Abuse cases teach Church deportment under fire

Deportment lessonsDeportment was a word much used by school authorities in my childhood. It is rarely used today. Deportment meant not running riot on trams; it meant wearing caps (or gloves), looking interested when bored, and being seen but not heard. Deportment meant acting like a lady or a gentleman.

The concept of deportment, though, was tricky. It disclosed the possibility of a gap between external behaviour and inner disposition. So continual exhortations to deportment aroused resistance because they showed disrespect for our real selves. Inveterate exhorters also became paranoid about their real enemies — those who practised impeccable deportment with a contemptuous gleam in their eye.

This was part of the ordinary tension of school life, lived in the confidence that in general the students 'got it' — that they accepted the values embodied in good deportment. But every now and then came times of anxiety. The standards of deportment were seen to decline; the authorities feared that the students didn't get it; they noted with alarm every uncapped head; for reassurance they insisted on more detailed deportmental compliance: not just caps, but tidy caps at the right angle, had to be worn. It all met with more and more passive resistance until in time anxiety ebbed.

The little dramas of deportment illuminate some aspects of the most recent controversies over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The publicity given to abuse and to self-serving responses to it in the European church and the Roman centre has created high anxiety. The behaviour of Bishops and the Pope are under scrutiny, and each day brings evidence of new perceived lapses.

Every day, too, brings new instructions about deportment to the Pope and his Curia. He must sack bishops, resign, apologise personally, submit to independent investigation, reveal documentation, call a church-wide season of penance. To my unreconstructed schoolboy self, these exhortations seem to flow from anxiety that the inner attitudes of the Vatican officials may not match their words. The boy in me says, 'Give it a break. Stop nagging, and try trusting the poor coots.'

Unreconstructed schoolboys, of course, are not good guides, especially for the older self. But neither is anxiety a good counsellor. The question which feeds anxiety is always whether the people under consideration 'get it'. If they show that they have, the media caravan moves on, and the people within their organisations get on with their lives.

As any spin doctor will tell you, persuading people that you 'get it' also requires correct deportment. It consists of absorbing angry and unfair criticism of yourself and your bosses and not responding to it, making it clear through your words and gestures that the people who are closest to your hearts are those who have been damaged by your organisation, that your highest priority is their flourishing, that you take responsibility for your organisation's deficiencies, and that you are working seriously to identify and remedy its deficiencies to ensure that no one will be damaged in future.

Bad deportment will persuade people that you didn't get it. If you are defensive, leave it to your lawyers, blame the media, regard the fairness of the way you and your organisation have been treated as the central issue, protest that your organisation is better than many others that have got off lightly, defend the integrity of your masters, and dissociate the organisation from wrongdoers within it, you will convince people that you haven't got it at all. You may have good arguments, particularly about the mistakes made by the media, but you show that you have missed what matters.

The Catholic churches in the United States and Australia have generally learned harsh lessons in deportment as the extent of abuse became public. As most of us have to do, Catholic spokespersons have learned from their mistakes. And the churches are generally safer, more modest and better places for the learning. Current evidence suggests that the European churches are still learning under fire.

Of course good deportment can be mere spin. But it is a first step to dispelling anxiety. And good deportment often helps to good attitudes. The lines that first sound strange on our lips can become part of our operative view of the world.

But ultimately intentions and actions need to match words and gestures. Only if church leaders show themselves over the long haul to be single minded in their care for those who have been abused in the church, and painstaking in identifying and changing the conditions that encouraged abuse and its covering up, will anxiety finally dissipate.

Then we may have firm ground to hope that whenever people meet in the churches, they will flourish, not wither, and that the institutions of the church will help their flourishing. Deportment won't seem such a big deal.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, church sexual abuse, deportment



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Existing comments

I believe that it's that "long haul" that concerns most of us ... this abuse and cover up has gone on for years ... finally people are fed up with excuses!!

My experience with a Catholic high school also raises fears of the angst that catholic dogma causes young women ... there is need for a wider understanding of the human condition and spiritual growth.

