Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Child sex abuse: Restoration of trust key to survival of Catholic Church

Image result for Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
Since its inception, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been a lightning rod for longstanding disillusionment with the Catholic Church. 

Among its critics, an impression seems to have formed that the Catholic Church has been exceptional among the institutions examined in regard to child sexual abuse and that it is, in fact, rotten to its core and in desperate need of root and branch reform.

Given the commission concludes its hearings on Catholic organisations this week, it is timely to consider whether what has been learned over the past 3½ years supports or challenges this impression.

Of the 5866 survivors who have testified before the commission in private sessions to date, 40 per cent have told of abuse in Catholic institutions. 

This compares with 8 per cent who have reported abuse in Anglican institutions and 4 per cent in those run by the Salvation Army. 

On the face of it, these figures seem to rest the case.

But the Catholic Church has more than 5 million nominal adherents in Australia; the Salvation Army numbers a little over 60,000. Catholic schools educate almost seven times the number of students in Australia as Anglican schools.

Yes, there are far more stories of abuse involving Catholic institutions but there are far more Catholic institutions dealing with many more people than any other non-government organisation in the country.

The "otherness" of Catholicism – its moral teachings, secrecy, and devotional practices – is also part of the story. The issue of clerical celibacy is central here – in part, perhaps, because it is so distinctive a feature of the Catholic priesthood and so markedly at odds with prevailing secular beliefs about healthy sexuality.

But what has emerged from the commission is that celibacy is clearly no necessary condition for offending. Just ask the victim of a swimming coach or dance instructor.

Child abuse is the personal transgression of individuals with a pathological condition: it is not, in the main, created by the policies of institutions to which perpetrators belong or which they use to abuse children. Yet offenders are overwhelmingly male and the occurrence of abuse in a masculine culture must raise questions about that culture.

One effect of celibacy is seen in the way bishops and priests have treated clerical perpetrators. Celibacy creates a bond among the ordained, which has made them reluctant to notify police about suspected perpetrators and complicit in transferring them from parish to parish. This is an effect of a celibate culture that must be addressed on a rational rather than an emotional basis.

Tinkering with canon law, however, is probably little more than a distraction. Some critics of canon law place it in opposition to civil law and claim priests are bound to obey the former over and above the latter. Others point to canon law having the effect of blunting civil law. 

In both cases, canon law is seen as strengthening secrecy and ensuring that matters concerning the church are dealt with by the church and no one else.

What has emerged from the commission, however, is an appalling indifference to or lack of knowledge of canon law (which defines child abuse as a serious crime) among senior members of the church.

Neglect of canon law, in other words, has often been the problem.

This speaks to the unwieldy nature of the church from an administrative perspective. Many people see a pope running the church like a chief executive. 

But there are not many days in the life of ordinary Catholics – or even bishops and priests – when a pronouncement from the Vatican has any impact.

Locally, the commission has heard of poor communication between bishops and priests, lax record keeping, and general administrative environments of surprising incompetence.

Rather than being highly structured and administratively disciplined, the Church emerges as the opposite.

What the past 3½ years have established is the similarity among organisations in which child abuse has occurred. 

Organisations that don't have canon law, are not celibate and don't have confessionals, have still dealt with abusers in a similar way to the Catholic Church.

It is precisely because some environments have high levels of trust that predators seek them out. Those few priests who are paedophiles seem attracted to the Church because of its ethos of pastoral care, trust, and, yes, forgiveness.

Even so, to make a case that unique aspects of the Catholic Church explain the abuse scandal it would have to be shown that the behaviour of Catholic clerical abusers was different to other abusers. 

But the opposite is the case: the conduct of some priests and too many bishops has shown that the Catholic Church is as fallible as other social institutions, and just as capable of betraying the trust reposed in it.

Restoring that trust, more than any other issue that has been raised, is the major challenge for the Catholic Church if it is to have a future beyond the commission.

No comments: