Twelve Steps to healing an abusive Church


'The facade' by Chris JohnstonTo all intents and purposes it looked like an email requesting supervision for a research proposal. Nothing unusual in that. I get a steady trickle of these. There was an attached letter which I opened, and immediately knew much more was at stake.

The communication was from a student I had had discussions with over ten years ago about a possible research topic. Without warning or further communication he vanished. Now he was about to open the door of his heart to reveal the reasons for his disappearance.

It was the sort of story I had heard often before when my wife and I were involved with the issue of clergy sexual abuse. It was a story of seduction, manipulation, violation and psychological damage.

In training for the priesthood this young man had been abused by a senior and much older seminarian, in whose pastoral care he had been placed. The seduction and manipulation extended to the young man's family and church community.

While the older seminarian went on to ordination, a position of trust and responsibility in the Church, the younger man's life fell into a spiral of self-destructive behaviours, symptomatic of post-traumatic stress. While the abuser is an honoured member of the Church community, the victim has been shunned by his family and church community. What's wrong with this picture!

The response of Church authorities has been less than inspiring. On advice the victim sought to contact the diocesan professional standards team. Each time he rang (some 20 times) he received a recorded message.

Try to imagine the leap of trust required to contact the Church to report abuse; the degree of agitation involved in drumming up the courage to tell one's story to those who represent the authorities of the very institution that abused you. And then to receive a recorded message — leave your details and we'll ring you back. This is not malicious, but it is a benign ineptitude, a stunning lack in moral imagination.

The sad thing is how little has changed since our original involvement some 15 years ago. Yes, documents and policies have been put in place; apologies have been expressed publicly and promises of doing better have been expressed. Even some degree of moral outrage: 'This must not happen again!' But in the end, not much has changed. Indeed it is still more of the same.

The problem is systemic. Not in the sense that the system produces abuse — abuse occurs within all sorts of institutional and familial settings. But the system has no intelligent and responsible way of dealing with the abuse that occurs. From Church authorities down to the local community there is simply an inability to enter into the perspective of the victim of abuse.

Like the priests and Levites in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is easier to walk past on the other side than hear the cries of betrayed trust and mental anguish that arise. And this betrayal touches the religious identity of its victim. The one who was supposed to speak to them of God's love and forgiveness, his grace and mercy, has sexually abused them.

This systemic problem shows how badly the Church has failed in its own terms. The Church is supposed to know about sin and grace, repentance and conversion, penance and reparation, healing and mercy. These are part of its core business. A pope once said the Church is an expert in humanity. These problems are the stuff of our human condition, yet the Church's response is fumbling at best. Not much expertise on display here.

I have long felt that the major cause of this lack of institutional response lies with the spontaneous identification of priests and bishops with the perpetrator of abuse. They are all members of the same club. They all had the same formation experiences, live with the same stresses and strains, and have the same temptations.

One priest on hearing from a victim of a fellow priest's repeated sexualising of his pastoral relations with various young women cried out, 'The poor man, struggling with his celibacy'. No sense at all of the trail of destruction caused and the faith damaged. Immediately it became a problem of personal spirituality, narcissistically appropriated, 'poor me/him'; not anger at the spiritual violation of another person.

I cannot recall ever hearing a priest express anger at the actions of an abusive priest (except perhaps Geoffrey Robinson), and the damage they do to their victims, as well as to their own ministry as the trust of the community towards all priests evaporates. Rather, what I pick up is a sense of shame and tacit complicity. Shame is disempowering.

When I was a child our parish priest wore a badge indicating his membership of a priestly fellowship called the Pioneers. These priests made a solemn promise not to drink alcohol. We need such a fellowship today, of priests who make a solemn promise not to sexually abuse or exploit those in their pastoral care, a network of support and solidarity, of counsel and prayer.

Perhaps the Church should suspend all homilies for a month and sit in silent prayer for the healing of the victims of abuse and the conversion and repentance of their abusers; to help make our church communities safer places for victims to be present.

