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Unlocking the culture of clergy sex abuse

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Michael Mullins |  22 April 2012

We do not criticise the police force as a whole when there are revelations of corruption. We tend to believe that police men and women protect us and do at least a fair job of upholding the law. Our condemnation is confined to police drug rings and the like and, most importantly, the evil culture that sustains them. 

There is every reason why we should apply the same principle in our response to sexual abuse within the Church. In other words, let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers and, most particularly, the culture that has sanctioned their actions, even if identifying it is a lengthy and costly process.

Bishop James Moriarty led the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland until he resigned in 2009 after he was criticised in the Murphy Report into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. He was one of many church leaders who effectively allowed sexual abuse to occur under his watch. 

'With the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture,' he said in his statement of resignation.

Identifying and describing the culture that prevailed should count for almost everything in the investigation of clergy sex abuse (as indeed with corrupt behaviour in the police force and other professions). Individual abusers, and those in authority who failed to act, were a product of a culture that accepted, at best, the existence of sexual abuse as an abhorrent fact of life and, at worst – among offenders – that sexual gratification at the expense of those subject to one's authority was a 'perk' of the job (like funds from crime for corrupt police). 

Specifically every inquiry into sexual abuse should draw significantly on ethnographic and historical expertise. Ethnography — referred to as 'thick description' — aims to provide a detailed, in-depth description of the unwritten rules by which we live our lives. It has the potential to unlock the secrets of a culture and, in connection with sexual abuse, explain why some church personnel abused minors. 

History is important because much of the abuse occurred at a time when social and religious mores were very different, even though it may have been only two or three decades ago. Irish Jesuit Father Gerry O'Hanlon describes it as 'trying to understand how a truth that seems so blindingly obvious now [but] was, at another but quite recent period, so opaque'. 

O'Hanlon has written several essays on sexual abuse and the Murphy Report in the theological journal The Furrow. He uses the poet Seamus Heaney's well known line about the Irish Troubles — 'whatever you say, say nothing' — to characterise the behaviour of many Irish bishops in relation to sexual abuse. 'This, in the terms used by the Murphy Report, is the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell'. And so bishops, for example, did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was.'

Victoria's parliamentary committee has much it could learn from a study of the Murphy Report and the analysis of O'Hanlon and others. It has already been heavily criticised for lacking expertise and resources, and there is widespread expectation that the result will be superficial and lack credibility.

One committee member, Frank Maguire, has already resigned after declaring he was not up to the job. It could take further resignations before the State Government rethinks its decision to act in haste.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

 



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Culture can indeed be everything. Remember when the Body of Christ was composed of boaul said so longer ago that all parts were dependent upon the other. Now we have the situation where the clergy alone chooses its peers....and what is lost in that process? So far no one has spoken about penalties for any Australian clergy if they're found guilty of moving on offending priests.Would that even be countenanced? Equally, can the Body of Christ, wedded to justice, devise a scheme whereby it may escape prosecution under the law...denying that it has any legal status?...and even set its own limits of compensation?Surely these questions...and answers...also need to be in the mix. The parliamentary committee of six appointed t probe the sex abuse scandals is already down to 5 given the reported resignation of Frank McGuire. The media...including Eureka Street, could do the community a favour and seek out the individual opinions of the remaining 5 to fill the role that McGuire says is beyond them...and plump for a judge instead.

Brian Haill - Melbourne 23 April 2012

it is true that some bishops caved in to the prevailing culture of secrecy and "don't tell". But I don't think that "wind" swept and still sweeps across diocesan centers only. It is mostly prevalent in domestic circles.

Tony 23 April 2012

This year I will become an octogenarian and I have spent all those years being loyal to my faith and my church. The so-called 'culture' that existed among the clergy on child sex abuse has rocked my trust and admiration of the integrity of clergy generally. How did they manage to keep this evil so quiet for so many years before someone eventually blew the whistle? Good priests must have known about it. Why didn't they do something? Perhaps some did but were silenced by the hierarchy. May God forgive all those who participated in this silence and may He be generous in his forgiveness of the perpetrators. The other thing that worries me about all this is personal confession - I agonised over my sins before going into the confessional box and worried about telling them to the priest and revealing how bad I'd been. And all the time some of those priests were condoning, participating or ignoring terrible sins amongst themselves. How naive I have been. I cannot bring myself to go to confession (as such) these days but ask forgiveness during the Mass, especially by reciting the Lord's Prayer. Do I need a mere mortal to forgive my sins after appealing to the Lord?

Pat 23 April 2012

I'm all in support of the law pursuing individual perpetrators of child sexual abuse but I hope by recommending to 'avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers' doesn't mean that the culture of corruption of power in the church (which appears to be endemic) does not escape minute scrutiny too. The Church has been too clever in the past to cast off the perpetrators without being asked why such an institution could have created so many abusers. Other institutions would never had escaped such scrutiny.

john bartlett 23 April 2012

"the bishops did not talk about this even among themselves.....In these few words we see the crux of the problem. In general the hierarchy is not capable of talking about human sexuality in sensitive and compassionate ways. The noted Jesuit (now deceased) Dr. Jim Gill, psychiatrist and theologian, taught that men in general do not have a language nor disposition, to talk about sexual matters in any constructive way. The Bishops are no exception to this teaching. It is as though this great feature of our humanity and identity, this great God-given gift, is somehow to be ignored, and its roles, and its aberrations,in our lives, deemed to be unworthy of serious discussion. When we speak of a "culture" regarding the Church and matters of sex, we are attempting to uncover why the ordained , celibate clergy, in general, prefer to pretend that holiness is only achieved by separating it from sexuality . Such cultural "norms" are extremely difficult to reform, even if the Church wanted to achieve reform!

Garry 23 April 2012

The real issue for me is whether the church in Victoria (and elsewhere) is prepared to release victims of clerical abuse from their signed confidentiality statements and agreement not to sue the church. These were both bought by a combination of pressure and the offer of a pittance in money, it will be the acid test of sincerity by the hierarchy.

jim macken 23 April 2012

This issue will be an ongoing wound for the Church as more victims step forward. I think the culture of the 'organisation', most especially in the Catholic Church where patriarchy is particularly prevalent, goes some way to explaining what occurred. In saying that, every church is basically a patriarchal structure. The complex theme of male 'mateship' or 'friendship' (two different things) also plays a part - it can be very isolating to be part of a community and yet apart, as priests and ministers are, and cope with the stresses of the vocation. Because the 'system' was deficient in crucial areas, innocent people were hurt and those responsible didn't feel 'responsible'. It's not only the victims who need to heal - the Church needs a rather strong spotlight fixed on a shonky system.

Pam 23 April 2012

Michael, thanks for an analysis that goes beyond the deserved condemnation of individual paedophiles to denounce the culture that sustained their crimes. But the Church has failed to accept responsibility for the deplorable standard of leadership that permitted that culture to prevail. The Church hierarchy seems to encourage a focus on the crimes and avoid addressing the immoral behaviour of Church authorities in protecting the criminals who continued to violate innocent children. You are correct in observing that “We do not criticise the police force as a whole when there are revelations of corruption”, but we do hold the leadership of the police accountable for allowing such a culture to develop and prevail, and we demand changes to that leadership. The Church has not even begun the process of reform of its autocratic and non-inclusive leadership which has resulted in so many failures to live the teachings of Christ. Vatican II, being the highest authority of the Church as an ecumenical council, identified the necessary changes in direction and leadership 50 years ago, changes which the Church’s hierarchy seem increasingly determined to resist. A good start now would be to admit the immoral actions of the Church, endorsed from the highest levels, in responding to the abuse of children by agents of the Church, and then commit to new structures of inclusiveness in the governance of the Church.

Peter Johnstone 23 April 2012

The Nuns covered up for so many wicked and predatory priests too. My mum said none of the girls at her orphanage wanted to take the priests dinner over from orphanage kitchen to his residence, and she shivered with revulsion. I later learned another inmate was packed off from border NSW to Victoria. Pregnant, gave birth, baby adopted out and returned a year later..she is a battler alright, in a psychological prison from childhood abuse. Then the baby turned up as adult asking why he was rejected and she had to face telling him she was raped by a Priest. The generational impact has a life of its own. The Nuns and clergy aged with community respect in their comfort zone, and the victims battled on betrayed. Wonder where I got my cynicism from?

Julie McNeill 23 April 2012

Police corruption is rightly investigated by means of royal commissions. It is obvious that the inexpert, inexperienced, over-burdened, 12 month long Victorian 6 MP parliamentary enquiry is inadequate and inappropriate, especially considering the Irish example. The Catholic Church is vociferously proud of its resistance to any progressive "social and religious mores", and it is appalling that a conga-line of popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests keep disingenously bleating about not being aware of the culture of abuse to which they belong - inculcated into an arrogant brotherhood intent upon maintaining its power and prestige, at enormous cost to the eminently disposable and interchangeable laity as they are. The most damning fact relating to this world-wide culture of clerical criminality and prurience is that it would still be going on (in fact, we know that the Australian Bishops knowingly moved paedophile clerics to pacific islands as late as the past decade) if it were up to the Catholic heirarchy, which constantly demonstrates an intractable contempt for civil society and law. This should be a chilling thought for us here in privileged Australia, as this "unaware" Catholic juggernaut moves in on the desperate and vulnerable in developing countries. Centuries of rampant and rapacious abuse of its flock should attract the most severe condemnation from the pews. The fact that it doesn't only proves the efficacy of this most heinous kind of venal, self-interested and manufactured tyranny for the maintenance of ill-gotten power and influence, and the powerful vested interests who legitimise and defend it.

Michelle Goldsmith 23 April 2012

People who are abused are likely to abuse others in turn. The clergy are an oppressed group, controlled with an iron hand from above. They have no room to move as intelligent, compassionate and responsible adults. Witness what has happened to countless priests and bishops who have exercised their charism in the name of Christ, only to be punished, banned from teaching, sacked from their consecrated posts, hounded and humiliated. Now the powers that be are tackling 57,000 nuns in the US. The height of madness!

Juanita 23 April 2012

I recall that TV commercial for Valvoline motor oil, the essential for good performance. "Oils ain't oils, Sol" where it was implied "Unless they're Valvoline". Perhaps post-Vatican II, now surprisingly 46 years in the past, "Priests ain't Priests, Sol" where it is implied "Unless they accept ordination in Christ's life and sacrifice". Post-Vatican II, too many priests lost their identification as the ordained of God himself, lost the concept of their special place in God's plan and forgot their acceptance of the (frightening)responsibility of living the life of Christ's sacrifice. Priests and religious declared their right to be like the ordinary man and woman and left in droves while many who stayed eschewed the life of sacrifice in and with Christ, exhorting others not to see them as special and preferably as social science practitioners. 'Call me Bill. I'm just an ordinary man" and "Why should the doings of an ordinary man be denied me?" and "God forbid that I might be identifiable in public".Thus the failure of many abusing Catholic priests, hardly the life in Christ as ordained. Not very complex, really, simply distastful to admit, tempered with fear that to assume a high moral position might be scoffed at (reference, eg, God's ordained, the last two popes and our own cardinal) and might disqualify them as ordinary men and women. Christ was scoffed at and derided although welcomed at the every day human table,but nevertheless lived above human temptation. Unfortunately his modern day partners in human salvation invite temptation and then wonder why they fail. Strewth ! I'm must be growing older and even sillier than I thought.

john frawley 23 April 2012

"In other words, let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers and, most particularly, the culture that has sanctioned their actions, even if identifying it is a lengthy and costly process." But that is why people are critical of the church and the Pope as a whole. The Catholic church simply cannot be trusted, at all, to deal with sex abuse claims. There is a very long history of abuse of all varieties that keeps going over time. As for the Victorian parliamentary commitee, the feeble effort that is, the let's-keep-it-quiet attempt, how many of these six are Roman Catholics? And of the rest, what is their faith position? The need to keep 'believers' out of this enquiry because they too cannot be trusted is vital.

Andy Fitzharry 23 April 2012

It is not the Church that is the problem. Rather it is the unfortunate abandonment of priesthood which has polluted all levels of administration of the Church. The solution is to return to Christ's priesthood at all levels. Large chunks of post-Vatican II proclaimed Church members need also to learn to respect the priesthood and reserve their criticisms for the men who have abandoned it while hiding under its mantle, ie, the "religious" child abusers etc. Same applies to those many good priests who are appalled by the sexual abuse issue but who have to live with the mal-aprobrium that devolves to them simply because they are priests. What miserable lives good priests today must endure when included as a whole under "Church" in constant criticism of their role no-matter how conscientiously they fulfil it. Rather than persist with constant carping criticism of them, offer them help to resolve the matter and in the meantime devote energy to restoring the priesthood. Constant criticism will achieve nothing- encouragement, possibly with a modicum of prayer, is likely to be far more effective.That is what is needed, because in Christ's genuine priesthood criminal sexual abuse cannot possibly co-exist. It is also unlikely that constant criticism and denigration of good priests, drawn into the same criticised mould by association, can similarly co-exist in Christ's Church

John Frawley 23 April 2012

In his book, The Case of the Pope: Vatican accountability for human rights abuse (Penguin Books, 2010), Geoffrey Robertson QC, has some strong advice for the Pope. (a) He must abandon his claim to judge paedophile priests under Church law. (b) All credible allegations must be put into the hands of the police on the spot. (c) Every priest convicted must be defrocked. (d) The Church must show more respect for victims and their families and help the healing of those who are damaged. (e) All priests must have a duty to blow the whistle when they know of an offence by a fellow priest and such whistle-blowers must be congratulated and supported rather than treated as traitors to the Church. (f) The Church should suspend judgment until a court had decided the matter but then help any defrocked priest who seeks redemption. (g) Opportunities for priests to succumb to temptation must be reduced. In summary, Robertson wants the Pope to convert his on-paper commitment to the rights and welfare of children to a more sincere reality that makes their protection a number one duty throughout the Church.

