Sin, spin and sex abuse in the church and military


Church leaders have a responsibility to protect the reputation of the institution of the Church. They are also custodians of a very high moral duty to protect the most vulnerable in their care, including sexual abuse victims.

It is a common criticism that they have previously given priority to looking after the reputation of the institution over the needs of sexual abuse victims, who have suffered further as a result.

On the other side, many critics are not obviously concerned about the rights of the Church's 'good people' and positive values represented by the institution.

It appears they wish to see the needs of victims addressed in isolation.

There is goood reason for suggesting the needs of victims are more important than those of the institution, but it is not helpful in the long term to assign priority to one or the other. Because the sexual abuse problem is endemic, the long term common good requires a more wholistic strategy.

Last week the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was subject to similar criticism following the release of the damning DLA Piper report into sexual abuse over many years. Just as Catholic Church leaders were accused of harbouring past abusers by not reporting them to the police, media headlines highlighted the DLA Piper report's revelations that 'un-prosecuted rapists' remain in 'senior positions in the armed forces'. 

This is quite significant because the ADF has always had the capacity to deal with its own through the court martial system, which allow criminal sanction. By comparison, the Church has only been able to inform civil authorities and defrock priest perpetrators.

Retired Major General Jim Molan commented at The Drum on Thursday on the 'not inconsequential' issue of the reputation of the ADF. However he insisted that protecting the reputation of the ADF 'must never hamper justice for victims', who are 'the first priority of action'.

It is pleasing that he puts the needs of victims ahead of the reputation of the ADF. But it is a flawed strategy to consider reputation and the rights of victims as two unrelated challenges that must be addressed separately. Increasingly it appears that we're talking about a problem that is endemic and not confined to a rogue element.

Molan explained that the ADF 'needs to remain the most respected institution in Australia, as it was in a recent survey, to attract people and funds to do its job'. Separately, he argues, it 'can respond empathetically to each individual abuse case without accepting that this puts a stain on all the ADF and all that it does'. 

Contrary to Molan's argument, we believe that it is necessary for the ADF to accept the 'stain' before it responds empathetically. The very act of accepting the stain will demonstrate the ADF's capacity for strength, honesty and justice in the way that it goes about confronting serious internal issues. This is a much more effective way of ensuring its good reputation for the long term than a slick public relations expertise, which is the common quick fix for reputational damage.

A contrite ADF that acts righteously within will always be in a better position to prosecute just wars than an organisation with an apparently good reputation that is founded on hubris or spin.

If Molan's views reflect those of the ADF leadership, the Church is ahead of the ADF, in that the Church has moved in recent years towards accepting that the sexual abuse problem is endemic and not merely the result of the behaviour of rogue priests. A major turning point came when Pope Benedict XVI told reporters in 2010 that the problem was 'the sin inside the Church'. Implicitly he was saying that acknowledging the institutional Church's sin — or stain — is the precondition for forgiveness and reparative justice for abuse victims.

If — and only if — this attitude filters down to local dioceses, the Church can expect to be able to offer justice to sexual abuse victims, and rebuild its reputation at the same time. A joint lesson for the Church and the ADF.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, sexual abuse, Catholic Church, Australian Defence Force, Jim Molan



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Existing comments

You write “Church leaders have a responsibility to protect the reputation of the institution of the Church.” Compare that sentence with this quote from Richard Holloway’s "Between the Monster and the Saint", page 167. “. . . we must acknowledge that, while there have always been heroic Christians who have followed the way of Jesus, the institution that bears his name has rarely attempted to do so, probably because institutions know intuitively that they are instruments of force. The first rule of institutions is self-preservation, usually at the coast of their original purpose. If the original purpose of Christianity was to carry the spirit of Jesus through history, then it soon fell into the trap of using most of its energies to maintain itself and the life to which it had grown accustomed.” I think I prefer Holloway.

