Day of Atonement
Friday, 15th February 2019
St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh
Homily notes of Most Rev. William Crean, Bishop of Cloyne
Today has been set aside by the Irish Church to focus on the spiritual and personal trauma that is evoked when sexual abuse is inflicted on a minor or indeed any vulnerable person.
The silence that shrouded this reality for so long has been lifted to reveal so many horrific stories of suffering at the hands of the most trusted in society, namely priests and religious. The lingering wounds both of body, spirit and emotion have wreaked havoc on the lives of so many. For the community of the Church it is rightly a source of deep shame and guilt. As christian disciples we confess to evil deeds perpetrated on the most vulnerable and innocent and so we seek today to express our desire for atonement of these sins.
The exposure of this abuse, while a relief for victims or survivors, is also a source of deep pain for many who were and are subject to abuse in their own family. This reality of domestic abuse and violence is not being adequately recognised, acknowledged and responded to by society. The wall of secrecy is truly difficult to penetrate and tear down. But try we must if we are to avoid generating a toxic reservoir of dysfunctionality in many families. Secrecy and denial, the Church has learned painfully, leaves us with a poisoned legacy.
Painful as the past has been for victims / survivors, the present is a constant challenge for so many, because they are haunted by memories. While people deal with trauma in their own way healing is difficult for all victims. We must not seek to diminish or dismiss the ongoing darkness, if not despair, experienced by many survivors.
The Church in Ireland has been deeply damaged by the sexual abuse of minors on the part of priests and religious. When this abuse came to light many people in the Church dismissed it first as an Irish Church problem, later to suggest it was an English-speaking church’s problem. Now it has been accepted as an issue for the Church universal. That is why Pope Francis has convened a meeting in Rome next week of the Presidents of Bishops Conferences from all over the world. This crisis of abuse is to the life of Church what cancer can do to the human body. That is why a Time of Atonement is necessary – to acknowledge and confess the sin and crime that has been inflicted on the most vulnerable – in Jesus’ words “the little ones”
These sins and crimes call for purification in the lives of all who respond to the call to discipleship and service. The response of the Church in Ireland was slow at the start to embrace the full impact of sexual abuse. However, great strides have been made in putting robust safeguarding measure in place to ensure the safety of children entrusted to our care. This work must continue. We must be thorough in our structures and ever vigilant to the risks.
While these structures and practices have the intention of ensuring the safety of children, they equally serve to protect the bona fides of all those who are volunteers in parishes as well as priests who are fearful of being accused in the wrong. That fear and anxiety is real and genuine for many priests. Many feel vulnerable. A false allegation can have utterly devastating consequences in a priest’s life. So, in order to ensure that justice is done when allegations are made, equally robust procedures have been put in place at diocesan and national levels.
This Day of Atonement is one where we seek to shed the light of hope into the dark corners of our families and communities. We pray for the healing of memory, for the rebuilding of lives, for the recovery of a lost sense of worth and dignity, for the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.
Blessed John Henry Newman, soon to be canonized saint endured many episodes of darkness in his life. Despite his deep faith and extraordinary intellect, he repeatedly simply placed his trust in the Lord to guide him to take the next step on the journey.
Today on this Day of Atonement we do likewise – as a Diocese, as the Church in Ireland and indeed the Church universal under the leadership of Pope Francis.
Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on?
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene – one step enough for me. (Blessed J.H. Newman)
My friends, this is a time of great trauma for survivors and deep humiliation for the Church. It is also a time of purification and healing. May our humility open our hearts to this renewal of grace in the life of the Church.