Frank Golding 23 April 2012

Michael: You have a way with words..... You don't mince them. I disagree with you though on the comment" "did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was." They knew! They knew in the States, in Ireland and Australia. Crimen Sollicitationis is the key!

JeannieGuzman 23 April 2012

I felt sickened after reading John Frawley's comment, suggesting that the evils of child abuse can be blamed on innocent, fine, upstanding, pastoral men who dare to appear human. The priest's position in the workings of God's play is no more special or sacrificial than that of the "ordinary" person. The young victims of the rotten evil abusive priests should be help up as martyrs and saints by the church - each one named and canonised.

AURELIUS 23 April 2012

I'd also like to say something about John Frawley's second comment. While there's no denying the majority of priests, in the past and present, are worthy of respect and fulfil their obligations to Christ's church with grace and humility (under difficult circumstances) there is still an institutional problem with churches, and particularly the Catholic church. The patriarchal structure lends itself to the sort of twisted thinking that has brought about the sexual abuse scandals. Men and women are equally loved in God's sight - but not in the sight of his Church. Shame. The only word for it.

Pam 23 April 2012

He did? I havent caught up with that yet, good on him, if others follow suit, it will prove the sincerity, to get it done right.

L Newington 23 April 2012

It is fine to say, "let's not scapegoat the Church", and attack the clerical culture of secrecy. But amongst police forces with corrupt culture, there was never a law which said you had to take bribes. But there was a Canon Law that required bishops and others involved in investigating clergy sex abuse of children to observe "pontifical secrecy" and not to tell anyone - which had to include the police - see Crimen Sollictationis 1962. After a search warrant was issued against Bishop Bede Heather for refusing to hand his information over to NSW police, the Australian bishops applied for and got a dispensation with Towards Healing which then required reporting. Yet this was not applied to the rest of the world by Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II. Britain got a dispensation in 2001 and the United States in 2002, but Ratzinger signed his Motu Propio in 2001 confirming "pontifical secrecy" for everyone else. The Irish bishops in 1997 were specifically refused permission by the Vatican to go to the police, because it conflicted with Canon Law - and it did. So you have to ask, from where did the culture come? It came from right at the top, and has stayed that way until 2010 when public outcries all over the world forced Benedict's hand to abandon "pontifical secrecy".

Kieran 23 April 2012

Julie, I felt so sad reading your comment. Not too many would want to believe what you wrote. The clergy of the Melbourne Archdiocese had religious women assisting them too, although not raped as with your mother, but to preserve the priesthood. I wish your mother and her now adult child every good thing: Pass it on for me..maybe Angela Ryan csb......Towards Healing?

L Newington 23 April 2012

Dear Aurelius, Please forgive me for sickening you! You have caused me to re-read the above comment about the priesthood and it says, (the problem is) the "unfortunate abandonment of priesthood...at all levels of administration of the Church" and that criticism should be reserved for those who have"abandoned it(the priesthood)while hiding under its mantle". I concede that I have not addressed the guilt or otherwise of those who did nothing to bring abusive perpetrators to justice - a serious omission on the part of some administrative men but not in the league of promoting ,aiding and abetting child abuse. I can see that you have good cause to be sickened. I am a father of seven and my wife has 15 grand-children (I am still a bit too young to be a grandfather, Aurelius!)and am personally appalled that any priest could ever abuse any other human being let alone a child. The point I was trying to make is that Christ's Church is not wrong. It is the human failure within it that is wrong. It is the failure in some men of the priesthood to which they claim adherence. My plea is that we correct things by supporting a restoration of true priesthood which can't be achieved by constant criticism but might require some help and understanding. I trust that this little clarification brings the fever down and that the sickness doesn't last too long or, God forbid, become debilitating, Aurelius. Surprisingly perhaps, I believe the whole issue has been appallingly handled and that all of the abusers should be locked up. However, the good priests who made serious errors of human political judgement and have addressed the issue, no doubt belately, should not be continuallY piloried. They can do no more. The sore needs to be allowed the time to heal. It will not heal if we continually tear off the healing scar to reopen the wound.

