A System of Abuse: The Catholic Church Debate at The Cambridge Union

Alice Byrne 17 November 2020
Image Credits: Flickr

This House Believes the Catholic Church Should Repent for its Sins

On Tuesday, an independent inquiry led by the IICSA was shared, declaring that child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been ‘swept under the carpet’. According to the report, the Vatican’s response to the investigation and refusal to co-operate ‘passes understanding’. The inquiry was brought up repeatedly in Thursday’s debate at the Cambridge Union, which brought together an ensemble of speakers, virtually, to question whether the Catholic Church has a duty to ‘repent’ for its sins. However, whereas one might assume members of the opposition might attempt to defend the Church’s position, this was not the case. In fact, Dr. Sr Gemma Simmonds was the only member of the opposition who attempted in any way to minimise the negative focus on the Church itself, although she did not deny the horrific abuse at all levels. After the debate, Richard Scorer tweeted that it was ‘Notable how even the speakers supposedly there to defend the church felt unable to defend it – certainly, its current leadership in Westminster & Rome has lost all respect & credibility. Everybody agreed that ordinary Catholics have been badly served by the hierarchy’. It’s hard to argue with this statement. From the debate, it became overwhelmingly clear that the time for defending or denying the Catholic Church’s abuses is long over.

The first speaker for the proposition was Richard Scorer, who is Head of Abuse Law at Slater and Gordon Lawyers and a Vice-President of the National Secular Society. He is one of Britain’s leading lawyers representing victims and survivors of child abuse, and over the last 25 years has represented hundreds of survivors of clerical sex abuse in civil cases and in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Also for the proposition was David Enright, who is a partner at the law firm, Howe & Co., and a Justice of the Peace and a Visiting Fellow at University College London. He has spent the last 3 years working on the Roman Catholic Church abuse enquiry.

For the opposition, first spoke Dr. Sr Gemma Simmonds, who is a sister of the Congregation of Jesus, and is a senior lecturer in pastoral theology and director of the Religious Life Institute based at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge. She is a regular broadcaster on religious matters on the BBC. Next was Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, who is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, and specialises in the origins of Christianity.

Auditions for student speakers were won by Thomas Brian (proposition), who is a 1st-year reading History and Political Sciences at Peterhouse, and Laura Ryan (opposition) who is a 2nd-year PhD student for Molecular Biogenetics at Downing College.

Richard Scorer began the debate by arguing that ‘of course the Catholic Church should repent of its sins’. He emphasised that the sins of the Catholic Church were ‘many and long-standing’ and that in seeking ‘repentance’ he desires a genuine acknowledgement and commitment to change rather than the ‘sham version’ which has been offered previously. The failures of the Church, in his eyes, are solidified by its culpability in helping to conceal and cover-up abuses, and the remarkably selective openness of Pope Francis I, including his refusal to give a statement on the recent report published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Dr. Sr Gemma Simmonds, however, wanted to highlight that, although she recognises that ‘sexual abuse is one of the most urgent issues of our time’, she believes that abuses of power are prevalent in all institutions. Her reasoning for opposing the motion seems rather misdirected, however, as she asserted that ‘repentance does not go far enough’ and that more needs to be done, however, she refused to focus this attention on the Church itself, saying that there had already been ‘very serious efforts at all levels of the Catholic Church’ to fix the problem. It’s evident that Simmonds does not see the insidious involvement of the Catholic Church itself in facilitating abuse as the issue here. She is ‘appalled’ at the ‘individual crimes’ and recognises ‘weaknesses and limitations’ in the system but was the least reluctant of all the speakers to condemn the Church itself for its wrongdoings. Instead, she believes we all have a responsibility as humans to make a change in the systems we build.

Thomas Brian, the student speaking for the proposition, approached the debate from a religious perspective, stating that ‘everyone should repent’. He made the point that the Church should be held to the highest standards of morality, which David Enright later emphasised. In his eyes, the Church should not be exempt from the practice of repentance, which is ‘necessary for all people’. Brian disparaged the Catholic Church’s emphasis on hell and damnation, saying that it has become a faith based on ‘vengeance, prejudice and hatred’. His argument was a powerful criticism of the constrictive and punitive culture of the Roman Catholic Church: as he said, a ‘faith which holds you hostage might be able to get away with any abuse’.

Laura Ryan, another student speaker, almost applied to speak for the proposition. Ultimately she changed her mind when she considered the actual prospect of the Church genuinely repenting and making efforts towards structural change – according to her, this is not a possibility at all. She raised a compelling question; ‘how can you atone for sins you are still carrying out?’ She named many ongoing and overlooked cases of abuse by the Catholic Church including the continuing resistance of birth control in Africa regardless of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, the fact that the ‘culture of facilitation continued long after the apologies started’ means that repentance, therefore, is ‘not possible until the Church stops sinning’.

David Enright, speaking for the proposition, followed on from Ryan’s assertion of the overwhelming power of the Church in poorer areas. He argued that its influence is ‘all-embracing and profound’ in areas where people are without hope. This, in his eyes, leads to an inability to accept the failures of the Church. Furthermore, he argued that the Church ‘cannot and will not admit failings’, citing instances of Canon Law as evidence of the systematic reinforcement of abuse. He stated that the ‘Church won’t repent, but it must’. However, his argument also aligned significantly with that of the opposition.

Thomas O’Loughlin admitted his agreement with most of David Enright’s points, despite his position on the opposition side of the debate. Overall, his insight on the issue was perhaps most astute, as he questioned why the debate was framed on the issue of ‘repentance’ at all. He contended the ‘Catholic Church is a public actor in a civil space’. Therefore, an establishment which has the ‘trappings of state’ but which ‘cannot function as a state’ should not be assessed in its own language, and ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘contrition’ are simply a distraction from what is the fundamental issue: that many members of the Catholic Church have broken the law.

an establishment which has the ‘trappings of state’ but which ‘cannot function as a state’ should not be assessed in its own language, and ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘contrition’ are simply a distraction from what is the fundamental issue: that many members of the Catholic Church have broken the law.

Ultimately, each speaker in the debate, perhaps with the exception of Gemma Simmonds, seemed to agree that the Catholic Church is totally in the wrong, and has been for a long time. The overwhelming sentiment from both sides of the debate was that the Catholic Church needs to be held to account, and that the current efforts towards ‘repentance’, or reparations, are atrociously far from enough. As Thomas O’Loughlin summed up, the ‘abused need justice; abusers need to be stopped’.