Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Cycling and the Church out in the cold


'Cycling And Church Abuse' by Chris JohnstonIt was a coincidence that the report on Lance Armstrong and the response of the Catholic Church to sex abuse were prominent news stories over the same weeks. But deeper similarities between the scandals afflicting cycling and the Catholic Church may offer a broader perspective on each.

Of course the differences are much more significant than the similarities. In contrast to doping in cycling, sexual abuse creates direct victims, the devastation to whose lives is lasting and massive. The betrayal by ministers of the Church in poisoning in people the faith they are committed to nurture is also uniquely abhorrent.

But the causes of widespread abuse in the church and in cycling are similar in structure. They lie in cultures that have undermined rather than supported ethical behaviour, provided occasions for abuse, and promised impunity.

In the Church the prevailing culture commended an ethic not of responsibility but of law, paid honour to priests and religious, afforded them unregulated access to young people, and instinctively defended the institution. It was vulnerable to changing sexual mores and left people blind to the lasting harm suffered by victims of abuse.

Similarly, the ethical commitment of cyclists to refrain from taking unfair advantage in competition was weakened by the wealth and glory that flowed from doing so. The desire to protect the wealth and reputation of the cycling circuit also encouraged administrators to overlook the use of drugs. This slackness and the ready availability of new, temporarily undetectable drugs promised impunity.

The process through which public attitudes to the Church and to cycling changed were also similar. In each case reports of abuse circulated, were initially treated as random, but later led to a diffused suspicion.

The suspicion was crystallised by particular events. Widely publicised and horrific cases of abuse in the United States, Ireland and Australia led to revulsion and to the loss of trust in and within the Catholic Church. This was compounded by the failure of many church leaders to 'get it'. The Armstrong revelations have been a similar catalyst for cycling. The consequences of this broken trust for the reputation of the sport have yet to be seen.

To regain trust, both cycling and the Church have to address the culture that led to abuse, to prevent occasions of abuse, and to ensure strict accountability.

In the Church the primary challenge has been to acknowledge the lasting and catastrophic effects of abuse, and to redress the harm done to its victims. This requires truth about the past and making those responsible for abuse and its covering up accountable.

A proper response, too, must change the culture that facilitated abuse by inculcating an ethic of responsibility, by seeing bishops, priests and religious as brothers and sisters and not as lords, and by privileging truth over glory. It also means insisting on strict boundaries in relationships with young people and ensuring that abuse will effectively end ministry. All this is a work in progress.

Cycling will have the same tasks: to reinforce in riders and administrators an ethical approach to competition, to deal with the corrupt past and make people accountable for it, and to make it difficult for riders to have access to drugs in competition.

But the main challenge will be to make riders strictly accountable by ensuring they are regularly and unpredictably tested, severely penalised for drug taking, and that their financial records and those of the cycling associations are open to informed scrutiny to detect secret payments.

As in the case of the Church, the building of a culture is a long term project and will inevitably involve harshness initially.

Finally, if the Catholic experience is any guide, the loss of trust in cycling will also have lasting effects. Revelations of past drug taking and of official conniving will continue to receive publicity and will inhibit the regaining of trust. Measures taken to change the culture will long be viewed with scepticism.

Public disdain is a cold environment to live in, but its air is healthy. Lack of credence and the publicity with which public enquiries are conducted encourage self-scrutiny and the determination to prevent further abuse. They rightly forbid moving on. They also encourage humility, a rare but admirable virtue in all human beings, whether they go about in clerical collars or on two wheels. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, clegry sex abuse



submit a comment

Existing comments

Andy, I continue to enjoy with much relish the way you address matters in a probing, challenging yet sensitive way. Thank you for all that you contribute for the benefit of the wider community.