Janet | 16 July 2012  

There are both similarities, and significant differences, in the crises within the Church and the ADF in relation to sexual abuse scandals. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse whether perpetrated in a church or secular setting. And the impact on victims is just as profound. I think the differences are that the Church hierarchy has, hopefully in the past, regarded itself as 'outside' the realm of answering to any government of a particular country. The injustices within the ADF stem from a culture of misogny and bullying as a part (but not wholly) of an initiation into a type of secular culture. Both attitudes need the strongest condemnation.

Pam | 16 July 2012  

Thank you Michael for an interesting comparison between the ADF and the Catholic Church. The 2010 implicit acknowledgement of culpability/sin is a good, if belated, first step. Transparency and disclosure await as a logical and positive next step towards genuine healing and reconciliation between the churches (it's decidedly not just the Catholic Church in the dock) and their collective victims. To the list of 'transgressors' abusing power relationships to eke out sexual gratification, while operating in institutions or off their own bat, Australians from the general community, as well as media practitioners and cynical stand-up comedians, can add (and often do and have added): educators, politicians, physical, psychological and mental health care practitioners, police, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends - the list runs on. But while the siege mentality of church leaders continues, while they actively cover up activities and shuffle/hide offenders, continuing the non-disclosure of information to authorities and the prioritisation of the reputation of the institution over the needs of the abused parties, people will continue to find the church's offences more injurious and deplorable than other offences committed by individuals and other institutions. The Catholic Church, as with all expressions of Christianity, and other faiths, comes under a higher level of scrutiny and accountability and must do so because it makes greater claims on people's ethical and spiritual expectation and needs. You can't claim to represent the divine and then blame the victims of crimes. You can't make excuses for paedophiles or minimise the level of broken trust and betrayal. Michael is correct in stating that it is not fair to tar all members of an institution with the same brush because of the offences of a minority of perpetrators, and the various churches have been correct in endeavouring to provide various levels of pastoral support to 'their' offenders, rather than demonise them. But the community outrage has risen and continues to rise at the appearance (and reality?) that the churches care more for the perpetrators and for their reputations than for those people who have had their innocence stripped away - too many of those victims have subsequently and consequently committed suicide. In hierarchical organisations such as churches and military/paramilitary structures, strong, sacrificial ethical leadership - from the top down - is the only way to effect change. Local and grassroots initiaive are easily smothered by leadership that doesn't want to know; leaders who are more interested in their legal advice and options, in their body's tattered public reputation, than in the pain of abuse victims (who cannot move on until the reality of the crimes committed against them are acknowledged and dealt with). 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...'

Barry G | 16 July 2012  

Another matter - some would call it scandalous - that was not only hidden but, in some States, aided and abetted by the Church over several years, was the existence of the secret organisation without a formal name but referred to as 'The Movement'. It is now clear, from documented evidence, that the ultimate aim of this body was to gain control of the A.L.P. Those Catholics who opposed it at the time - Arthur Calwell was a well-known example - were victimised or criticised, even by priests speaking at Mass. It would be appropriate, even if belated, if some acknowledgment and apology be made to those critics of The Movement. Their stance has been shown to have been well justified.

Bob Corcoran | 16 July 2012  

I am a lawyer and I have dealt with 5 sexual assault cases 3 involving Catholic institutions and 2 from other denominations.The catholic response ,on the ground ,has been positive and in each case investigators reports commissioned by the church were handed to us as the victims lawyers.In each report the victims allegations were found by the investigators to be "most likely truthfull". When I then read how three senior priests one of whom is a lawyer have covered up assaults by a fellow priest, I feel Ashamed as both a catholic and a lawyer.Clearly what seems to have occurred is misprision of a felony which is a criminal offense. If the church hierachy will not clean this mess up and it seems to be in no haste to do so then the Court system must act. As catholics we cannot hide behind the church/state dichotomy. Let us hope that somewhere in the hierachy there is a courageous priest who will do what has to be done to keep faith with the victims and "the faithful"

paul tocchini | 16 July 2012  

An entrenched, all male hierarchical cultural tradition of child sexual abuse and subsequent public denial of its occurence which facilitates a cyclical subculture of paedophilia is not a "sexual abuse problem", Mr Mullins. It is criminal conduct and conspiracy. The abusers are prurient child rapists, criminals, aided and abetted by their peers and Bishops. The ADF has long been famous for its culture of bastardisation.