In the time they save from writing homilies, priests and bishops could develop a searching moral inventory (to borrow from Twelve Step programs) of their own failures to deal with this problem, their lack of leadership in their communities to make them safe, and the positive steps they can take to repair the damage that has been done to individuals and communities.

Something more than platitudes are needed. The Church is dying on the vine, and tinkering with liturgies and translations is not going to bring it back to life. Its credibility is shot to pieces every time abuse occurs. 

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. In the early 1990s he and his wife Thea became activists on behalf of survivors of abuse, and they jointly wrote a book, When Ministers Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, clergy sex abuse, Geoffrey Robinson, confronting sex and power in the church



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I really like this article. It is simple yet profound.. The part i like the most is about the priest abusing women yet the brotherhood of priests see it as the problem of a poor brother who is wrestling with the imposed celibacy. It is always about them..How could it be any other way since they do not consider anyone else to be worth anything. especially women and children. Jesuits who abused me and others have the same mentality.. Sure they have their prime real estate, their universities, their elite pompous ass reputations, their housekeepers, gourmet chefs, travel around the world opportunities, but they want the world to feel sorry for them because they are suppose to be chaste and can not marry.. so they go out and rape children both boys and girls and adults but women and men and expect that they deserve it.. Very sick..

tina | 21 March 2011  

Well researched article, thanks Neil! You are right, the church has 0 credibility for me and many others. The abuse was bad enough (it has made my life hell for a very long time) but the conspiracy of silence right in the face of obvious evidence (worldwide) reflects crime(s) against humanity. I do not believe the church is going to change, it's too powerful (wealth). But we can change. In the meantime, do not donate, do not place your children in their scope of reach and DO report any incident of child abuse or endangerment to local authorities.

Kay4Justice | 21 March 2011  

Thank you so much for this piece. I agree wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately the abuse cases we know of are the tip of the iceberg. I know of several people who have been abused, but have not come forward but chosen to resolve it personally with counsellors and friends.

In the city in which I live, a man whose life fell into disarray after being abused by a cleric at a Catholic school sued for a miniscule amount. The school paid more than the lawsuit was worth, defending the suit. As a practising Catholic, I would be completely comfortable with my planned giving being used to compensate victims.
I am grieved by the damage clerical abuse has done to my church. I know some beautiful priests and yet at the height of my friend's crisis I found myself doubting and mistrusting them. Not only are their reputations are tarnished by abusers, but their relationship with parishioners is subdued.

In more positive moments I could see a way out of this mess. At other times I still feel angry. My anger is not assuaged by defending and hiding abusers.

In the end I console myself with the thought that God's love and the goodwill of God's church is way bigger than this crisis.

Anonymous | 21 March 2011  

I suggested these 3 "steps" back in 2002 - seems to me they still would make sense:
1. In the immediate term, the Church should press for or instigate an independent, comprehensive and open public enquiry into sexual abuse within the Church, along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Church must decide or be told that the documented pattern of denial, rationalization, cover-up, and blaming victims is over;
2. In the medium term, the Church must change its understandings of gender equality, sexuality and celibacy, forged in the third century and still trapped there. Equality for women, tolerance of sexual diversity and the end of the virginity/holiness myth are obvious threats to the homeostasis from which the current crisis has emerged and, hence, they are strongly resisted;

3. Ultimately, the Church must come to terms with the Enlightenment its teachings spawned: it must “democratise” to allow full participation by its members in its structures of governance and accountability, and dispense once and for all with any concept of “divine rights” for clerical coteries, however exalted.

Terry | 23 March 2011  

What a refreshing insight into the Church's response to the sexual abuse. Having seen the resultant abuse by religious, it is very pleasing to see someone stand up for the victims and call the religious to account for their lack of action and the ongoing refusal by the hierarchy to sweep it under the carpet through bringing in "new" avenues to liturgies.

Peter | 23 March 2011  

There are a couple of considerations which ought to be made:

1. If the church is abusive, as you say, what should be said of the world in which we live, with its pandemic of abuses? Check some reports from the United Nations. Abuses are far more widespread than in the church.

