Monday 3 February 2014

Another scandal in the Scottish Catholic Church?

       Normal goings on in your local Catholic Church: clearly far too disgusting to be shown

Scottish readers of the Sunday Herald would have been greeted yesterday by a front page with the headline: 'Church rejects abused priest's plea for justice'. [Here. May require registration to view.]

I'm not sure many non-Catholics would have read much further or certainly in much detail. It's rather like reading about Syria: you know that atrocities go on; in reading an article, the details fall into the background while the sheer brute fact of another piece of inhumanity remains. Equally, you know that the Scottish Catholic Church is full of paedophile priests and and abusive and secretive bishops -and, lo and behold, here they are at it again. (The comments on the Herald site are, at the time of writing, uniformly thus.)

However, a closer read of the story does little to substantiate this sort of conclusion. Essentially, the story is about the removal of Father Patrick Lawson from a parish in Ayrshire and the failure of his appeal to Rome. (Much of the background -in a similar tone- is given in a Guardian article by the same journalist, Catherine Deveney.)

Now, here I am. I read the article. I know that there has been a history of sexual importuning in the Scottish Church. Father Lawson claims that he was sexually assaulted by another priest. The Church, he claims, has done little or nothing in the eighteen years since the assault. Neither, apparently, did the police despite his reporting of the incident.[Here.] (The priest in question, however, seems to have been removed from duties. The article makes a big deal about his being sent to a retirement home. But why not? Even elderly criminals have to live somewhere.) Lots of allegations. If I'm not a Catholic, I probably think that an allegation, reported from one side, is undoubtedly true. As a Catholic, I'm probably less sure, although a history of muddle and unsatisfactory resolution is not untypical in the case both of sexual assault in general and the Church in particular. So I'm probably inclined to believe the article here.

But then it's linked up with a) the removal from the parish and b) a general attack on the lack of 'transparent processes and procedures that suggest justice is valued'. The official grounds for removal are (apparently) 1) Father Lawson's ill health, 2) complaints about him from parishoners. The article makes absolutely no attempt to assess the complaints against Father Lawson, being content to point out that a petition from 200 parishoners in his favour has been received.

Now, I've lived through a number of this sort of intra-parish dispute. They are invariably utterly horrible and incredibly difficult to get at the truth. So I simply don't know what's going on here, neither (apparently) does Deveney and the only outside information we have is from the procedure under Canon Law -which has found in favour of the Bishop. But none of the dearth of information stops Deveney from asserting that the removal is really all about 'his stance over' the abusing priest. Perhaps, but Rome doesn't think so and Lawson is clearly extremely ill from cancer.

So what we really have is a story with very little in the way of hard fact. It is the sort of murky dispute that happens in employment and in the sort of intense personal relationship you get both between a parish and priest, and a priest and bishop. Father Lawson may have been appallingly treated. Or he may not. I simply don't know, and neither does any reader of the article. But the non-Catholics will think that they know the Babylonian Whore is at it again.

One theme running through the article is that 'civil justice' trumps 'church justice': 'Canon Law is a legal system created for a monarchy', says Tom Doyle, billed as a Canon lawyer (true, but an odd sort of Canon lawyer who thinks 'they ought to sell the Vatican to the Mormons or to Disney or something and go out and start all over again' [here]). Instead, Father Lawson is relying on an (civil) employment tribunal (which of course are well known for providing verdicts which all parties are completely satisfied with). The problem here is that being a priest isn't an employment: to apply the ethos of secular employment law to the priesthood makes as much sense as applying it to my teenager's refusal to do the washing up.

But none of this will matter to the normal reader of the Herald. The Church is like that, and here's another example of its being like that. I was struck by the analogy to the Amanda Knox case. Now, as an expert on the Italian justice system (I've watched Inspector Montalbano and the The Sopranos (who are a bit Italian)) and the case (I've got a rough idea from a couple of articles a few years ago), I know immediately that the Italian courts are not to be trusted (because Italians can't do the logical, rational stuff that we Northern Europeans can do) and that Knox is far too attractive to be a liar. And clearly, based on watching The Borgias and having imbibed the Kirk's traditional view of Catholics, Father Lawson is being shafted by a conspiracy of paedophile control freaks...

A final appeal to the Signatura is apparently under way. But why wait for that?

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