As the Vatican's "Promoter of Justice", Monsignor Bob Oliver bears the "best job title I'll ever have".
Catchy title, unenviable occupation.
Oliver is out to capture paedophile priests, surrendering them to civil law, then exacting whatever punishment the Catholic Church can mete out. It makes him a lightning rod for anti-church sentiment, forces him to confront the church's dark past and its worst miscreants, and means many meetings with victims, often talking of their abuse for the first time. "It breaks your heart," he said.
It's been a major worldwide problem for the church: in the US alone, they've paid more than $US3b in settling over 3,000 lawsuits from victims; in Ireland, there have been several government apologies and inquiries and estimates of thousands of victims. The new pope, Francis, has taken a hard line on abuse and Oliver, 52, was one of his first appointees.
Oliver visited New Zealand last week, for a conference in Wellington, and granted the Sunday Star-Times a rare interview. The church was once deeply suspicious of the media's approach to sex abuse cases but Oliver believes media did the church a service: "It's hard for any group over time to keep up the kind of energy that's needed to do this work," he explains. "What the media has been doing was to keep that energy up . . ."
Has the church's response lagged behind the rest of society? Oliver is diplomatic. "I think we have much to seek reconciliation for, there were so many mistakes made, particularly in not listening to victims," he admits. "We had to change very much from those days. Is it true to say we are lagging behind others? I think the unfortunate truth is just about everyone was not listening to victims and not responding."
There are few concrete statistics, but a 2004 US study covering 1950-2002 found substantive abuse allegations against 4,392 priests, 4 per cent of the total, with a 1970s peak in offending. Oliver said statistical modelling suggests the number of paedophile priests has dropped below 1 per cent now and only a "very small number" are true paedophiles; the Pope says abusive priests number 2 per cent.
Oliver, an American, was a serving priest in Boston, where in 2002, five paedophile priests were jailed and the bishop forced to resign. "Most of us had no idea . . . I had no idea this was going on. You come to terms with it and realise all of us are affected by what some of us have done. We really are a fraternity of priests, and some of our brothers doing this affects all of us. When you first hear about abuse, the reaction is ‘it's just not possible, how would an adult harm a child' and then you quickly come to realise not only does it happen, but it is frightening how often it does happen."
How does he reconcile the Catholic belief in repentance with the medical belief that paedophilia is incurable? He says they want offenders to recognise their crimes and be genuinely sorry but accept these men cannot return to normal church society (this was not always so). He's not definitive on how they are contained, however (and the church has been criticised for not always laicisizing abusive priests).
Priests are now screened and cannot be alone with children. Offenders are routinely handed over to civil justice and the church has pledged to always co-operate. Oliver is not, however, worried about winning the PR argument over these changes. "We are more about the concrete things that we are doing, and what do they [victims' groups] think of those - rather than saying ‘look, what a good job we are doing'."
He will serve as long as the Pope wants him to. Yes, he says, it's "draining and difficult" work but he realises its importance when he meets victims. "You realise what this does to people . . . how deeply harmed they are."
Has all this misery tested his faith? "Tested, yes of course, but to have a real crisis, no, not really. I have faith the Lord will help me."
- Sunday Star Times