During a recent homily of Mass at Panama City’s cathedral of Santa Maria Antigua, Pope Francis’ admission that the Roman Catholic Church is “wounded by her own sin” — an oblique reference to the sexual offence crisis it is facing across the world — was an acknowledgment that the Church has taken cognisance of what has been a matter of grave concern among many believers. The Pope, by far the most unconventional among his predecessors, also indicated his intent for a course correction by calling a meet of the heads of national Catholic churches at the Vatican from February 21 to February 24.
In the last year, the resonance of the #MeToo movement has been felt across the Catholic Church, too, as sexual abuse scandals involving priests broke out globally. The annus horribilis that the Pope referred to in Panama saw the opening up of Pandora’s box in Chile, where accusations of a cover-up led to offers of resignation of all 34 of the country’s bishops, while the publication of a grand jury report indicted priests in Pennsylvania for sexual abuse of children for nearly seven decades. In India, too, breaking a long culture of silence, a nun of the Missionaries of Jesus order from the St Francis Mission Home in Kerala called out bishop Franco Mulakkal for allegedly raping her for over a period of two years, between 2014 and 2016. Mulakkal, who was relieved of his duties by the Vatican, now awaits trial.
For far too long, complaints against the imbalance and abuse of power within the Church have been hushed up in the name of institutional sanctity. A pointed finger or a raised voice is treated as a mark of insubordination, a rebellion to be quelled by omission or intimidation. This problem is also partly a function of the people’s relationship with those whom they consider to be custodians of faith — a curious mix of fear and fervour that refuses to assign blemish to religious functionaries. That, perhaps, explains the support Mulakkal received from a large section of society, or why, even now, the sisters who rallied around the nun in Kerala have complained about the tacit pressure that has come their way from their order for their stand. Yet, to paraphrase J R R Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), the true test of faith is “when the road darkens”. That is when old beliefs need to be reexamined in the light of new truths and complicities recognised for accountability. The acceptance of the faultlines and the acknowledgment that the Church “so often failed to hear all those cries” of anguish is only the first step in that direction.