The Catholic church does not hold "the truth" ... some of the dogma is damaging and not conducive to healthy spiritual growth.
GAJ | 15 April 2010

unfortunately the devastation wrought by the sexual abuse scandal within the Church will not be dissipated until Bishops and congregational heads, our leaders in faith, give priority to caring for victims; their families; and all those who, following the example of the Good Samaritan, provide aid and support for all those victims - both primary and secondary.
PETER M. ROACH | 15 April 2010

I wish it was as easy as "aplogise and everything will be all right" Can I offer an alternative analysis?

The damage done to young people by clergy who should never have been ordained/professed is a crime against humanity; for its slackness in the past, the present leadership in the church, deserve most of what they are getting.

But it has gone past that now. The running has been taken up by legal firms smelling a honey pot. And boy, have they gone after it - we hear of firms with spotters around the country trying to ferret out real or imagined abuse - "a lot of money; we take one-third, you get the rest." Isn't it time someone had the courage to say these things.

A recent Four Corners program showed how people can be persuaded that they have been abused.

Please don't lecture me on my insensitivity - what happened in Catholic schools and presbyteries was awful and the victims deserve whatever help we can give to help them. But, when an American legal firm wants to put the Pope in the dock and when Hitchens and Hawkins want to bracket him with war criminals, isn't it time we cried "enough!"

Frank | 15 April 2010

There's the rub- the matching of intentions, actions, words and gestures.

There has been so much incongruence for so long that it is hard to hope in key leaders 'getting it'.
Sandie | 15 April 2010

Andrew,it is not just the Church that is being questioned. Priests, Imams and Monks are also under scrutiny. Bankers and politicians ,too, are not immune to the duplicity between deportment and practice. Corporate ideology needs,also, to align itself more with humanity than return on investment. The only returns worthwhile are those that promote peace and harmony. And money is not always the answer.

The world is divided into the haves and havenots. The most vulnerable in our society are often the most neglected.We must,all, become more givers than takers.
vinay verma | 15 April 2010

Another virtue is honesty and a search for truth. One great weakness in mainline churches and fundamentalists is that "Truth" is seen as fixed for all time. In practise "Truth" may be basically ageless but has to be applied in different ways in various cultures and situations.
John Ozanne | 15 April 2010

This is a complex issue and, while I recognise Dr Hamilton's point, i trust that his metaphor -- "deportment" -- doesn't actually trivialise it.

There are many aspects and this serious issue is why (apart from the long-cultivated reflex response of Catholics to defend the Church and its flawed leaders) so many people have such disparate responses.

One problem is the tradition (and, probably, the intent too) that most seminary training produce infantilised and compliantly unquestioning priests.

Another is the appalling but long-established tradition that Canon Law takes precedence over civil law. In a secular society like ours, that is intolerable. What was done (when proven) was criminal and should have been treated as such by bishops. By concealing what was done they are, themselves, criminally liable too: accessories after the fact.

Those who make a fuss about legal action and compensation certainly do not understand the reality of what happens to victims. They often "drop out", fail to finish school and never achieve their potential as members of society -- they have lost their potential respect, their potential influence, their potential incomes. There is EVERY reason, therefore, why they should receive material ad well as psychological and moral compensation. insulting them and their legal advisers is unworthy and does no good to anyone.

Sin is, ultimately, the abuse of power and, fundamentally, that is what happens with clerical abuse. The truth -- complex though the details might be -- must be recognised. The solutions, as well as bringing the miscreants to justice will also be complex.
John CARMODY | 15 April 2010

so much that has the possibility to heal the abuse in Australia and USA has already been said, e.g. today's article. So much has not been done because those who make the decisions are not reading or hearing what the lay faithful have come to understand. cf bishop Fisher, Cardinal Bertone and Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.
Elizabeth | 15 April 2010

This is extremely wise. Excellent article. The words may sound a bit trivial, but having come to terms with the new era of constant professional and institutional audit and accreditation, this is spot on! Well done.
eugene | 15 April 2010

I think that deportment (an old fashioned word) was meant to shape the values desired by (school) community, it called for compliance until one was seen to “get it.”