john frawley 23 April 2012

Michael, you present a muddied case linking the bishops to a few bad police and pleading the culture of the times to diminish the collusion of Victorian bishops in the clergy sexual abuse cover up. You draw an unfortunate longbow as you plead, “let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general’. We are not blaming the church, we are accusing the bishops of Victoria of criminal collusion in covering crimes and facilitating pedophile priests in shifting the about and using the Catholic Church Insurance Company lawyers to pay the defense of perpetrators and compounding the abuse of victims. Even here in faraway Kampuchea I cannot escape the csacccup (clergy sexual abuse catholic church cover up) with Denis Hart’ Opinion piece in the Age. Such an ‘in your face’ litany of denials gets into my head amid our issues here of University restructure, introducing PhD Research and expansion of community Rubber plantations. Denis writes ‘First, victims are not subject to confidentiality’. How does his disavowal square with the Phil O’Donnell ‘Felix culpa’ posting and other testimonies to our For the Innocent’ (fti) group? I welcome the Parliamentary Enquiry, even if the members are overworked and think they are under skilled. It is now up to us who have stories to tell to get them on the public record. Even Mick Dodson, a Monash lawyer and indigenous leader now at ANU and UN, found the trauma of the Stolen generation enquiry reduced him to tears and many recommendations are still in the NATO lost land (No Action Talk Only) these stories are on the public record.Now it is up to us who have accounts to tell to present them to the Victorian Parliamentary Enquiry. Let our work begin.We’ll all need plenty of the Force in the year ahead.

Michael Parer 24 April 2012

Michael, you present a muddied case linking the bishops to a few bad police and pleading the culture of the times to diminish the collusion of Victorian bishops in the clergy sexual abuse cover up. You draw an unfortunate longbow as you plead, “let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general’. We are not blaming the church, we are accusing the bishops of Victoria of criminal collusion in covering crimes and facilitating pedophile priests in shifting the about and using the Catholic Church Insurance Company lawyers to pay the defense of perpetrators and compounding the abuse of victims. Even here in faraway Kampuchea I cannot escape the csacccup (clergy sexual abuse catholic church cover up) with Denis Hart’ Opinion piece in the Age. Such an ‘in your face’ litany of denials gets into my head amid our issues here of University restructure, introducing PhD Research and expansion of community Rubber plantations. Denis writes ‘First, victims are not subject to confidentiality’. How does his disavowal square with the Phil O’Donnell ‘Felix culpa’ posting and other testimonies to our For the Innocent’ (fti) group? I welcome the Parliamentary Enquiry, even if the members are overworked and think they are under skilled. It is now up to us who have stories to tell to get them on the public record. Even Mick Dodson, a Monash lawyer and indigenous leader now at ANU and UN, found the trauma of the Stolen generation enquiry reduced him to tears and many recommendations are still in the NATO lost land (No Action Talk Only) these stories are on the public record.Now it is up to us who have accounts to tell to present them to the Victorian Parliamentary Enquiry. Let our work begin.We’ll all need plenty of the Force in the year ahead.

Michael Parer 24 April 2012

Having served on a number of parliamentary committees and chaired one of them, I'm a wholehearted admirer of the system when it is properly tasked. However, seems to me that the proposed clerical child abuse reference falls way outside the realm of proper tasking or any likely level of committee competence, and should properly be the subject of a judicial inquiry. Best hope seemingly is that either the committee will recognise its limitations and refuse the reference, or that individual members of it will follow Frank Maguire's example and resign rather than participate in an exercise that inevitably ends up with an outcome that is to nobody's credit or satisfaction and tears all round.

Race Mathews 27 April 2012

A good article, Michael, and, like some of the comments, such as those by Julie McNeill, Pat etc. profoundly disturbing. The paedophilia scandals, made even more scandalous by cover up; pseudo-justification etc. tell me as much about institutions and the exploitation of the power dynamic within them as about the Catholic Church. Paedophilia is a very sick side of human behaviour. The fact that the perpetrators and their erstwhile protectors were Catholics and clerics at that may horrify some but only those unaware that religion and ordination do not seem to prevent this behaviour. I think we need to recover from the former Irish-Australian clericalist culture which saw priests as intrinsically "special" and "set apart by God". They are not. They are ordinary men called upon, in their priestly office and in that alone, to do something extraordinary. In all other ways they are perfectly normal and should be treated as such. Respected, like good doctors, but also carefully scrutinised, in case they are not good priests.

Edward F 05 May 2012

Rather glib, a little arch... its real people in our community who are affected for their whole lives. Its not a cultural issue, its the destruction of a whole society by corruption, and the abuse of power. All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and unfortunately, it is still the case that the Catholic hierarchy has unfettered power over people and institutions in Australia.

Helen Dawson 17 July 2012

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