering to and to take appropriate steps to avoid emotional, physical and sexual involvement."

There was always a power imbalance between priests and their parishioners, and "meaningful consent" could not apply.

"It is a sad reality that there have been many instances of sexual abuse, this is always a betrayal of trust, it is always an inappropriate use of power and control that a priest ...has."

Cardinal John Dew - the Catholic Archbishop of Wellington - wrote that back in 1996 in a Church paper, following revelations that a bishop in Scotland had been living with a divorcee and had fathered a son with another woman.

His spokesperson this week told RNZ that "the Cardinal stands by his comments".

But two decades on, Cardinal Dew is not so forthcoming on the related issue of priests who father children.

Others have spoken up, with Pope Francis saying he would be inclined to tell a priest "he must leave his priestly ministry and take care of his child".

Support network Coping International have heard from a number of New Zealanders, including the mother of a primary school girl who says a priest is her father, a young man who took months to come forward and an older Auckland woman who a few weeks ago became the first to be acknowledged by the Bishop of Auckland as the child of a priest.

That bishop, Patrick Dunn, spoke to RNZ.

However, the overall message from his fellow bishops, via their spokesperson, is that these cases are "not a public matter", they are "personal", and any response from bishops is "pastoral" involving "a listening ear and heart".

Irishman Vincent Doyle, the son-of-a-priest and founder of Coping International, wants more than sympathy from New Zealand's Catholic leaders.

He asked the bishops to adopt principles issued in Ireland last year, that put the onus firmly on the priest to face up to being a father, and on bishops to push them to do just that.

Instead, the local bishops put out a six-line statement that does not directly mention priests at all, or what Church leaders will be telling priests.

What, for instance, are they telling them about whether they will be forced out if they admit to fathering a child? Or about their financial obligations? Or about contraception?

What duty of care to the women and their children is the Church itself taking for a relationship that Cardinal Dew has described as fundamentally abusive?

New Zealanders have been intently focused on revelations about sexual harassment at law firms. Russell McVeagh is having to submit to an external review looking not just at individual cases but its whole culture and management.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is keeping its issues in-house.

* Footnote: In a response to this piece, the bishops' spokesperson reiterated their earlier statement and added: "With regard to a seminarian or a layperson becoming aware of a priest having fathered a child, or a cleric becoming likewise aware (outside of the sacrament of reconciliation) of such information, the response they are taught and are required to follow, in good conscience, is to notify the priest's bishop and/or the Professional Standards office of the local church and entrust the personnel there to follow the matter up with the priest, families and authorities involved."

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