Andrew’s schoolboy language is very apt for this discussion because it seems to me that the Pope and his Curia have the emotional intelligence of adolescent schoolboys.
Schoolboys eventually close the gap between individual inner values and outer compliance to community standards and this is called maturity. As Andrew said - maturity means being able to absorb angry and unfair criticism without the need to project it onto others or find a scapegoat.

I believe the problem started in the seminaries where candidates were trained to suppress their emotions and become drilled in devotional activities that were not helpful for the maturing processes that shaped internal attitudes of young men. The result is evident in the Vatican attitude which is so “out of this world” in its thinking, their need to hide their own gender, behind costumes and rituals indicates an underlying fear that they do not know how to “get it.”

Until they can let go of their self-formed lifestyle and join the world which has evolved way ahead of the ancient tradition which Rome fearfully clings to then the self-revelation of God within the Church will be handicapped and not useful for the laity who bear the wounds so cruelly inflicted by Vatican ignorance.

Trish Martin | 15 April 2010

Well expressed Trish Martin

gaj | 15 April 2010

Deportment as a concept may assist analysis of the Church’s reactions to the crisis that it has created through its shocking behaviour, but its use as an analogy also serves to reduce the gravity of the matter.

The evidence is that the Church has, at the highest levels, not only failed to act on crimes of its agents but has itself acted criminally in protecting people who have, as a result of that protection, not only avoided justice but been able to continue to ruin the lives of other vulnerable children.

This is not just a matter of taking “responsibility for your organisation's deficiencies, ... (and) working seriously to identify and remedy its deficiencies to ensure that no one will be damaged in future”. We are talking about more than ‘mistakes’; the Church has hidden and protected criminal behaviour. Good deportment may help the Church’s recovery but it is not enough.

Peter Johnstone | 15 April 2010

Yes,Andrew,the Western European Catholic church of is dying a slow and very painful death.With all it's wealth and absolute power,it has failed to look after it's own with renewal and growth in Faith.The Second Vatican Council in the 1960's was a time of liberation from corrupt medieval values,and Pope John 23rd knew where the truth lay and how this was given to us to set us free.
The Word,Christ's teachings, is divine,and leaders are called to be humble servants of all, not deities in themselves.

Many popes have been corrupted,they are human,after all.They remind me of our current worship of celebrity; behaving as if they are beyond reproach,above the law! The Pharasees were not upheld as holy by Christ,the poor,marginalised and condemned were.Our faith is radical,not elitist.Ordinary people are the church,and with rampant clerical abuse,it's the laity who will teach Christ's inclusive and redemptive message.Love is all there is, not fearful control.
catherine | 15 April 2010

I'm afraid that church leaders, in a flurry of anxiety, are doing just what Andrew describes, but in the seminaries rather than the schools. Bring back custody of the eyes! Pray for purity! Avoid occasions of sin, even if they are actually people! No discussions about the difficulties of celibacy, or scary 'personal development' courses! Back to the good old days of priestly formation, pre Vatican II (even though the vast majority of abusers were trained in just those days). Yes, pastoral care of the victims must be the number one priority, but another priority must be an examination of what really contributed to both the abuse and the cover up. Now's the time to start talking with Bishop Robinson, guys!
Joan Seymour | 15 April 2010

The kid who got raped at my school was not raped by a Priest, Bishop, Clergy member, Nun, nor a teacher, but by some criminal from the street who walked into the school dunnies.

The school now has high security fences.
JG | 15 April 2010

The issue is 'DO THEY GET IT". The Pope is responsible as head of the church. War criminals face justice...not the clergy? The church is rich from the penance paid by the ignorant peasants and the poor over the ages. Look at the pomp and ceremony in Rome, let the Vatican pay...money will never compensate a tortured soul.
Elizabeth Kosanovic. de Vries. | 17 April 2010

Good thoughtful article Andrew, and congratulations to Trish and Catherine for their insight. I just hope that this whole sorry episode might be the catalyst for a thorough-going re-evaluation of the Church and its relationship with the broader society. Perhaps we can even move on from there to dismantle the Vatican theme park, get rid of the silly cross-dressing, and abandon the pomp, and get back to something more like what the carpenter from Nazareth seemed to want for us.
Peter Downie | 18 April 2010

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