Michelle Goldsmith | 16 July 2012  

'The Church has only been able to inform civil authorities and defrock priest perpetrators'. But it didn't even do that, let alone report and discipline bishops and those in authority who knowingly and deliberately covered up. That what the 'child endangerment' case in the US is about. That's what the criticism of the officers in the ADF is about. An institution, be it the Church or the ADF or the police or whatever, is more likely to protect its own image in the longer term if it owns up publicly as soon as a failure is recognised and spells out what it intends to do to prevent recurrence. Until people are convinced by evidence that both the Church and the ADF have resolved to do that, their respective images will remain tarnished. 'If — and only if — this attitude filters down to local dioceses' suggests that the problem has been resolved further up. But we have yet to see any bishops, let alone Vatican officials, sacked or reported to the civil authorities for covering up.

Ginger Meggs | 16 July 2012  

I have connections and history with both organisations over long periods. There are strong similarities in the way that both organisations have managed these incidents. There needs to be a national inquiry into institutionalised abuse in this country and the outcomes being the starting line from which to move on. At least now the ABC have a new whipping boy in their sights. What the Catholic Church needs is a national team of independent investigators to review old files and investigate new claims with an office/representative in each Diocese. In hindsight of ABC 4 Corners program, having Cardinal Pell in air was the worst outcome as he effectively gave a poor performance and as the perceived spokesperson of the Church gave an unconvincing interview. The Church must be more proactive in responding to these type of interviews selecting the spokespeople very carefully

Liam Willson | 16 July 2012  

I do not agree with the editor’s interpretation of General Molan’s views expressed in the latter’s opinion piece written for The Drum of 12 July. For those who didn’t click the link to that article, I offer the following extracts, and wonder if readers would interpret the General’s views in the same way as the editor has done:

“There is no doubt that the victims of sexual and other abuse in the ADF should be the first priority of action."

“If there are others who might still be vulnerable, they should be the next priority, and taking action against perpetrators should then be very high on the agenda."

“Each of the abused represents a failure of the ADF to look after its people, and a failure of mateship. The perpetrators of the action are culpable enough, but if there have been cover ups, or condoning of such action, then scrutiny must be especially tough."

“But there is another cost to this story, and that is the reputation of the ADF, which is not an inconsequential issue. It must never hamper justice for victims, but it is still important…."

“Defence needs to satisfy itself that the abuse of some of its people is not systemic in the sense of being widespread and condoned by senior ADF leadership, of which for many years I was one. Defence can respond empathetically to each individual abuse case without accepting that this puts a stain on all the ADF and all that it does…..”

I prefer a statement like this than an article which, while ironically lecturing the ADF (of which the retired General is no longer part), on how it should deal with its sexual abuse problems, says: “There is good reason for suggesting the needs of victims are more important than those of the institution, but it is not helpful in the long term to assign priority to one or the other.”

John Regan | 16 July 2012  

Endemic - "regularly or only found among a particular people or in a certain region." (Oxford English Reference Dictionary)

This is the first time I have seen sexual abuse described in a Catholic publication as endemic to the Catholic church/ministry. As someone who has written in the public media objecting to the use of endemic in this context, I am appalled that it is used here - twice. That is not a criticism of the writer, because it his his interpretation of the Pope's statements.

The word is sometimes used in public discourse as synonymous with "characteristic of" or "widely associated with" and carries the extra aural affinity to "epidemic."

Fr Mullins says that "the sexual abuse problem IS endemic" - present tense. Do parents of children in schools in which Brothers and priests work know this? See the dictionary definition to appreciate what you have written.

That the Pope would regard sexual abuse by people vowed to celibacy as a stain on the church and still insist on celibacy is the ultimate contradiction; little wonder it is a staple of standup comedy. Changing the celibacy rule will not end sexual abuse, of course it won't, but it will most certainly reduce its occurrence.

And I still think sexual abuse is a problem with individuals, not with the institution.

