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An adequate response to child sexual abuse

Andrew Hamilton |  30 July 2014

'Reckoning: the Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse' by Chris McGillion and Damian GraceReckoning: the Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse, written by Chris McGillion and Damian Grace, and jointly published by Eureka Street and ATF Press, offers a useful map of the journey that has led to the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. It recalls how the widespread sexual abuse of children within the Church came to prominence in Australia, outlines the variety of responses to it, and reflects on the explanations given for it.

The book is modest and even in its tone. It offers a broad perspective on the challenges that will arise from ensuring that children are safe in the future.

The dimensions of an adequate response to child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church are now fairly clear. First, children must be protected from abusive behaviour. This requires curtailing the opportunities for potential abusers to meet, groom and abuse children. It also requires preparing, monitoring and supervising church representatives who are in contact with children.

Second, the criminal gravity of sexual abuse must be recognised, and the response both to victims and offenders be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime. This requires responding professionally and transparently to accusations of abuse, excluding from public ministry those who have offended, and continuing to monitor any offenders who remain within religious communities.

Third, the serious harm suffered by people who were abused as children must be recognised. This is done by ensuring they receive the pastoral care and counseling they desire, and can claim compensation.

Finally, the Catholic Church must take responsibility for the sexual abuse inflicted by its representatives and for its concealment, and for ensuring that aspects of its culture that encourage abuse are remedied. For this, serious and independent study will be necessary.

McGillion and Grace detail the history of the often catastrophic failure in each of these dimensions. It also records considerable, if uneven, progress in some areas.

Certainly, potential offenders would find it much harder today to abuse children than they did forty years ago. Their access to children would be limited and monitored, and their behaviour would be more closely scrutinised. If their abuse were reported to their religious superiors they would face a strong risk of criminal prosecution and of exclusion from ministry.

Victims of abuse, too, now have some processes through which they may seek acknowledgment of abuse and compensation for it.

These changes, of course, are partial and are largely due to the unrelenting focus of the media on sexual abuse. But they also reflect the pressure from committed people within the Church for change even in the face of resistance and incomprehension.

The challenges that remain are no less daunting. They are less about whether these large goals need to be realised; more about how to realise them and to enshrine them in Catholic culture. This requires a conversion of hearts as well as good process.

On the conceptual level the need to safeguard children and to treat sexual abuse as a crime seems to be generally accepted. The need for severity in dealing with offenders, for accountability in people working with children and for regulation of the contact between adults and children, is also widely accepted. The challenge is to embody these things in reflective practice.

The rhetoric of putting the victim first, of providing pastoral care and access to compensation is now generally adopted. The larger challenge is to think, feel and act out of these sentiments. It is easy to talk the talk; harder to walk the walk.

There is also an inherent tension between the need of victims to be believed and the need to establish the credibility of claims of abuse. Not simply the welfare of victims but the good name and lives of people accused of abuse are at stake and demand a process of discernment.

The proposal that claims for compensation should be decided by a tribunal independent of the institutions in which abuse has taken place has received widespread support. The challenge will again lie in the detail.

We might expect that research into the causes and history of sexual abuse will continue and increase. As part of its owning of the crimes that have flourished within it, the challenge for the Church is to take such research seriously, particularly when it touches on the part played by such aspects of Catholic life, culture and governance as clerical celibacy, attitudes to women and sexual morality, and clericalism.

Research on these things needs to be done comparatively, not to let the Church off the hook, but to provide control groups that can shows which factors are significant in causing sexual abuse.

Finally a large challenge, discussed by the writers, will be how far to rely on a detailed regulatory regime. An outsider’s view of governmental practice in the area of child protection suggests that a highly regulated environment can encourage ticking off boxes at a cost to children's welfare.

In dealing with people, including children, the ultimate goal must not be simply to eliminate destructive relationships but to foster good, responsible relationships.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Read 'Rules won't restore the Church', an extract from Reckoning.