Wayne Brabin | 22 October 2012  

Andrew again thanks for your clarity and openness. The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into clergy sexual abuse especially the submission by the Victorian police is scathing of church practices and protocols and further the silencing of all priests to comment on the Inquiry is a further disturbing cover up. Its good Jesuits are responsible to the pope not to the archbishop. Regrettably the church will only face the music when criminal charges of Vicarious liability are laid on senior hirarichs, bishops and Vicar Generals who have covered up and not a a single one has reported repeated criminal charges to the legitimate authorities. The responses by Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Denis Hart to Chrissi Foster's family as documented in her book Heaven to Hell is a sad indictment that this Inquiry is bringing to light. Vicarious liability is a form of strict, secondary liability that arises under the common law doctrine of agency – respondeat superior – the responsibility of the superior for the acts of their subordinate, or, in a broader sense, the responsibility of any third party that had the "right, ability or duty to control" the activities of a violator. For the church to argue as in the Ellis case that priests and bishops are not in an employer-employee relationship is back to the argument of angles dancing on the head of a pin.

Michael Parer | 22 October 2012  

I think Andrew is right in saying "the differences are much more significant than the similarities" when comparing doping in cycling (or any sport) and the sexual abuse within the Catholic church (or any church). Rebuilding the culture of a patriarchal church calls for a complete reappraisal of how men, women and homosexuals are viewed, of how the church interacts with society (and that means not exclusively the 'most vulnerable') and of the personal morality of religious. The doping issue in cycling, which actually pervades all sport, probably could best be addressed by a reappraisal by each and every athlete as to their personal morality and the reason why they love their sport. It's a hollow 'victory' indeed if one can't look in the mirror and say "I did my best with my natural gifts" - whether one goes about in clerical collars or in an athletic contest.

Pam | 22 October 2012  

PS Andrew, may I add that all Catholics are victims of this Vicarious liability and we need to share in the healing of the abused survivors the innocent victims. Parishes could well join in a public act of ritual to show our commonality as occurred the Sydney Harbor Bridge march to join in solidarity with our indigenous stolen generations.

Michael Parer | 22 October 2012  

There is a big difference between those who pedal for sport and those who peddle sin and misinformation as a job. The first crew pay tax, religions do not. If religions want to be 'at one' with the people they pretend to care about, then they need to get down to the same level as those people, who are all liable for taxation. Being 'above it all' is the starting point of the entrenched corruption of religions. As for the cycling 'hero' fallen, the lesson is simple. It is the foolish cult of personality that lifts interesting but relatively unimportant acts of human endeavour well above their place. Personality drives profits, so it is unchallenged. Sport, particularly in Australia but certainly not just here, is linked umbilically to nationalistic fervour,in a form of jingoistic blather, which is then approrpiated by our idiot politicians and media to buy off the gormless masses, who also provide the lifeblood of our personality shockjock drones. Trying to insert the Catholic church into all this is a dodgy exercise. There has been no effort by anyone in the Church to start afresh, or to understand how the entrenched and still rewarded behaviour could even exist.

janice wallace | 22 October 2012  

Andrew's article provides an appendix to his recent 'Defining Vatican II's rules of engagement'. "In the Church the prevailing culture commended an ethic not of responsibility but of law..." This one phrase sums up much of what is wrong with the Catholic Church since Vatican II. The Church had the opportunity to emphasise personal responsibility in matters of ethics - to include morality, good works and sin. But many within the Vatican, the broader clergy and the laity preferred the apparent safety of following a rule of law clearly defined by the Church. They chose to obstruct the maturing of the Catholic faithful by initially circumscribing the invitation to personal responsibility and then redefining 'formation of conscience' as 'following the doctrine and laws of the Church'. Training of priests and religious in guiding the laity to take personal responsibility for their own religious faith and ultimately their own life after death would have reinforced the spirit of Vatican II as a Council for growth and development. Reduction of participation in formal worship, complete rejection of religious faith by many in previously Catholic families, and clerical abuse of children are all indicators of a Church in which individual persons have not learnt to take responsibility for their own religious life. Clearly not the growth and development intended by Vatican II.

