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Rules won't restore the Church


'Reckoning' by Chris McGillionIt is widely assumed that rules are the solution to transgressions such as those being investigated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Rules without doubt are useful. They can be framed to aid compliance and deter wrongdoing. It is no argument against them to say that people will still offend, but if rules are more legal requirements than the expression of genuine morality, they will have limited effectiveness.

The most desirable form of social control is self-restraint — the work of morality. For a minority of people, morals do not have this effect, but pathologising normal conduct because we are fearful that deviants are impervious to morality and law is no way for free people to live. Indeed, moral counsel and tighter regulation are wasted because they do not work on the very people at whom they are directed. Instead, barriers are raised to protect children that distort normal responses and have their own abusive aspect.

When teachers in New South Wales, for instance, were forbidden to touch children, even to comfort them, because a few teachers had abused their office, it was the children who bore the consequences. The lesson teachers took from this regulation was that they were not sufficiently trusted to comfort distressed children. Because of an aberrant few, all teachers were regarded as suspect, and distressed children lost the comfort of a responsible adult.

This response was disproportionate and eventually came to be seen as such by the authorities.

Trust was nonetheless eroded not only by the actions of abusers but also by those seeking to protect children from abuse. Representing formal accountability as more reliable than personal trust actually destroys trust, first by making it very much a second best option when a system of checkable procedures is available, and then, as a consequence, suggesting trust is less safe than documented dealings.

The default position with others becomes distrust. If you can 'see' what everyone else is doing, there is no need to trust them.

Moreover, the effectiveness of accountability is diminished by familiarity — vigilance has its limits — and volume: too much documentation and oversight makes the aim of accountability difficult to secure. Volume can reduce information to mere data.

Resources for policing misconduct are limited but one of the great assets of a civil society is trust. While giving due regard to the protection of the vulnerable, it is important to do so in ways that preserve trust. In providing regulatory protection for children, too much confidence should not be placed in rules, procedures and surveillance. Care should be taken to avoid creating an environment in which social trust eventually falls away.

Understandably, this is not the main consideration of those who wish to protect children, and many Catholics would now prefer systematised accountability to the State to trusting the Church and relying on the personal virtue of clergy. Discussions (around the time of the announcement of the Royal Commission) of breaching the seal of confession (to extract relevant information from priests) were an early indication that such measures have come to seem reasonable.

Other measures would tie State funding of Church activities, such as welfare, schools and hospitals, to compliance with designated standards. It would not be sufficient for, say, a hospital or school to meet the professional standards of the health and education professions. Funding for such entities could conceivably be tied to the Church complying with various bureaucratic agendas, such as parish priests keeping records of all interviews with parishioners and submitting these records for audit.

It is not fanciful to suggest that reformers of the Church, both within it and outside it, see change in terms of a more regulated and accountable operational environment. Oddly, perhaps, they wish to see a less Roman but more bureaucratic Catholic Church.

The kind of structural and cultural reform most often demanded is bureaucratic and unlikely to maintain, let alone restore, the Church's traditional function in society. The counter-cultural force of the Church historically has been tied to its spiritual mission, its conception of itself not in organisational terms but as the people of God in pilgrimage.

This conception of the Church is threatened by forces hoping to make it conform more closely to a standard bureaucratic system. Forcing the Church to adopt stricter accountability processes might satisfy the demands of a bureaucratic model, but also have the effect of further reducing its responsiveness and spontaneity.

Police checks, convoluted procedures and regular audits have already encroached upon the functioning of workplaces and public institutions such as schools, hospitals and universities. The presumption is that these places are unsafe unless a sheaf of documents certifies otherwise. Is a more cautious, risk averse and procedural church what most Catholics want?

Chris McGillionChris McGillion (pictured) is former religious affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. Damian Grace is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. This is an extract from their book Reckoning: The Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse. Purchase your copy here

Topic tags: Chris McGillion, Reckoning, Royal Commission



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Existing comments

Its always hard when reading a part of a book to know whether the book gets better when the arguments are developed. While I totally agree with the sentiment, so far all I'm reading in this quoted part is a bunch of motherhood statements. Do you suggest that we should be more careful about who we ordain as priests, perhaps that they are encouraged to live more normal lives in the community, will you suggest ways to make our children more resilient against abusers……This is a complex subject not helped by wafty statements such as that self-restraint is the answer. If only it were that simple! But I do agree, rules won't restore the Church but some rules are definitely necessary such as if you abuse children you must cease being a priest and go straight to jail where you can learn self-restraint in suitable counselling sessions.