2. The extent of abuse in the church is real. However, should that blanket everything else in the life of the Church?

tony | 23 March 2011  

It's the same with cops who abuse their position of trust. They get away with it again and again because they investigate themselves. They are a law unto themselves. Let's call rape "rape" and stop hiding it behind the the sanitised "sexual abuse" banner.

Greig WIlliams | 23 March 2011  

This article expresses so well the ineptitude of the church hierarchy in dealing with the entire aspect of abuse.

Hiding things still remains when ex-priests and brothers who have abused, then work in the Catholic system with that history being kept from the communities is just wrong. Once an abuser, these people have forfeited the right to work in situations where they are able to be in 1:1 relationships with any other person. So many live a lie - and remain as readers, eucharistic ministers and then, once the truth is exposed, leave communities damaged. God's heart must break over the lies and deception

Jane Robinson | 23 March 2011  

Neil and Thea Ormerod, along with a half dozen other activists, founded the Friends of Susanna at the end of 1992. I was one of the others. The group had as it main aims achieving reforms in how the Christian Churches deal with ministerial sexual abuse and minimizing its recurrence.

I am disappointed to see that Neil’s article refers solely to “clergy sexual abuse”. Offending religious brothers and other non-clergy ministering on behalf of their Church are equally culpable and, in my understanding, exceed the numbers of abusive clergy. Religious sisters offend far less often, and their cases seldom result in criminal charges.

Criminal charges generally arise when the ministerial abuse was perpetrated on children and the public authorities decide to act on the statements of victims, invariably in adulthood. As with the young seminarian Neil mentions, when the ministerial abuse occurs in adulthood, another path is taken, as criminal charges would be hard to sustain. This applies also to vulnerable women who are abused in a pastoral setting, not all of whom are young.

There is no one path, but a variety, most leading out of the Church and to victimizing the victim. Meanwhile, the abusive ministers continue and further refine their targeting, cover their predatory tracks and devise more plausible explanations and stories.

Neil advocates a moratorium on homilies for a month, with the silence gained thereby being devoted to prayers for “the healing of victims” and “conversion and repentance of their abusers”. (What of the bishops, leaders of religious congregations/orders and their vile lawyers?) My own prayer is that abusive ministers and the evil structures that support them be cleansed. This will, please God, allow the diminishing rump that attends the Sunday Eucharist to proclaim “It’s safe to return”.

The Friends of Susanna disbanded in late 1995, having begun the process of sustainable reform locally. A necessary part of that reform has to be, in my view, identifying and punishing the perpetrators, including removal from office and criminal charges. If such charges are unlikely, then ensure relevant regulatory and licensing authorities (such as education, psychology and social work) are formally advised, among other action.

Rodney Stinson | 23 March 2011  

Please stop referring these issues as "sexual abuse". Call it for what it is - violent sexual assult by a person in a position of trust/authority upon a young and vunerable person. It is a reportable criminal offence. Those who have knowledge of such an offence and do not report it or, worse still, protect the perpetrator, are complicit in the offence and are just as guilty as the perpetrator.

Denis | 23 March 2011  

What a lovely article.
For my part, I believe that there have been too many words said by the Church, and often not sincere words, but words of self excuse and regret at being exposed. Prof Ormerod talks of a systemic problem - he is right, the problem is one of culture. Perhaps when the church relinquishes the policy of celibacy and ordains women as priests, we will see a healthier attitude towards human needs and sex. I wait with anticipation.

Eveline Goy | 23 March 2011  

An excellent,clear overview of this immense problem -still not addressed by this church we call óurs'.

Bev Smith | 23 March 2011  

While in no way condoning clergy/religious abuse I would like to put in a word for some of the abusers, as I believe that they in some cases were also abused by the system. Educated by the Christian Brothers from the age of 14 we were subjected to "vocation drives". A brother would come from the East extolling the life of the priest/religious and wouldn't we love to be part of this life? Put up your hand if you would like to join! Once your hand went up your parents were then visited by a relevant brother or parish priest.

Happily for me I had a strong minded mother who refused to give up her son, as at 14 I couldn't possibly know my mind. At that age I knew absolutely nothing about sexuality. Had she given her assent I believe maybe ..."there but for the grace of God go I".