Ian Fraser | 22 October 2012  

This article is interesting in its rhetorical elements of comparison. Its base, the linking of such disparate entities, leaves a lump in my heart which remains as I write this. The linking of greed (for money and acclaim) and evil (the deliberate abuse of children in one's care for sexual pleasure)is untenable.

Caroline Storm | 22 October 2012  

My first reaction to Andrew's article was: "He's pulled a long bow here!". But as I read on and I recognised what he was taking aim at I was very impressed. We have to proceed from the concrete situation. We have to take a good hard look at the facts. Quite often some facts are clear - enhanced performance as the result of drugs or chemicals in the case of cyclists: damaged victims in the case of clerical sex-abuse. What is not so clear or distinct is: Why do they do it? Is it to satisfy some instinct for: Pleasure? Possessions? Power? Prestige? I remember watching an Under-14 cricket match between two Jesuit colleges. I saw a star batsman given out, stumped, even though he was well within the batting crease. When I protested I was pulled into line with the words: "Patrick, as in life, so it is in cricket, the umpire's verdict is final." This culture of silent subservience to a higher authority - how to we change that?

Uncle Pat | 22 October 2012  

The abuse scandals of the post-Vatican II church certainly caused a vast number of catholics to hop on their bikes.

john frawley | 22 October 2012  

Andrew if there is any similarity between the two news stories it is only that both concern morally and ethically wrong conduct. The abuse in the cycling world has meant lost credibility for the sport. In response spectators can choose to follow another sport. But when it comes to religion and abuse by clergy we are talking about what lies at the heart of people’s very lives: ‘faith in God’. The innocence of children once stolen by a consecrated man of God is an evil for life for the child. Their notion of God is drastically distorted and they feel condemned themselves. People have been driven to suicide by the evil acts of consecrated priests who claim to represent God. The whole structure of the Church needs to change in order to remove that false sense of ultimate power that places it outside of common law. Until the hierarchy can live as humble servants among the people and walk this earth with understanding and compassion for humanity then I think Jesus will weep for his Church and its false sense of power and entitlement.

Trish Martin | 22 October 2012  

With any organisation, a structure is needed to control its growth and development. Like an umpire in a sporting contest,the structure must exercise a certain amount of authority, but it must not become an end in itself, or be allowed to perpetuate itself. It must be allowed to evolve to meet changing circumstances. This is not happening in the Church. As Bishop Robinson said to 250 or so priests and bishops,speaking to the Australian National Council of Catholic priests held in Parramatta in 2010, "What happens at the moment is the pope appoints the cardinals who then elect the pope who then appoints more cardinals and on and on it goes. So it's a vicious circle. And it is deliberately designed to ensure we do not have another Pope John XXIII." In other words, so the culture will not change. 'Compass' (ABC on14th Oct), highlighted what turmoil is being created in the Church with this policy.

Robert Liddy | 22 October 2012  

Given the total ban since August by the hierarchy on any discussion in Catholic media about the sex scandals in the church, it is consoling to see that Eureka Street is at least choosing to register that there is a public debate and that the church is the main speaker in that debate. The silence elsewhere in the Australian Catholic media is eloquent. Andrew makes some very direct statements that would have even more meaning coming from a bishop or cardinal, e.g. “In the Church the prevailing culture commended an ethic not of responsibility but of law, paid honour to priests and religious, afforded them unregulated access to young people, and instinctively defended the institution. It was vulnerable to changing sexual mores and left people blind to the lasting harm suffered by victims of abuse.”

It would be good to hear this from the Australian cardinal’s own lips: “The betrayal by ministers of the Church in poisoning in people the faith they are committed to nurture is uniquely abhorrent.” Royal Commissions will do more than Police or Government Enquiries, but it is the Church itself that has to face up to its responsibilities with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The church in Ireland has been almost completely abandoned by its people because it would not act in truth and would not seek reconciliation.

