If anyone can exorcise the evil of child abuse, Justin Welby and Pope Francis can

Reuters

The sufferings inflicted on children by clergy in the child sex abuse scandals that have come to light in recent decades are beyond belief, and that has been one of the problems. For too long, none believed the children who told the tales. The actions of those involved were intrinsically evil.

Justice is still working its way out on those responsible, in the Church and in the wider world. It will take a long time. Justice Goddard's public inquiry alone in the UK is expected to take at least five years. And of course it is not just the churches. These crimes infected all society. There is a massive public reckoning to come.

In a world where individuals must be made to take responsibility for crimes if they refuse to do so voluntarily, a world that in the West at least believes little in the devil and possession, theologians and psychologists of the future must explore how and why these crimes ever took place.

To differentiate between the sin and the sinner, and thereby somehow seem to excuse the latter, can appear to be unacceptable casuistry, but we still need to ask whether individuals who perform these actions are themselves intrinsically evil.

In the church as well as in the wider world, there have been too few sackings, too few public reckonings against those responsible. So many abusers have simply been allowed to pass into old age and die without ever being called to account for the crimes. Such terrible damage has been done, such awful mistakes made. Defrocking is only now being restored to the penalties available to the Church of England, for example. It is no wonder that victims' groups say that what is being done is too little, too late, no wonder that there is such great anger.

What is certain is that under Pope Francis in Rome and Justin Welby in Canterbury a new spirit of openness is upon us. If this evil can be exorcised, we can be confident that under these leaders it will be. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a man of charisma and power, has asked to go first in the Justice Goddard's public inquiry, otherwise he will launch his own inquiry in the Church of England.

Both the Archbishop and the Pope understand that the Church must be exemplary. Child sex abuse is a scandal wherever it occurs. The moral authority claimed by churches for their pastors augments the scandal, the betrayals of trust, innocence and power.

In the King James Bible, Matthew 19:14 is translated as: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." In the NIV it is: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

It is as if any understanding of Jesus' words became lost in translations, as if what he meant was perverted in practice into "make the little children suffer".

As these sufferings were passed on from generation unto generation, it is far too early to ask or wonder whether the victims and their inheritors can ever forgive. But it does seem at least that the churches are no longer taking action in what has appeared to be a spirit of sufferance. We could at last be witnessing the beginnings of true repentance. This has the potential to reach out into change, into metanoia. We can perhaps hope that this is not also too little, or too late.

Lifestyle