Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Cultures of accountability for clergy and celebrities


At the recent royal commission hearings Cardinal Pell was pressed on how much he knew of cases of abuse in the Melbourne Catholic Church. His response was that he knew very little, and that the responsibility for his ignorance lay with his predecessors who did not inform him, and with the Diocesan officers who worked under him but failed to report matters to him.

Clerical collarReligious leaders have repeatedly avowed a similar ignorance. Their claim has been received with incredulity by commissioners, victims and commentators. To most Catholics it has all been pretty dispiriting.

The royal commission will draw its own conclusions from Cardinal Pell's evidence. But if our priority is to prevent further abuse, our concern is not simply to decide whether the Cardinal and other religious knew of abuse, but to consider the reasons why he and other religious leaders might not have known. A culture in which responsible officers are not told of abuse would pose a continuing threat to children.

It is easy to understand why Catholic bishops might not have been told of offending priests. Where an offending parish priest had responsibility for the local primary school, teachers who wished to complain about his behaviour had no local church authority to register a complaint. If they reported it to higher educational or church authorities, they could reasonably fear for their position in the school.

School children who complained of abuse were treated as unreliable witnesses and in many cases were beaten for their impudence. And complaints were almost always followed by an inadequate response. In this climate people learn that it does not pay to notice or report misbehaviour.

This deplorable situation is not confined to the Catholic Church. When such institutions as the army, workplaces with apprentices, big law firms and hospitals have been investigated for bullying, harassment or abuse, the same patterns have been evident.

Whistleblowers are ostracised, dismissed as unreliable and petulant, and isolated. In detention centres people who make public abusive behaviour face a jail sentence of up to ten years. Where complaints are settled out of court the complainant is often bound to keep silence about the case.

In such an environment it requires exceptional moral courage to allow oneself to notice abusive behaviour, to report it and to follow it up.

In the Catholic Church, however, specific qualities of the pattern of relationships between bishops, officers of church institutions and the people whom church and its institutions should serve have also contributed to the problem. This pattern is commonly described as clericalism.

Its features include a formality of address, distinctiveness of dress, a sharp and religiously sanctioned distinction between grades, and an emphasis on authority and obedience in relations between higher and lower grades. This was reflected in an aura of awe surrounding the bishop, the assumption that bishops and priests knew best, and in a reluctance to acknowledge or report misconduct by clerics.

In such an atmosphere a complainant is less likely to follow up a complaint, and complaints more likely to be dealt with or shelved at local level. More forceful bishops might be less likely to be kept informed of clerical misbehaviour.

By definition clericalism is confined to churches: only they have clerics. But something analogous can be recognised in institutions that employ celebrities. The failure of BBC management to know about the violently abusive behaviour of their celebrity entertainers now seems extraordinary. But celebrities are commonly seen as a distinctive caste, different from ordinary human beings and entitled to act badly.

Those working alongside them and managing them would cut them slack, turn their eyes away from abusive behaviour, and would not think of reporting it to remote senior management.

If we are to make institutions safe for children, we need not only hold to account people who have presided over unsafe places, but also to address a culture that protects silence at each level of organisations, preventing complaints being made and being reported. Clergy and celebrities must not be treated as different from others, entitled to have their bad behaviour ignored. They must be held accountable to the officers and regulations of the organisation in which they work.

In the Catholic Church the culture of accountability is made more difficult by the fact that from the beginning of their formation members of the clergy are mostly accountable only to other clergy. They rarely work under lay people, and still less frequently under lay women.

Such restricted experience can easily reinforce their sense of belonging to a different and higher caste, and so lead to a lack of accountability.