I did however under my own steam join a Marian Order in Perth and whilst not abused, the environment as developed by the superiors left it open for sexual malformation. So, I always spare a thought and prayer for the religious/priest accused of abuse.

Ignatius | 23 March 2011  

An excellent article by Neil Ormerod - however the title of the article is somewhat misleading; It does not actually deal with the "12 steps to healing" which I hope Neil will address in his next article. I am sure that many would be interested in his views on the moral inventory that the church must endorse. I just hope that priests and the hierarchy read this too.

Yuri Koszarycz | 23 March 2011  

A good article thank you. I was particularly struck by Prof Omerod's comment: "One priest on hearing from a victim of a fellow priest's repeated sexualising of his pastoral relations with various young women cried out, 'The poor man, struggling with his celibacy'. No sense at all of the trail of destruction caused and the faith damaged. Immediately it became a problem of personal spirituality, narcissistically appropriated, 'poor me/him'; not anger at the spiritual violation of another person." Coming from Ballarat, this ignited again the image of George Pell accompanying predator priest Gerard Ridsdale to court (as a friend he said) while Ridsdale's many victims struggled to the court unsupported by the church.

Frank Golding | 23 March 2011  

A wonderful article. I intend no disrespect to Neil Ormerod in suggesting that perhaps he does not yet know all of the 12 steps to healing. Its just important that we all take the first one together. Our church.Our problem.

margaret | 23 March 2011  

Congratulations Professor Ormerod - there is a point in having a Catholic University which nurtures spirits brave enough to proclaim the truth Jesus brought us not just the self-important proclamations of the liturgy-tinkerers.

Carmel Matuire | 23 March 2011  

Like a vast number of Catholics today, I struggle with the continuing pain of the clergy abuse. Sad to say I know of many families who grapple with this type of abuse, from the terror of being raped in the sacristy to the bewilderment of being groomed. It is interesting that I have not been asked, ‘Why do you still go to Mass each Sunday? Aren’t you just defending this behaviour?’ I suspect this is a preeminent silent question on the lips of many who watch my our car pull into the church parking lot on Sundays. I believe that a key to understanding how the present abuse crisis has been able to escalate and crawl through what most people regard as sacred, is to be found in Scripture. Neil mentioned the Good Samaritan. Everyone knows the story. Jesus told it two thousand years ago. He had a list of three players in the drama. The Priest and the Levite and the Samaritan. (The poor unfortunate traveller was the catalyst). We all know the story so well, too well in fact. We know that the last fellow was the good guy, but we struggle to recognise the significance of this. Weren’t the first two good as well? What was Jesus saying when he cast two apparently righteous men in the role of villains? As children we learn within a static universe. Yet, if this is where we stay, we cannot arrive at a deeper understanding that all is not what it seems. In fact, our suffering will surely continue if our universal view is static. Life is not mono dimensional. The story of the Good Samaritan recognise that our world needs to be turned upside down. Hold on to the status quo and the world will continue to snigger and laugh. We hear the laughter, we notice the sniggering. These responses come from a deep place because there is an innate recognition that the words spoken by the ‘church’ do not match the rhetoric. The priest and the levite and many more of us are still walking past.

Vic O'Callaghan | 23 March 2011  

Benedict XVI urges "As a small amount of leaven, mixed with flour, ferments all the dough, so the Church, present in society, makes grow and mature what in her is true, good and beautiful." Part of being effective "leaven" means engaging with the "flour" and changing its form. Regrettably, many of us who are expected to act as the yeast fail to engage with the world. Worse still, there are those among us who fail to see that our standards of behaviour are less than those of the world rather than the reverse which is what is called for. For example, it seems that some of those in positions of power within the Catholic Church are unwilling or unable to see a conflict of interest and duty when it arises or properly address gross breaches of trust and some are even dismissive of such worldly standards of behaviour. In that respect, those in the world often behave better than our hierarchy. My guess is that until that trend is stemmed and reversed then many of the faithful and the world will treat the hierarchy as they would salt which has lost its flavour.