My one concern with this essay is that Andrew can tend to talk as though the crimes are all in the past and the future is going to be tough but we’ll get there. In my view no one is going to get anywhere fast while the main picture that the public and churchgoers have is of a massive ongoing coverup. The future is going to be more of the same. This is a disaster for the faithful and for the news of the Gospel.

THE SILENCE IS ELOQUENT | 22 October 2012  

"My one concern with this essay is that Andrew can tend to talk as though the crimes are all in the past and the future is going to be tough but we’ll get there." ***************
The church is top heavy and needs more imput of "Vox Populi". Benedict XVI in his 2007 book "Jesus of Nazareth", says the Church takes as the basis of its teaching "the picture that the Evangelists, in the Gospels, painted of him (Jesus), and adds, "I trust the Gospels". Now he must know that the final form the Gospels took was written not by the first Jewish followers, but by Gentile converts who inserted into the Jewish accounts the "Infancy Stories" and the many miracles ttributed to Jesus- all of which were taken from their older 'pagan' religions.
Adjusting to these facts is the only way the Church can maintain its legitimacy. it will not be an easy transition, but for Truth to prevail it must be undertaken slowly, but gradually with immense good will and understanding.

Robert Liddy | 22 October 2012  

Thanks Robert Liddy, but “adjusting to the facts” of how the Gospels were constructed is not a very helpful way of addressing the extraordinary character of a church built on two thousand years, on and off, of keeping the power in Rome. Putting aside for now my view that the sources of the Gospels are seriously not as you claim, the immediate issue is how to deal with a church power structure in the 21st century that would have been unimaginable in first century Palestine. How do you propose to restructure the Catholic Church so it is no longer “top heavy”? How will there be more “input of Vox Populi”? Do you suggest we have another Reformation? The Gospel message is the living source of Christ’s example. The rest is scholarship, some of it very interesting indeed. The scandalous gap in this public debate is not between different scholarly views of the Gospels, it’s about the neglect and abuse and disgracing of that Gospel by those who are supposed to be holding its message before the world in beauty and truth, and by their own example. Hypocrisy is a mild word to describe some of the things we are starting to hear about in this Enquiry in Melbourne. Andrew uses the word ‘abhorrent’: that’s one true word for this situation. Do you have another?

THE SILENCE IS ELOQUENT | 22 October 2012  

It's obvious some people commenting don't read much beyond the headline and perhaps the first paragraph or two - maybe it's our busy lives I guess. But the comparison I see here (and it's a comparison - not an attempt to equate them) is the blatant culture of entitlement, and the effort to maintain an illusion of innocence and avoid repentance at all cost. Now I'm unsure if this resistance to admitting guilt is a financial security issue, or a moral/face-saving/reputation issue (or perhaps a combination of the two) but they both appear to be the main similarities.

AURELIUS | 23 October 2012  

The comment by Janice Wallace rings the same bell as the parliamentry submission, reprinted from an Online Opinion dated 17th Dec. 2010 by the the Humanist Society in Queensland: Arrest and tax those who would cover-up child abuse. There is the question of whether a charitable instituion should lose it's tax-exempt status when it is discovered their personnel have been involved in a criminal cover-up, ..when the institution does something that was not a benefit to the public..it should lose it's tax exempt status. An interesting concept.

L Newington | 23 October 2012  

Fr H, postconciliar bishops invoked the stndard culture of consulting psychiatrists who advised 'recycle pedo priests' they are curable [ cover up culture?] Then the culture of trial by fury of media icon of cover-up Cardinal Law: "The truth was his Eminence had given evidence before two grand juries and been fully investigated by the state attorney general and the five district attorneys in the counties in which the archdiocese operates. When the state attorney general issued his report entitled Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston (July 23, 2003) he severely criticised Law but did not allege that Law had tried to evade investigation and he did state that Law had not broken any law"[but media culture sat on that] NB Anti RC Media culture bias blackballed the USA Shakeshaft Report [viz.4.5 million public school children[YES MILLIONS! sexually abused over 5 decades-[The culture: recycle offenders to other schools["passing the trash" was the culture!]Simultaneously, under JP2 priest abuse plummeted. Fr Hamilton reality check cultures-one cover up monsignor was jailed in USA and a bishop convicted of misdemeanor re cover up versus State felony. Fr Hamilton SJ I want widespread criminal convictions on coverup culture, not lynch mob media transcripts thanks, nor hard core media gossip!!