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Submitted comments

I read this article and then reread it and I hope I can articulate adequately my unease. Unease, not because the author is lacking in empathy or a reasoned approach. But because child sexual abuse is such an unspeakable crime that words don't seem nearly enough. The failure of the Catholic, and other, churches has been catastrophic and causes must be unflinchingly examined. Change must be implemented and victims cared for above all else. But at the end of the day, those lives that have been broken will still haunt. I do agree that a highly regulated environment is not conducive to building trusting relationships. But neither is underestimating the damage done if even one person offends.

Pam 30 July 2014

I also read and re-read this article and was uncomfortable with it. I have a great deal of respect for the author of this article, but I sense that in this article that there is still a view being expressed that the task of resolving the 'inherent tension between the need of victims to be believed and the need to establish the credibility of claims of abuse' is one for the Church, rather than the civil authorities. There is, in my opinion, no role whatsoever for the Church in adjudicating on matters of alleged criminal behaviour; all allegations should be reported immediately to the civil authority. To do otherwise is to get the Church into the mess that it has previously been through.

Ginger Meggs 31 July 2014

The glaring failure of the hierarchy of the Church, together with the leaders of religious, to proactively and adequately respond to and effectively deal with the scourge of child abuse in our time is breathtaking. Convictions and glaring publicity have seen the 'powers that be' reluctantly showing belated reactive response to child abuse and victim support - we still do not have strong, proactive, effective action.

Terry Fitzgerald 31 July 2014

Thank you Father Hamilton for a very thoughtful overview. If I could expand on one aspect - it the matter of concealment. While ever Canon Law and its attachments retain references to 'pontifical secrets' and 'secrets of the holy office' potential exists for 'cover-up' to continue.

John Casey 31 July 2014

Each of the Church's agencies claims policies and procedures are in place to prevent sexual abuse. As of this week we know they can't prevent it. Offenders have supporters who will side with them against the abused as happened in Toowoomba. The Vatican isn't interested in pastoral care as evidenced with the removal of Bishop Morris. Church practices for Confession/Reonciliation rely on incredible trust. The grooming of victims in this situation and the easy absolving of the Clergy and Religious who carried out the abuse and hid it suggest the need for a major overhaul of the practice. Recognition of the serious harm to the victims and their families isn't even on the radar as is shown by the Church publications and the far from satisfactory reporting on measures to address the "Ellis" debacle. When "obedience" to Vatican Rules trumps "truthful and compassionate" responses to those affected then there seems little hope for the future. On the international front the Pope was asked by one of the abuse victims to dismiss Cardinal Brady. The reported reply from Pope Francis "it was very difficult to do" suggests a Vatican and Church still in PR mode. Keep commenting Andrew. It may help.

Laurie Sheehan 31 July 2014

I was discussing with a colleague my own denomination's leaflet on avoiding grooming and we recognised that some of the behaviours in it are part of warm, healthy, supportive relationships between adults and children. The challenge is to recognise when the boundary is being crossed, which is often easier in theory than in real life.

Judy Redman 31 July 2014

Well expressed Andrew. I have ordered the book and will withhold further comment until I have read it. As border at a Catholic College in the 1960's I was aware of two alleged paedophiles in the Brother's community. As both are now dead , I can not judge either. As a former lay teacher in the 1980 and 90's we were strongly warned about such behaviour so knowledge or such abuse must have been known to our superiors.

Gavin O'Brien 31 July 2014

The Working With Children checks are absolutely essential, otherwise a paedophile can easily be in charge of children. The checks are simple and easy. To suggest otherwise is both wrong and mischievous. It is imperative that anyone working near children should be checked and recorded on the Police data base. Anyone who objects to these basic legal requirements needs to reflect on their motives, their ego and why the secrecy. For goodness sake it is only common sense to check criminal behaviour. It is a basic start and unfortunately doesn’t pick up anyone who hasn’t yet been caught. As for those who on a conceptual level may not have accepted paedophilia as a crime, thank goodness for the laws. At a basic level I have said for years that we don’t really care or value our children and the church attitude to criminal paedophilia, it’s slowness to act and it’s trying to protect property and reputations ahead of common decency just adds to my point. Children are our future and their well being should be first priority. If we can’t protect and nurture our children, then we are indeed a very sick society.