Here, as elsewhere, consideration for the safety of children in future makes clear how urgent is the need for changes in governance and the formation of clergy. Such changes in culture do not come easily. But what the Royal Commission has revealed should provide steel for the Catholic soul.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Cardinal Pell, Royal Commission



submit a comment

Existing comments

Covering up is a natural reaction of almost every institution because it derives from a sense of tribe. But the Catholic Church is unique amongst all institutions, because it has written the requirement to cover up into its canon law, and has done so since Crimen Sollicitationis of 1922. The pontifical secret is still imposed over complaints of child sexual abuse by clergy with only a limited exception where there are civil laws requiring reporting. Very few countries have those laws. As Cardinal Francis George pointed out in an article in 2003 Ave Maria Law Review, law and culture are intimately entwined. If a culture of secrecy in the Church is to be changed, the law that enshrines it must be repealed. Pope Francis was invited by two United Nations Committees to abolish the pontifical secret and to require mandatory reporting, but in September 2014, he refused. When it comes to climate change and poverty all Pope Francis can do is exhort. But he can make a significant change to child sexual abuse within the Church at the stroke of a pen.

Kieran Tapsell | 09 March 2016  

The culture of secrecy within the Catholic Church is aggravated by the formalisation of that secrecy, as explained by Kieran Tapsell in his comment above, and also by its traditional claim to be the Mystical Body of Christ. In his comment on Paul Coghlan's article in this current edition, Robert Liddy said - "[Cardinal Pell] spent his life growing up in the ... belief ... that the Church was Christ incarnate, a God-guaranteed agency of the divine." While the victims of clerical sex abuse and their families have lost much in great pain, my generation of Catholics who grew up in the same pre-Vatican II church as Cardinal Pell, absorbing like sponges everything that came from Catholic parents, teachers, Sunday sermons and Redemptorist mission preachers, have lost a childish innocence we are fortunate to lose. I would like to hope that children in Catholic schools now are no longer taught that our Church is in any way special in the eyes of God and that our priests are inherently holy by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders; far better that they be taught to hear critically, to read widely and to be slow to accept that clerics of any affiliation can show them the way to God.

Ian Fraser | 09 March 2016  

I can only wish you the best of luck Andrew. I think you are spot on why were secrets allowed to be kept and I feel more importantly what was/is it in the organisational culture that saw it as OK, acceptable and even in some cases desireable. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered truthfully to enable meaningful changes to church governance structures and practices.

Paul Coghlan | 09 March 2016  

Father Hamilton Sir reading through court transcripts;findings,convictions;media reports I am stunned that I lived and worked with or knew alleged child abusers and had absolutely no suspicion of such let alone complaint! They are masters of deception, and this needs factoring in among other elements.

Father John George | 09 March 2016  

thank you for your true account. I understand exactly what you say but still no-one has the courage to speak the words which demonstrate exactly how the abused children felt! x

Rita.Solly40@btinternet.com | 10 March 2016  

Why is the Family Court and its judicial officers not held accountable for the horrifyingly unjust and secretive processes and decisions condemning children to lives of fear and abuse? This is an institution and should be included in the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse. Suppression and secrecy do NOT protect victims - only abusers and the systems that shield and facilitate their cruelties.

Ariel Marguin | 10 March 2016  

Auditors-general, official visitors, ombudsmen and the like are all mechanisms of a laity set apart to scrutinise other laity. But priests and bishops are not laity. Their two faculties to do with eucharist and reconciliation, even if admixed with base and criminal appetites, make them different from other believers. Or is the aesthetic that the Church is one of shepherd and sheep an analogy rather than a reality? Sheep don't judge their shepherd although they may (in a different form) report on him. In the precedent that the Bible has preternaturally provided, an animal can remonstrate against an unjust prophet in the eyewitness presence of an angel if that is what the circumstances require. Where a priest or bishop becomes a Balaam, a sheep treated unjustly is entitled to change its voice and bray. But, as with auditors-general, official visitors, ombudsmen and the like, the lay mechanism of accountability should only report. Priests and bishops should be judged by their peers or the aesthetic will not hold. So what if sheep usurp the role of shepherds, where laity can vote to suspend a priest or bishop? Perhaps Orwell's Animal Farm is a clue that things belong where they should belong.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 March 2016  

And who is accountable for the abuse of Children in Detention? We DO know about their situation, the abuse that is being done to them. Who is holding our government accountable? "If we are to make institutions safe for children, we need not only hold to account people who have presided over unsafe places, but also to address a culture that protects silence at each level of organisations, preventing complaints being made and being reported."