father john george | 23 October 2012  

THE SILENCE IS ELOQUENT22 Oct 2012 “adjusting to the facts” of how the Gospels were constructed is not a very helpful way of addressing the extraordinary character of a church built on two thousand years, on and off, of keeping the power in Rome. ********* If it is accepted that establishing that 'power in Rome' arose from Constantine automatically becoming the head of 'the Church', when it was 'accepted' by Rome, with the title of "Pontifex Maximus", ( a title he maintained till his death), Then the authority of 'Rome' becomes questionable. In 325, Constantine, acting in his role as Pontifex Maximus, convened and presided at the opening of the first great oecumenical council at Nicaea. There was no mention of a Pope at this council. HOW WILL THERE BE MORE “IMPUT OF VOX POPULI? It is probably impossible to foresee how evolution will eventuate. Perhaps we need a new St Catherine of Sienna. Perhaps,like vegetation, the Church must dissolve into its "cells",- the individual members,- who will then reconstitute themselves into new structures which will carry on the fundamental principles of the 2 Great Commandments,other than which, as the gread Rabbi Hillel said, "all else is mere commentary."

Robert Liddy | 24 October 2012  

Robert Liddy re Pope and Council of Nicaea: At Nicaea were"Prominent figures, Hosius of Córdoba (who presided with the delegates of Pope Sylvester, the Roman priests Vitus and Vincentius)" [New Cath Encyc,] Such delegates represented papal validation of the Council. [Even at Vatican 2, J XXIII, while approving the council, could not be present always due to ill health but watched from CCTV]

father john george | 24 October 2012  

father john george24 Oct 2012 Robert Liddy- re Pope and Council of Nicaea: At Nicaea were"Prominent figures, Hosius of Córdoba (who presided with the delegates of Pope Sylvester, the Roman priests Vitus and Vincentius)" ************************ None the less, it was Constantine who convened the council, for political reasons, and when those present couldn't decide on key issues it was he who ordered decisions to be made. There were issues about the nature of God and the Substance of God, but what really do we know of such things?, and even more what did they? precious little I suggest. What was really at stake was what side was going to rule the Church. In the end it was put to a vote, and it was the party of Athanasius who had the numbers.

Robert Liddy | 24 October 2012  

In order to minimise the opportunity for abuse of power, I maintain that it is the authoritarian structure of the church which must be changed to be more collaborative. Administration of the church should be separated from its teaching authority. Vatican 3 might save the church. I don't know whether anything else will. If Gen Y is the future of the church, then expect them to question authority: do not expect blind obedience. Such is as it should be, given the scandal of abuse within the church perpetrated by those with authority.

Frank S | 25 October 2012  

There has probably been much written about the church taking responsibility for sexual abuse by clergy - but this is the first article that I have read that has convinced me that cultural change is wanted and possible. Thank you Andrew

Trish Cooper | 29 October 2012  

Similar Articles

Church needs state help to deal with abuse

  • Frank Brennan
  • 02 November 2012

What is to be done in the name of law and justice for the victims of abuse? Clearly the Church cannot be left alone to get its house in order. The State may have a role to play, but our elected politicians need assistance from lawyers committed to justice, not lawyers acting primarily to protect or condemn the Church.


Why Christians are obsessed with sex

  • Zac Alstin
  • 25 October 2012

The Hon. Michael Kirby recently said those in the churches expecting gay people to be celibate should start thinking about 'real moral questions'. If some Christians are obsessed with sex, it is because many human beings are. The ethical 'supply' exists to meet the demand, and when it comes to sexual ethics, the demand is not being met by secular society.