RELIGION: The damage that excessive deference and fear of speaking continues to cause

By Brendan Walsh

Catherine Pepinster wrote a few weeks ago in The Tablet magazine about the troubles in the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, which has been subject to a series of investigations into safeguarding failures.

The new bishop, Stephen Wright, pictured above, confessed to having accepted his appointment with a “nervous joy”. He was installed in St Mary’s cathedral in a moving ceremony, one month after he was appointed to replace Bishop Robert Byrne, who had resigned suddenly in December.

The installation of a new bishop is one of the great liturgical set pieces, as well as a lesson in devolved ecclesiology. Pay attention to the gestures and words and you realise that the bishop is seen as the vicar of Christ in his own diocese, a sort of simulacrum of the Pope in the universal Church. Bishop Wright was presented with the traditional symbols of a bishop’s ministry: the pastoral staff, the crozier, St Cuthbert’s ring, the pectoral cross. Then, as Patrick Hudson reports [in The Tablet] today, something else happened: three representatives of abuse survivors presented the new bishop with prayer ribbons which were tied to the cathedra, the episcopal throne. Bishop Wright, who had asked the survivors to take part, said the ribbons were “a powerful symbol of their God-given dignity and the fact we must never lose sight of their voice”. Maggie Mathews then offered a testimony on behalf of people “desperately hurt by abuse”. “They see the systemic nature of abuse in our Church,” she said. “They see the structures that lead to abuse. They see the damage that excessive deference and fear of speaking continues to cause.” She said, “I don’t feel safe, secure, at home in this Church.” She thanked Bishop Stephen for making space without precondition for “what was perhaps going to be a rather uncomfortable gift of words”.

When she finished, there was a moment of silence before the congregation applauded. The prayer for the new bishop invokes Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede. “Grant your servant, Stephen, whom you have called to follow them, a rich share in this heritage – to speak your Word courageously, to teach wisely and to lead with love.”

Top of page picture: Pope Francis leads a procession of bishops at an event during the pandemic.

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