Jan Govett | 10 March 2016  

Without commenting on any specific case, it is possible that an ’implausible’ denial of any knowledge of wrong doing may be caused by more than a clerical cover up. For example priests hear each other’s Confessions. A priest faced with the risk of breaking the Seal of Confession’ or committing perjury in a Court of Law might well opt in all good conscience for the lesser of two evils and reject all knowledge of a crime, despite the penalties to himself.

Brian | 10 March 2016  

Thank you for this thought-filled article. The central issue here is as Fr Andrew says: "if our priority is to prevent further abuse, our concern is not simply to decide whether the Cardinal and other religious knew of abuse, but to consider the reasons why he and other religious leaders might not have known". I also concur with Kieran Tapsell. Having said that, the insidious and sinister damage a culture of secrecy perpetuates ultimately harms everybody. Laws cannot heal the relational aspects of shame, worthlessness, loss of trust inherent in abuse. How devastating that these elements are not even considered to be central to Cardinal Pell's understanding of why so many faith-filled people are aghast at his lack of insight in this regard. Consecrated people surely, should understand the central role "relationship" has in their vocation ... if Law is all they have to fall back on ... then go be a lawyer. Restorative Justice is essential ... wholesome relationships are sacred.

mary tehan | 10 March 2016  

I was a teenager when Vatican 11 was in progress. We deferred to the Bishop and the title "Your Grace" reflected that respect. Priests were almost literally 'god'. Monsignor, which our then Parish Priest was , held a very special respect. The Nuns were almost infallible when they taught us. Their brutality with corporeal punishment was met with the comment from our parents; " you must have deserved it!" .At High school, a boarding school again, the Brothers wielded great authority and brutal power over us. Only one Year 11 (5th Year) student during my secondary years dared to challenge that brutal authority; he came off a very second best ! There were rumours of two Brothers molesting the boys, yet we found it hard to believe and of course who could you complain to anyway?? It saddens me greatly as a Catholic to hear the witnesses to the Commission. I was myself a lay teacher for 30 years in Catholic Education and soon realised these people are very human indeed, BUT this in no way excuses their actions or the cover ups .Sadly the attitude of the authorities was deficient and protective of reputation not justice.

Gavin | 10 March 2016  

Did the Royal Commission ask Cardinal Pell that when he was an Archbishop, did he have correspondence with Cardinal Ratzinger about clerical abusers, and did Cardinal Sodano impose any threat of sanctions for breaking silence?

Kevin | 10 March 2016  

I totally agree with your observations. As a woman in the Church I am sometimes perplexed by the lack of understanding that some priests have of the female perspective and am sure that these ones see women as the temptress and others perhaps saw young people equally. As one of those young women who were abused while attending a Catholic school I have to disagree with the priest who says it's not seen and that they are practised deceivers. My experience is that priests choose what they will see and what they choose to ignore. It's a choice and it's about whether you choose to be in the world or in a rarified realm.

Carol | 10 March 2016  

As someone so affected by Church, family & institutional abuse from the 1960's&70's, I watched every minute of Cardinal Pell's evidence to the RC last week, and couldn't think of an Australian I admired more through it all, in the moment. I'm ashamed & disgusted at my fellow countrymen's useless opinions of him over the airwaves, so similar, wrong & inappropriate as the vilification of Lindy Chamberlain through her trials. I appreciated Frank Brennan stepping up with alacrity, and you Andrew & Paul Coglan, continuing the discussion on point, but don't be deceived anything's better for vulnerable children now. Government instituted confidentiality laws have guaranteed another generation silenced. If dummies to silence babies & toddlers, using social media in front of them, & the current manufacturing and use of disposable nappies, was considered as anti social as drink driving, not wearing seat belts & smoking near children, I might feel debate is heading in the right direction. If the United States joined the world & signed the International Declaration of Children's Rights, & we universally upheld them paramount in law, & lore to further develop, I might feel a sense of right & justice. If as much money was invested in building the most inspiring & innovative kindergartens for inclusive community to encourage lifelong learning, wonder in the world & resilience, more than maintaining old church bells and steeples or modern architecture enshrining current successful capitalism, I might feel hope. If the whole Ecclesiastical pyramid was brought down after publication of Pell & Price Cooper Waterhouse's first Vatican audit, I might, just might, trust the accountability of clergy & celebrities with the future of humanity. Please listen to the broken people for the ways we can move this century forward constructively for future generations of children.