Kim Chen | 23 March 2011  

thank you , a hundred thank you for this article it should be in the public eye everywehere read out in our churches. God bless you

irena springfield | 23 March 2011  

Thank you Neil for your article. I cannot believe that this violence, that is so widespread, has to remain such a running sore in the life of the Church, for so long and, and for how much longer? Is anything actually being done about it in an ongoing sense, or is it simply a matter of closing ranks or burying the head in the sand in the hope it will all go away. Thank you to those courageous people, and relatives of victims, who have selflessly spoken out, knowing that the stress involved is huge. The risks are great of ostracisation, comdemnation, the risk of scapegoating or "stoning the messenger".One United States author describes the situation of the one wronged, he/she feels thrown beyond all societal and religous boundaries, so dark and deceitful are the actions of the perpetrators. The journey "back" is overwhelming, not to mention the damage caused in the long term is almost insurmountable, difficulties in forming meaningful relationships, the destruction of any sort of personal self esteem, and confidence, and sadly the potential for ultimate self harm is never far from that scene, and far to many have chosen that.

Daffodil | 23 March 2011  

Thank you for this interesting article. Like others, I would be interested in the 12 steps.

Unfortunately, other types of abuse are also evident in the church, resulting in Post-traumatic stress and disempowerment and more...indeed, something more than platitudes are needed...

Jane | 23 March 2011  

More power to your arm Neil. Recently I read an article challenging the laity to protest and cry out about the abuse. Many such as yourself and Thea have been activists. But perhaps we need a movement in the church offering laity the solidarity to speak from inside the walls to our pastors. Or organize a moratorium on monetary contributions for a month! If we worry about our pastors going hungry, we can make casseroles. But no money. Is that too drastic?

Kim Power | 23 March 2011  

Thanks for the many positive comments. However, I should clarify that the title "Twelve Steps ..." was given by the editors, not me. My title was too bland. There is a reference in the article to the 12 steps program, and perhaps that is what we need.

Neil Ormerod | 23 March 2011  

Sadly, even after all the wide publicity given to abuse, especially violent and sexual assault by those in positions of power within the Church world-wide, I can’t argue with Neil Ormerod’s: “But in the end, not much has changed. Indeed it is still more of the same.”

These abusers seek and take sickening advantage of positions of power over other, vulnerable people, especially children. For the church not to take the strongest possible action against them is the grossest hypocrisy.

Since the Church has comprehensively failed to live by its own teachings, then it is a systemic problem. I agree with Terry to the extent that we need “an independent, comprehensive and open public enquiry into (ALL) abuse within the Church”, but we cannot trust the Church to do this. But how can we hope to have an independent enquiry? An independent judicial enquiry more along the lines of the Queensland Fitzgerald Enquiry into police corruption is what is really needed, but how does the state engage with the church to permit this or get the church to agree to it?

As Greig writes, the police get away with corruption when they investigate themselves. It would be the same with an internal church enquiry. A “truth and reconciliation commission” based on the South African model is too little, too late. I agree with Rodney that abusers need to realise we are serious, and that means “identifying and punishing the perpetrators, including removal from office and criminal charges”. And in criminal cases, the law also recognises that “(those) who have knowledge of ... an offence and do not report it or, worse still, protect the perpetrator, are complicit in the offence and are just as guilty as the perpetrator”, as Denis states.

I still am faithful to the Church, because I recognise that Jesus Christ and His Gospel are too important to walk away from, in spite of those who have betrayed Him in the worst way. Jesus said “allow the little children to come to me”. These abusers have pushed them and many others away. Even for those not abused themselves, as Vic states, “there is an innate recognition that the words spoken by the ‘church’ do not match the rhetoric. The priest and the Levite and many more of us are still walking past.”

We need to urgently get our house in order.

Frank S | 23 March 2011  

Well said, Neil. I agree that the leaders of the Church need to examine their consciences, collective and individual, about their part in the long and shameful story of clerical abuse. This means not only abuse of children, but also of the trusting relationships between the parishioners and their priest(s).