Frank | 16 July 2012  

Frank, sexual abuse may, as you say, be 'a problem with individuals, not with the institution', but the cover-up is not. Cover-ups of this type require complicity among several people in positions of power to be silent accessories after the fact. This is what Paul is driving at when he calls the cover-ups 'misprision of a felony' which, as he points out, is a criminal offence. That is why the recent 'child endangerment' case in the US is so significant - for the first time ever the criminal nature of the institutionally sanctioned cover-ups has been recognised for what it is.

Ginger Meggs | 17 July 2012  

As usual, debate degrades to a nitpicking exercise in semantics. As the victims of sexual abuses and their families if they feel "endemic" is the correct description and I'm sure they won't be bothered trying to fathom the best word to describe it.

AURELIUS | 17 July 2012  

Michael I find your parallel of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) and Clergy Sexual Abuse Catholic church Cover-up (CSACCC) flawed. They should not be compared. Priests commit themselves to celibacy – with no marriage and no sexual activity. They publically stand for Jesus and his Gospel. Armed force personnel make no such promise. Priests caught in the abuse scandal are sexually and horrendously intimate with children. There is no suggestion of this in the ADF. Let’s not defuse the heinousness of he CSACCC by mixing the church with the ADF. We require a proper Judicial inquiry or Royal Commission in Victoria with powers to take the in house procedures away from the Catholic Church in its Melbourne Response and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Towards Healing with its Compensation Committee dominated by the Catholic Church Insurance Company and given to the proper authorities in the legislature, the police and the judiciary. For this I shall work At all my meetings in three groups addressing this issue I argued we must pull out all stops to make the recently established Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry work. As I prepare my submission of abuse I have grave misgivings and cannot trust or see that this Parliamentary Committee has the resources or specialized persons or power or time frame to achieve the outcome that I believe are so important to all victim survivors. Mike Parer

Michael Parer | 17 July 2012  

I have followed the three Irish Inquiries and been peripherally involved in the Deaths in Custody and Stolen Generation Inquiries I see as real the danger of re abuse of the abused and their lack of protections and in my terms seen thru the eyes of the Khmer Peoples that I have been among for eleven years and who have had countless UN, AusAID, NGO, Government investigations and now the Khmer Rouge Trials that only to produce NATO reports - No Action Talk Only. The and the Sunday Age editorial reinforce my changed view. I still believe in our group for the innocents (fti) and our apology and I applaud those In Good Faith to support victim survivors innocents and applaud COIN for its specialized legal insights and I applaud fti in its the tenacity to involve priests via the National Council of Priests of Australia that I had a part in initiation and to involve the remnants in the parishes. Clergy sexual abuse is the critical religious issue and should not be diminished by paralleling it with the ADF scandal.

Michael Parer | 17 July 2012  

I agree with Barry G. The reputation of the Church has no intrinsic value in itself which would give the Church reason to protect it. Its reputation, what people think of the Church, depends entirely on whether it lives up to the ideals of its founder, Jesus, in this context to heal the wounds of those who have suffered at the hands of clergy. Too often now in the case of those sexually abused by clergy have we seen the Church as paying less attention to the victims than is necessary, having regard to the extent of their continued suffering.

Tony Santospirito | 17 July 2012  

What these scandals point to is this society’s lack of protection (laws) for children. We often gawk at the third world’s mistreatment of children but fail to acknowledge the lack of protection we give our children. It is narrow-minded to say this is a Catholic problem or a navy, army or air force problem…..this is a social problem in which we all bear the responsibility to correct and uphold. Recently in the United States, The Penn State University child sex abuse scandal centered on former Pennsylvania State University football assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's sexual assault of at least eight underage boys on or near university property. After an extensive grand jury investigation, Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation dating from 1994 to 2009, though the abuse may date as far back as the 1970s. Those involved put the institution’s interests before the person/child; this applies to all the cases above. No one is above the law; clergy, civil workers or athletic personnel. Enact of enforce laws that protect minors and you solve the problem period

Simon | 20 July 2012  

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