Marianne Hamilton | 10 March 2016  

Carol I accidentally bumped into Ridsdale for first time, as I said the rosary on a Sydney monastery path circa late '80s. He was merely passing through. He wore no placard of his monstrous criminality-such utterly unknown to me then. In fact. I had never met or seen him before that 5 minutes polite chat! I utterly reject your gratuitous assertions. Welcome to planet earth! [and I have unwittingly known other offenders! though totally unaware of their criminal proclivities]

Father John George | 10 March 2016  

There is as yet another uncovered culture of silence in the Catholic Church - sexual misconduct of clerics involving adults. As was initially the case with the clerical sexual abuse of children, cases involving adults have been dealt with behind closed doors in the hope that they will not produce a scandal. Accordingly, victims/survivors of adult abuse remain a silenced and suppressed group in the Church. Hopefully, my study which I wrote about on Eureka Street on 26 November 2013 (see http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/search.aspx?s=knowing+the+unknowns) will be available soon and will be of some assistance for those many adults who have experienced sexual misconduct. Thanks to the 23 women and 6 men who participated, this study will hopefully begin a discourse on this as yet undiscussed and hidden part of the whole clerical abuse issue. And most importantly, it is my deep hope that these adults have their experiences of assault fully and openly acknowledged and they can find validation rather than blame. But first, the Church needs to completely rethink their perceptions of such adults: they are not the instigators of such abuse. In 99% of the cases they were psychologically groomed and spiritually manipulated into some of the most insidious sexualised 'relationships'. Then, to make matters worse, when the 'relationship ended, they were then blamed for instigating an 'affair' with a holy cleric. Not true, not true, not true. But they've been silenced in so many ways, and as with the breaking of the code of silence surrounding clerical abuse of children, in the name of truth, justice and healing, this now must happen for the victims of clerical abuse of adult. Hopefully, Eureka Street will allow me to write a follow up article based on my findings as I have already gone over my word limit here.

Stephen de Weger | 11 March 2016  

A study of the evidence given at the Royal Commission shows many indicators of pedophilic activity including sadistic discipline performed in front of other religious. I agree that you can't tell a pedophile by bumping into them. Welcome to planet earth indeed.

Carol | 11 March 2016  

Aah, Fr John George, lucky - or perhaps unlucky - you. I had been a priest in my first parish in 1972 when I had my first encounter with a case of child molestation by a fellow priest of the archdiocese of Sydney. Shocked, I said to the parish priest (I was all of 24 then), "What are we going to do?" He shrugged his shoulders, not because he didn't care, but because we saw this as a sin (for the church) rather than as a crime (for the state). So, nothing happened and the priest concerned continued doing the same thing for the next 20 years. Naturally, my failure / inability to act (as I saw it then) has been with me ever since. However, that's not my point. The PP and all my classmates knew about it. Was I lucky/unlucky in coming across a case so early? I knew, my classmates knew, and you can be sure all bishops knew. And at the top, the Popes certainly knew. And did nothing, or worse, covered up. Ignorance? Then at very least culpable ignorance.

Keith Carlon | 11 March 2016  

Carol I have never witnessed ""pedophilic activity'" performed in front of, behind or above me in my years in boarding and day schools[state or Catholic]. I was a housemaster to 110 teenagers 13-17yo [and later also, in many Parish youth groups Australia wide and myriad school chaplaincies] Though a rich apostolate, in spite of that, as an adult, I found youth apostolate very arduous and oft exasperating as do some parents also!!

