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Editorial | Calling Catholic abusers to account

Published:Monday | February 25, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Roman Catholics in Jamaica may have thought the local church immune from the child sex-abuse scandal that the more than one billion-member global congregation has, for decades, struggled, with little success, to put behind it. But then came the story last week of 57-year-old Denise Buchanan, who claimed she was raped as a teenager by a seminarian, that the abuse continued while she was at university and the seminarian had been ordained as a priest, and that she was coerced into two abortions.

“I obeyed like a robot,” Ms Buchanan, now a university lecturer and psychiatric neurologist in the United States, told the news service, Agence France-Presse (AFP), as the Roman Catholic hierarchy met in Rome to discuss an adequate response to the problem. “I didn’t care much about anything at this point.”

For anyone who is temped to question Ms Buchanan’s veracity, not only is she a prominent member of the activist group, Ending Clerical Abuse, but she wrote a book about her ordeal and, in 2017 in Jamaica, apparently in the presence of the local archbishop, Kenneth Richards, confronted her alleged abuser, who was reported to have admitted having sex with her, but not rape.

Ms Buchanan’s tale is common to many that were rehashed at the cardinals and bishops conference in Rome last week, which have reverberated across the globe in the 30 years or so since these sex -abuse stories began to rock Catholicism, inclusive of victims’ feelings of guilt and shame; of their dysfunctional lives; and of therapy for depression and other psychological disorders.

This newspaper does not believe, as some would claim, that Roman Catholic priests are any more sexual predators, or child molesters, than the clergymen of other denominations, or of men in power in other areas of life. The errant and abusive behaviour of Catholic priests, though, tends to command more, and often salacious, attention because of their creed of celibacy.

What, however, has been particularly damning for the Roman Catholic Church is how it has responded, or perhaps more correctly, failed to respond to episodes like Ms Buchanan’s when they come to light. In her case, it took more than two years, having sent several copies of her book to the pope, to receive a response, via a bishop in America, noting, she said, that the Holy Father regularly prayed for victims of abuse. Defrocking her abuser would demand proof.

It is not clear what happened to Ms Buchanan’s abuser in the 14 months since their confrontation. But, if the global pattern holds good in Jamaica, he might have been shunted off to a quiet retirement, much the same way that, in other countries, rather than reporting abuse, for fear it tarnishes the image of the church, bishops moved predator priests from parish to parish. The upshot: spreading the problem around, rather than solving it.



Pope Francis, at the Rome convocation, vowed to confront the “enemy within” and called for the church to fashion “concrete and efficient measures” to confront the issue rather than merely issue condemnations of abusers. In this regard, bishops have, in the earthly realm, to first accept the primacy of secular laws over ecclesiastic powers. As appears to be increasingly the case, the church’s leadership has to accept the crimes of the past for what they were – crimes – and where it is still possible, seek justice, beyond prayer, for the victims. The church, too, has to be profound and sincere in its apology.


In the case of Jamaica, it behoves the church to say specifically what, if any, action it took against Ms Buchanan’s abuser, report on any other incidents that many have come to its attention, and say how the victims might, even at this stage, seek redress, preferably with its help. Pope Francis has recently accepted the resignations of bishops who covered up abuses. He should be actively, and aggressively, weeding them out.