Jane 31 July 2014

Agree with Ginger Megs that the Church leaves the management of the offenders to the civil law and confines itself to dealing compassionately with the victims. In the wider picture of sexual abuse, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that it pervades all institutions of Western Society, religious and secular. The Catholic Church just happens to be far and away the largest single institution in the world (one in six people are Catholic) and correspondingly is likely to house the largest number of sexual offenders. The percentage of offenders, however, may be commensurate with the rest of the institutions or perhaps even a bit less than in some but such figures as far as I know have not yet been estimated by the various inquiries. The cause of the problem, however, is the failure of Western Society in its embrace of the sexual revolution and the failure of the civil law to uphold the moralities which it once did by promoting such abominations as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage etc. The Catholic Church specifically shied away from its responsibilities in educating its people in its schools and speaking out against the immoralities in society seeking to hide behind the shield of compassion, social justice and Christian tolerance of human rights. Unlike their Christ who had no fear of speaking out against the immoralities of his time and couched no 'preferential options' in his dying for all mankind regardless of their station in life. Indeed, he died because of mankind's abandonment of morality. The Catholic Church needs to start getting its priorities in order and supporting the likes of the last three Popes rather than pulling them and their teachings to pieces in the name of the 'spirit of Vatican II'.

john frawley 31 July 2014

Thank you for your analysis John Frawley. Clearly sexual abuse peaked as society became more permissive, when relativism and personal freedom became most influential in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Pell was left to undo the legacy of his more liberal predecessors and endure highly personal attacks by their sympathisers

Peter 31 July 2014

All very nice sounding and mildly appropriate in some disparate areas. Probably the most glaring aspect comes from "On the conceptual level the need to safeguard children and to treat sexual abuse as a crime seems to be generally accepted. The need for severity in dealing with offenders, for accountability in people working with children and for regulation of the contact between adults and children, is also widely accepted. The challenge is to embody these things in reflective practice." in that it display a comprehensive ignorance as to the causes, effects and treatment and then follows it up with good old retribution and punishment which again is a part of the problem and not a part of any solution. Still it is helpful to see these stunningly ignorant and dysfunctional aspects of the Catholic psyche on public display so yes at this stage "They simply don't get it" appears to be live and well within Catholic communities and the Catholic culture.

John Brown 01 August 2014

Perhaps we should consider as well the advice of Basil of Caesarea (d.379), architect of eastern monasticism, who offered the following guidelines for dealing with sex-abusing monks or clerics : The convicted offender was to be whipped in public, deprived of his tonsure (head shaven), bound in chains and imprisoned for six months, after which he was to be contained in a separate cell and ordered to undergo severe penances and prayer vigils to expedite his sins under the watchful eye of an elder spiritual brother. His diet was that of water and barley bread - the fodder of animals. Outside his cell, while engaged in manual labour and moving about the monastery, the pederast monk was to be always monitored by two fellow monks to insure that he never again had any contact with young men or boys.

HH 08 August 2014

@Peter. You refer to Cardinal Pell and the good work he did. Are we talking about the same "transport operator" who doesnt think the "company" should be blamed or take responsibilities for what his "drivers" did?

John 29 August 2014

Imagine if there was only 100 clerical child abuse cases an year, and not the 1000’s that take place yearly worldwide. That would mean since the first recorded evidence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the figure would be 170,900 clerically sexually abused children. The lives of these past and present innocents were ruined to please the perverse sexual appetite of priest, whose career never suffered and no doubt they went on to become cardinal or even popes. Since the Synod of Elvira c. 306, we can calculate that millions of children have been abused sexually by priest, I draw your attention to the Synod of Elvira, canon 18: Bishops, presbyters, and deacons, once they have taken their place in the ministry, shall not be given communion even at the time of death if they are guilty of sexual immorality. Such scandal is a serious offense. [http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm] Nuns (virgins) were not immune from pursuing sexual pleasure as the next two canons 13 and 4 show [ibid] However, if you multiplied the figure above 10 time, it would still be too low! Regards Jero Jones

Jero Jones 04 October 2015

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