Bishops and sex abuse: “It’s a new tsunami”

In this interview with La Croix’s Celine Hoyeau, Thiel discusses her reaction to the latest abuse revelations and what they mean for the Church in France.

Nov 18, 2022

Marie-Jo Thiel


By Céline Hoyeau 
“We did not think that so many bishops could be implicated,” says Marie-Jo Thiel, a theologian and ethicist who has advised France’s bishops the past two decades in their efforts to deal with abuse within the Catholic Church.

Like most Catholics in the country, she has also been shocked by the latest revelations that 11 bishops – including a retired cardinal – are being investigated for committing or hiding abuse. “It’s further confirmation that no one in the Church is infallible,” she says.

The 64-year-old native of northeastern France is also a medical doctor and an award-winning author of several books and numerous essays that have been published in international journals. She currently teaches ethics at the University of Strasbourg and has been a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life since 2017.

In this interview with La Croix’s Celine Hoyeau, Thiel discusses her reaction to the latest abuse revelations and what they mean for the Church in France.

La Croix: What does the president of the episcopal conference’s announcement of a list of 11 bishops or former bishops implicated in civil or canonical justice mean to you?
Marie-Jo Thiel: This is a new tsunami. We did not think that so many bishops could be implicated. It’s further confirmation that no one in the Church is infallible. It is extremely heavy because a bishop is the only one who has the fullness of the priesthood. In a certain way, this affects the DNA of the priesthood. How could the bishops involved, at this level of responsibility, of teaching — they have legislative, juridical and executive powers — have committed abuse, and even more, how can they claim to manage the abuse committed in the Church? Are they not the judge and the defendant? They are coming to understand this acutely. Ever since I have been working on this issue, for almost 25 years now, I have never seen them so shaken. Thanks to a few of them, they feel as never before that they are all discredited.

Does this statement open up a period of transparency?
No matter what happens, this is the first time that we hear that there are bishops involved. Is this the beginning of a more open, more responsible communication? Let’s hope so. In any event, shaken as they are, the bishops are aware of the problem of communication. The statement on Nov 7 was prepared in a very precise way. The Santier affair was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, we were standing on the edge of the abyss; now we have fallen into it. Last year, some people were still wondering whether there was a systemic aspect to the crisis. I can say today that this is no longer a question for anyone. For all the bishops with whom I was able to speak in Lourdes, the Santier affair has become the paradigm of the systemic crisis. There is everything in this case: the problem of appointment of bishops, the denial, the self-segregation, the nonintegration of professionals to help them, the non-integration of otherness. These are major problems they have become aware of and now accept as never before. For me, this is the first time they have been in this kind of distress, and perhaps, from this point of view, it is a point of no return.

Can transparency go further, to the point of naming names?
I don’t know if it is necessary to name the incriminated clerics, but to insist on responsible transparency, yes. It is necessary to verify, inform and communicate, while preserving the presumption of innocence. This is a general rule of our democratic societies and it must be respected until the investigation is concluded.

And the Catholic faithful, how should they react to all this? How can they not suffer from this crisis?
They are collateral victims. The first victims are those who have been assaulted, of course. But we must understand that it is the Church, all those who try to fight against abuse at all levels, who bear the burden of a structure that is sometimes too patriarchal and caught up in the abuse of power. This means that we have to take care of it and, for that, do what the great theologian Peter Hünermann calls “commit to memory”.

During World War II, a certain theology was able to justify the unjustifiable. It is not enough to say “never again”; it is necessary to commit it to memory in order to live our lives and not experience this again. It is a matter of the faithful continuing to show their disapproval — to call out the facts, apply pressure, verify the steps taken — in the name of their hope. -- LCI

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