Carol | 23 July 2014  

Their previous published work shows that McGillion and Grace are men of compassion and thoughtfulness [disclosure: I was, as was Grace, a contributor to McGillion's earlier book, "A long way from Rome"]. To dismiss their writing, on the basis of a brief extract from a comprehensive book, it vapid and unfair. The trith IS that, ultimately, values and self-respect are what determine the peration of society: it is NOT policemen. And it is the case that police and other checks must be superficial and, ultimately deceptive: false substitutes for personal responsibility. And that have -- in universities as well as schools -- beenm damaging to teacher-pupil relations. so the point surely is: read the book and think about it/

John CARMODY | 23 July 2014  

I think a problem is that a "cautious, risk averse and procedural church" is what we have had...but directed at protecting the institution and maintaining its self-directed "dignity and power"and not the interests of children or indeed adults in need. The structures, culture and attitudes of the hierarchy in particular have managed to "trash the brand" and grossly undermine the trust of the community both within and especially outside the Church. Many outside the Church were of course more than happy to see this happen. Inside the Church it is just very sad to see all this unfold; especially since we have had a generation of leaders who essentially were appointed since 1968 on the basis of not trusting us!

Eugene | 23 July 2014  

A tantalising extract which at least indicates the limited scope of regulation. Trust is not going to be restored by more regulation nor is it going to be restored by church leaders hiding behind legal argument and apologies that seem to be both rehearsed and insincere. Appropriate Leadership can either allow trust to be reestablished and relationships restored or it can lead to the abandonment of membership of the institution and/or system. Young people abandoning the electoral process is a case in point in Australia as the current parties do not represent their voice or most of the community. History tells us that violence and destruction result from such disenfranchisement. This is what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church at present and the leaders are trying to pretend all is well with more regulation and PR exercises. The vast majority of previous and current members are dismayed and appalled at the antics of those who not only breached and destroyed the trust but continue to engage in trust breaking actions. Look forward to reading the book to find what suggestions are there for a way forward as well as giving justice to the victims and their families.

Laurie Sheehan | 23 July 2014  

Having read the book, I think the value of this book is that it shows how the best efforts of church and state have failed the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. McGillion and Grace argue for privileging the stories of the victims and finding ways that are essentially humanising for the victim/survivors rather than continuing on the road of over-regulation and media sensationalizing. They argue that ultimately these tactics continue to silence the victim while doing little to change the behaviour of the perpetrators or improve the competency of church authorities. The authors do recognize that the the Royal Commission has caused church institution to face reality and consider its many poor practices and mistakes. The authors argue these now need to be turned into practices that actually assist victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.

Peter Maher | 23 July 2014  

With apologies for the manifold errors in my previous comment! It really astounded me to see a woman ["Carol"] sneer at soi-disant "motherhood" statements in the McGillion/Grace piece. The truth is that most of what is best in our lives and society could be denigrated in that way -- because they're matters of values, attitudes and behaviour. Essential for a "civil society" but hard to quantify and measure. Whatever is good in me came from my parents and especially my mother and, later my wife, the mother of our children. "Motherhood" for me is, therefore, something wonderful and precious: it is not a term of disparagement.

John Carmody | 23 July 2014  

One question in my mind is: would these methods have prevented abuse in the past? And if not, why do we assume they now represent the best way forward?

Margaret | 23 July 2014  

Maybe the problem is that modern man prefers to impose his rules rather than God's. Catholicism's great disaster is that following Vatican II, vast numbers of Catholics, including clergy and religious, chose to make their own rules and refused to accept the teachings and authority of two of the great saints of the Church, commissioned as God's moral custodians on this earth, John Paul II and John XXIII, ably supported by Benedict and now Francis. We have replaced God's authority with the Nanny State and until we return as a culture to a moral life recognising Christ in our fellow men no amount of man-made rules will make any difference. We witness this every day in the unrelenting erosion of civil and humane society based on a moral malaise. It might be a good place to start if we were to restore womanhood to a place of respect in society and recognise the responsible stewardship required of parents and all others in positions of societal influence and authority. Otherwise there will be no hope and without hope there is no Christianity. Hope is probably more critical to Christianity than either faith or charity since these latter two will automatically follow the hope that belief in Christ bestows.

john frawley | 23 July 2014  

The frightening thing is that Rolf Harris, until recently, would have been able to get a Working With Children number, allowing him into schools. All the system shows up are people who have been caught and it allows quick action to trace an offender. It is now much harder for a paedophile to move interstate and continue working with children. The new Working With Children number is also much harder to fake but until someone is reported or caught, there is no perfect system. I think it is a big improvement, the process is straightforward. Sad that it is necessary.