Father John George | 11 March 2016  

I can believe Father John George when he says that he had 'absolutely no suspicion' but I think that reinforces the argument that Andrew makes for lay supervision. Organisational culture and 'group think' is very powerful, especially when the group believes and is believed to have special knowledge, power, or authority. That's why companies have non-executive directors, why school principals report to boards, why militaries need independent inspectorates, why executive governments are accountable to parliaments. The lay supervision is there not just to keep them honest but also to throw light on areas that would otherwise remain in darkness. Lay supervision would not have diminished Fr JG, rather it would have enabled him to be an even better priest.

Ginger Meggs | 12 March 2016  

I deeply appreciate this discussion. Coming from a non Catholic background I note that the deep cultural antipathy for revealing personal sexual matters remains powerful and to my mind dysfunctional in a moral sense. This culture of abhorrence and indeed legalism has been palpable since the 1950s but the ongoing revulsion against revealing confidential matters is not just because of the professional standing of clergy or the reticence of thoughtful lay people. The Australian cultural environment is almost completely bereft of informed debate as ethicists know it. The officers in protestant churches are equally, if not more ignorant of the destructive environment of church jurisprudence. It is common for protestants to speak of Catholicism as a special ethical and religious case, but I see no reason to think that is so. I suggest that Andrew's observations illustrate the necessity of engaging in a cross church effort to engage all clergy in research and training outside their denominational framework in the wide discipline of ethics, in a philosophical sense. I do not mean to exclude non clergy, but at the very least, second or third level or even graduate units in moral philosophy seem now to be inevitable for anyone responsible for the sexual health of anyone.

Evan | 12 March 2016  

When clergy and religious consider their oath of allegiance to the Bishop or Superior as binding and their oath of care to laity as optional then there is every reason to believe that children are still vulnerable in the catholic system, especially in schools and institutions that answer directly to the Bishops. The pedophiles also know they will be rewarded for their loyalty, with protection, because the bishops and the superiors have, will and continue to protect them because of the obligation of the oath of obedience. Pope Francis is a pope who is either incompetent or captive to this system of deceit. It is of concern that Cardinal Pell wasn't asked to elaborate on 'what little he knew' about the abuse of children when he was in charge. A truthful answer may be more revealing than he would like people and the Commission to know. And there is also the issue with the appointment of senior people in these institutions. It seems from the evidence that only those who successfully hid and protected the guilty were promoted .

Laurie Sheehan | 14 March 2016  

And whatever the organisation, child abusers must be subject to criminal law. Clerics, like others, are not exempt. Laity, like others, must not be exposed to risk of abuse.

Rosemary Lynch | 22 March 2016  

You are correct as far as the lack of knowledge by Bishops is concerned. You are woefully deficient in explaining how the pedofile priests were moved about. That had to involve inexcusable knowledge on the part of the Bishops.

Clammer | 27 March 2016  

Similar Articles

Abuse survivor reflects on Cardinal Pell's 'sad story'

  • Paul Coghlan
  • 07 March 2016

'It was a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me.' Pell's brutal response to a question from the royal commission has provided an important point of organisational, personal and cultural reflection. As a survivor of child sexual abuse I understand the disbelief, shock and outrage that such a comment has provoked. And having conducted many organisational reviews, I know that in trying to find the origins of such responses, our understanding of how the world works expands exponentially.


Count the human cost of Australia's overseas mining interests

  • Fatima Measham
  • 07 March 2016

In 2012, a pregnant woman and two of her children were killed in their own home in Tampakan, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Tampakan is the site of a new mine with Australian interests. The woman was the wife of a B'laan tribal leader agitating against the mine. Over recent years indigenous peoples of Mindanao been harassed, displaced and killed by militias, some allegedly with the imprimatur of the Philippine army. Much of this has passed without notice in Australia.