The focus is on the abusers - the degree of their guilt, the torment of their conscience, the need for their healing. We turn away from the victims - in shame and embarrassment, of course, but we do turn away. By the way, Denis, I do understand your point about language, but 'sexual abuse' includes adults whose trust has been betrayed too - the abuse of the young and vulnerable is the worst of it, but it isn't all there is.

Joan Seymour | 24 March 2011  

I doubt that anybody can really believe that celibacy is the cause/culprit of abuse & rape. Yet it is still put forward as an excuse by some. Much needs to be reformed in seminaries & recruitment, plus respect over/against near worship of the ordained. As strongly as I look towards ordination of women it is not the answer but a separate issue.

Thank you, Professor Your last paragraph needs to be echoed loudly in Rome & every diocese.

Rita F. Prenavo, S.F.O. | 25 March 2011  

Sometime ago i sent an email to what I believed was the email address of the bishop/cardinal of Los Angeles . In this I suggested that priests should be directed to lead a prayer at the foot of the altar after Mass praying for the victims of sexual abuse by clergy.( like we used to say the old prayer to St Michael) I don't know if this was ever received'

I sent the email after reading a specious and shallow apology by the Cardinal for clerical abuse. How flippant it sounded!
I know the priests would be embarrassed by having to do this but would it be more embarrassing than having revelations of continuing abuse surfacing

Bede Hickey | 26 March 2011  

Wow.. I feel really moved when I read the comment of Tina (first comment).. every form of abuse (especially that committed by those meant to represent Christ) is terrible in a way that is beyond words.. no one should try to provide an excuse. If we really do want to progress.. we must choose men and women who are assertive enough to seek companionship and friendship with others who can support them through the trials and tribulations of celibate life.

As Tina says, assets, reputations and everything else, mean nothing to Christ, and they should mean nothing to those meant to represent him either.. they should be known for their humility, not their 'prestigiousness', for their assertiveness, not their 'burden of celibacy', for their compassion and wisdom, rather than confusion and disregard for the vulnerable.

Tom | 02 April 2011  

I think that the spirit that inspires the Church is something very good, which makes it all the more terrible when people abuse the good name of the Church and Religious Orders they represent by doing what Tina describes above.

I think there is a tension for the religious communities between being flexible and ready to move at any given time and staying with institutions, which may in time have a sense of prestigiousness develop around them (institutions), but I don't think this is why the orders stay on at the institutions, I think most people actually want them to stay, whereas some in the orders express a desire to be more involved with the helping those on the fringe.. finding the institutions a burden on the original spirit of the orders.

Tom | 05 April 2011  

I think it needs more than badges against sexual abuse of children and naive young women and men. Perhaps the churches should look at celibacy as a no goer and an unnatural state. In Judaism we take a far more realistic view and all community rabbis need to be married. There is a problem that is not being fixed and the innocent suffer and the abusers keep abusing, given carte blanche by their fellow clergy. Revolting and probably why I am so glad I am not a catholic. All that guilt .... Change is imperative and sooner rather than later.

Ilana Leeds | 26 April 2011  

Everyone is aware of sexual abuse but what is rarely mentioned is the physical and mental abuse that was brought by priests,brothers and nuns.

This only generally talked about by people who have been on the receiving end of such abuses.

Personally I was belted by the nuns to start with and then by the brothers. My days in school were spent avoiding these teachers and staying off thier "radar" Frequently I can remember the outrages that occured by brothers who would "go off thier face" and physically belt up other boys as well as myself.

Consequently, my days were marked by such absolute fear that I couldn't learn but rather anticipating the next belting that would certainly come.

I can clearly remember a teacher saying and promising to the class that if we thought that we were going to fail the year he was going to belt us through it which he proceeded to do.

This is not to mention the parish priest who personally went about and made his personal crusade to have my brother expelled from a school for simple "waging" a day off school. He made repeated representation to the principal of my brothers school until he was expelled. My brother has never got over this and has lapsed going to church.

The principal then, some ten years later, refused me entrance into that school and it was only after repeated attempts by my mother that I was accepted. He did say to my mother that he would keep a close personal eye on me and any bad behaviour would see me expelled too as I was part of the "bad blood" I did suffer greatly in that school.

Michael | 01 August 2011  

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