Jane | 23 July 2014  

The authors are surely correct when they say, “The most desirable form of social control is self-restraint—the work of morality,” rather than more rules and regulations. The Greeks knew that without a moral order no other order, whether social, economic or political was possible. And St Augustine also knew that a person’s freedom is a function of his moral state, because a person has as many masters as he has vices. That is why those who seek to destroy the City of God first seek to destroy its moral virtues, and the greatest corrupting force in our Western society is abortion. Indeed the authors are proved correct with revelations in today’s Australian newspaper that a government worker has been charged with raping at least seven pre-schoolers and with producing 600 pornographic videos and more than 100,000 images while caring for children at state-run homes in Adelaide between 2011 and 2012. This is notwithstanding that the worker had undergone very rigorous checks every three years and was described as an “average” man.

Ross Howard | 23 July 2014  

Thanks John, I'm a mother and also my own story features as one of the case studies in the Royal Commission so I feel justified to write about this issue. As I said, I think its difficult when only a small part of a book is quoted and I'll read the book but haven't yet had the opportunity. I'm responding to this piece as it was published in Eureka Street which I always read. I'm disappointed that you don't understand what I have written. What I'm saying is that its a difficult issue to resolve and a multiplicity of responses is needed. I'm pleased to hear from other contributors that the authors of this book agree and I will look forward to reading further. I just feel that this piece, published in Eureka Street, is a little simplistic in its endeavour. I'm pleased that you had a good mother and wife. I, too, had a good mother and I've been married for many years to a wonderful husband with fantastic kids. This is irrelevant to my concern with this debate.

Carol | 23 July 2014  

My response to Carol's second posting is this. To say, "Motherhood statements" is simply to resort to cliche; she should, therefore, say more carefully what she REALLY means, not resort to easy denigration and dismissal. Of course, any synopsis of the complex arguments of such a book (which I've not yet been able to read) -- by an experienced religious journalist and a philosopher/ethicist who have clearly thought a great deal about the topic (whether or not, in due course, I agree with them is not material) -- will perforce be synoptic and compressed. Furthermore, much of our learned behaviour and moral/social attitudes are hardly susceptible to anything other than qualitative consideration. And they are all too readily dismissed as "motherhood": simply because they seem axiomatic and obvious to others who also act according to them. It is important, therefore, not to be seduced by the ease of an instant response which e-mail allows, but rather to think hard before making any comment (especially if it is adverse).

John Carmody | 23 July 2014  

It seems to me that there is a spectral range of moral capacity stretching around the normal curve from the scrupulous to the moral imbecile. Somewhere in there individuals will ibnterpret the rules. I think that what used be called "good example" has a big effect on an individual's interpretation of the rules. So when so many leaders of church and state give the example of keeping the eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not get caught", as the norm, it is not surprising that so many in our society see morality as what you can get away with.

Michael D. Breen | 24 July 2014  

Here's a few regulations that would have helped those of us preyed upon by church enabled sexual predators. 1. No priests residence next to school premises. 2. No taking children out of class, to windowless rape rooms to which only the priest has the key 3. No sleepovers, no taking kids on holidays, no children in a priests' bedroom, no priest sleeping in the same bed or bedroom as a child 4. No priests "counselling" abused or bereaved kids behind closed doors 5. No priest to act like a lover towards little girls or boys 6. No driving kids home unaccompanied 7. No teaching kids that the priest can do no wrong and must be obeyed without question These behaviours, some of the most common ways we were assaulted, were accepted without question, and any kids wicked enough to complain about being raped were blamed, threatened, or punished. But certainly not believed, and certainly not protected from further attacks. The best way to protect kids is to value them, above your own acceptance, advancement or career in the catholic community. But as one of the thousands of kids that no catholic ever cared enough to protect, that requires radical change.

Nicky Davis | 25 July 2014  

As Lord Acton famously declared: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In exercising both temporal AND spiritual power over the children in his care, a priest's power is virtually absolute, thus exposing the priest to corruption and the children to danger. The solution? In 'The Lost Child' (The Tablet Educational Supplement, March 1982), I proposed replacing religious indoctrination, conscripting children for first communion and compulsory Mass attendance, with education based on dialogue, mutual respect and, above all, example. As Francis of Assisi advised: "When preaching the Gospel, use words only if necessary." Wouldn't that be more challenging, more dignified and more effective? A 'more regulated and accountable operational environment' would then be superfluous.

Gordon Rowland | 25 July 2014  

I agree with the comments of Carol. I know of many wealthy Australian families where child abuse has occurred but they prefer to keep it hushed up. If you commit child abuse you should go to jail, no excuses. This is the only way Australian society will learn. John Carmody states "Ultimately, self respect and values are what determine the operation of society". I prefer not to rely on self respect and values in Australia - look at what was done to the Aboriginal people and their children, no royal commission and still no human rights for dark skinned people, and today Australia wants to make the educated, dark skinned Indians the new Aboriginal race. There needs to be laws and human rights for all people in Australia but also impartially applied to all people in Australia. Fr Ted Kennedy stood up for the rights of Aboriginal people but he was consciously marginalised by the white hierachy. Read the book 'Who is worthy? The restoration of hope in the Catholic Church" by Fr Ted Kennedy ISBN:1864030879. Leaders must be held accountable, power and authority must be balanced by accountability. We must all give an account of our stewardship to God.

Jackie | 26 July 2014  

No doubt Ms Davis your Sinai tongue lashing fulminations would reasonably embargo all teachers from those enclosed, closeted classrooms, as 4.5 million children were molested in USA Public Schools by teachers[no priests]; some recycled like trash, nevertheless, with rave commendations[Shakeshaft Report to Congress] Simple way out is weeding out pedos in seminaries and zero tolerance, present church, successful strategies acclaimed by UNO Geneva Commission, as abuse is now pre '78 horrific bygone, with huge abuse drop since jp2 election in 1978. http://www.childprotectionguide.org/images/vol3_iss13_1.jpg [but not in state schools]. http://www.themediareport.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/AP-2007-teacher-abuse-graphic-rs-2.jpg

Father John George | 26 July 2014  

Fr John George, you could show some compassion to Nicky Davis. Nicky is also referring to child abuse in Australia not America. It is well known Australia was a prison colony and those values are inextricably intertwined in the fabric of Australian culture and its systems. The racial composition of Australia needs to be represented in the senior Catholic Church hierachy to bring out diversity, goodness and change. Having experienced a different, open and caring Catholic Church life in Europe, Asia and Africa it is very sad to see as a practising Catholic, the poor state of affairs of the Australian Catholic Church. Trust can only be built on good behaviour and the encouragement of good behaviour. Fr Ted Kennedy requested in 2000 for a Holy, truly Apostolic Australian Catholic Church and we are still waiting. How many generations are being lost due to hierachy stubbornness, neatness and enjoying the status quo. Pope Francis has asked for a Church of the poor for the poor. How long much we wait?

Jackie | 28 July 2014  

Jackie your jump from convict colony to multicultural hierarchy will occur when more ethnically diverse seminarians heed the call. The issue is not "stubbornness." with ethnically diverse hierarchs due to ethnically diverse seminarians!!!

Father John George | 28 July 2014  

Thank you for the response Fr John George. Sadly, I find your answer a weak response. There are plenty of ethnically diverse seminarians and existing, aging priests in the Australian Catholic Church. These ethnically diverse priests have done and must continue to do the hard yards while white Australian priests are allowed to take it easy - enjoy the painting, tennis etc. The non white seasoned priests have no authority and must always get permission from white clerics (mostly juniors in spirit) as the Australian Church is controlled by a white hierachy. These dedicated non white priests are put out to pasture in areas not befitting there many hard years of dedicated service while other white priests who took an easier path are put in plusher and more comfortable surroundings. Those that speak out have been reprimanded or demoted under Pell. I am not here to judge but to speak the truth. Australia imports various ethnically diverse priests to assist at parish level, why not at senior clerical management level? We need holy priests, men of prayer not CEOs like Pope Francis states. When the Australian Church is run like a Church and not like a corporation we will see the exponential growth of fruits. Pope Emeritus Benedict clearly states in Caritas Deus Est the Church cannot remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. As a practising Catholic, i firmly believe radical change for the good of the whole flock is needed for the greater good of Australia.

Jackie | 28 July 2014  

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