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Do sex offenders deserve dignity?


In Australia, sexual abuse by clergy is the Church issue of the moment. The ongoing national Royal Commission, which is due to begin public hearings into the Catholic Church next week, and separate recent enquiries in Victoria and NSW, ensure the crisis has been, and will continue to be in the headlines.

The results of a survey of Mass-going Catholics released at the end of October by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference Pastoral Research Office shows anger and disillusionment among grassroots believers. The survey of about 2800 Catholics in over 200 parishes found 54 per cent agreed that 'the response of church authorities to these incidences (of sexual abuse) has been inadequate and shows a complete failure of responsibility'.

But how to diagnose accurately the complex issues underlying sexual abuse in the Church? How to deal fairly, justly and adequately both with victims/survivors and with offenders? Why such a dismal failure of leadership by Church hierarchy and how should it be practicing its responsibility? What is the way forward?

The man featured in this video is a prophetic voice in this fraught territory. What he says is informed and grounded through decades of experience. He speaks with clarity, insight and authority, and his words are deeply challenging.

Gerard Webster has spent all his working life as a psychologist dealing with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. He spent the first ten years in the Departments of Community Services and Juvenile Justice in the areas of child protection and juvenile offending.

In this context he received specialist training and supervision working with these clients and much of his work was with sexual abusers, victims and their families. This included juvenile offenders, and adults and children with intellectual disabilities who had been abused or were abusers.

After this, 20 years ago he set up a private practice and this coincided with victims of abuse in the Church first raising their voices. Since then many of his clients have been men abused in a church setting, and male clerics and religious who have committed crimes of abuse.

In the interview he explains how he balances the needs of victims and offenders by using a human rights approach to all his clients. This recognises the inherent dignity and worth of all. It leads to his somewhat controversial position of engaging with perpetrators and speaking out against demonising them. He argues this leads to a safer and more dignified environment for everyone.

He also has strong views on the causes of abuse in the Church, and believes there are structural problems that actually encourage abuse. As he states in the interview, 'What is it about the structure [and] culture of the Church that has allowed this to happen, and, in fact, in some ways encourages it? Such as, the hierarchical system is one of domination and submission, and sexual abuse is about domination and submission.'

Of course this raises issues of major reform of Church governance that overturns centuries of tradition. With Pope Francis's call for decentralisation of authority in his recently released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, perhaps such reforms might actually happen.

A few weeks ago Webster delivered an inspiring address to members of Catalyst for Renewal and the Aquinas Academy in Sydney entitled 'A Meditation on Human Rights: Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church'. It outlines his position in more detail, and gives the theological and biblical underpinnings to his approach.

Peter Kirkwood headshotPeter Kirkwood is the producer of Eureka Street TV. He is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Gerard Webster, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

I think that sex offenders deserve civilized and lengthy incarceration. They have no right to any respect.

John Shuster | 03 December 2013  

Peter and Eureka Street, thank you so much for bringing us the Gerard's extremely helpful insights. It is such a relief to hear a sane, sensible and experienced voice on this issue.

Paul Collins | 03 December 2013  

This is so difficult. We are taught to be non-judgemental, kind and forgiving. I don't want to hurt anyone further and I know that many of these offenders were violated themselves. But I think it is wrong to say they 'deserve' respect when their victims suffer deep hurt and pain for the rest of their lives, from the lack of respect they shown to them by these men. I don't know what punishment should be given, but 'deserve' is a word too often used and not appropriate here.

Catherine | 03 December 2013  

It is a relief to hear someone the ask "why did it happen". It does not seem to be part of the investigative process commonly underway. If we don't ask and at least try to answer 'What is it about the structure [and] culture of the Church that has allowed this to happen', we may not ever really put a stop to it.

Vincenzo Vittorio | 03 December 2013  

I believe the death penalty should be returned for all sex offenders. They cannot be rehabilitated and prison is too good for them

Chris Gaff | 03 December 2013  

I listened carefully, twice, to Gerard Webster's words. There's much wisdom from years of working with those who have been abused and their abusers. I think it would be of some benefit to the Church hierarchy to have compulsory training in psychospiritual and psychosexual issues. This knowledge may result in greater awareness of the particular needs of victims/survivors.

Pam | 03 December 2013  

Who is my neighbour? It seems we still struggle with this question. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

Martin Loney | 03 December 2013  

These victims are our children and these perpetrators are, on the whole, adult, male and in the eyes of many, most, prior to the 1970s, seen as deserving trust, respect and esteem often because of their trumpeted celibacy. We speak of justice, we fight for justice. What are you thinking of. Healing requires acceptance of the truth and a balance in the scales of justice. Mercy, you say or imply, well let him walk in the shoes of the victim and he will know the mercy which should be his. And I don't think anyone would want to punish him repetitively. Anger and revengefulness are feelings that many of us have learned to handle; surely you can help them there. Isolation I cannot comment on.

Mahdi | 03 December 2013  

Just read Webster's speech and realised again how many an academic can be so distanced from reality. These children do not have the adult conceptual ability to cope with the confusion and the awfulness of being abused. But Webster with years of study and experience is telling us how it all works and tells us the Church especially the Religious Orders are doing it well for the perpetrators. Good ho. But they have access to unlimited funds and opportunities to hide the members of their ilk and prosper. Not so the victims who have been met with the full force of the Catholic Church offensive involving Senior Clergy, Lawyers, unlimited funding and defense of their own and denigration of victims and their families. So I ask Webster where is your advice on how the victims proceed. What is the way forward for them? Where are the funds to help them and their families cope with what has occurred? Oh Gosh. Couldn't help them as they had already taken their lives. Come on Mr Webster and Mr Kirkwood your professional piece gives no way forward for the victims and their families. It is still attempting to excuse the Institution, its Clerical Leaders and the many who have abused. Surely the current Church Leaders need to take some responsibility instead of leaving it to that well intentioned but nieve group (TJHC) who are directed by a wily but unseen group of suspect Church Leaders.

Carmel | 04 December 2013  

Gerard Webster is certainly a different voice speaking on a highly controversial subject. I think there is a grave danger of the Australian Catholic Church becoming too focussed on the problem of child abuse within itself and not realising it occurs in very much the same way in other institutions. I think research tends to show that abuse repeats itself over time and the abused tend to become abusers. That is the scariest thing. Real self-worth and proper human dignity is something I suspect abusers never had and they certainly deprived their victims of it. This problem now seems to exist nationwide and to not be confined to any one Church or institution although it may exist more extensively in some. It is part of a national scandal we all own. If Australia does not come to terms with and effectively deal with the problem so we can satisfactorily move on it will be a far, far worse place. Of course there is a place for the attempted rehabilitation of offenders but they also need to come to terms with what they have done.

Edward F | 04 December 2013  

If all the men in this country who sexually abused children in their own homes, that is, their own daughters and sons, were called "offenders" the prisons would be very very full indeed.

Janet | 05 December 2013  

All human beings deserve respect by virtue of their humanity. Beyond that it comes down to being earned not acquired.
Not all human structures deserve respect. They too need to earn respect.
The Catholic Church structure has to and will change as a result of the RC. One only has to have observed the Chair's interventions in the questioning process during the recent public hearings this week in Farrer Place to see where we are heading. Respect has a two fold aspect. One ought to be respected as a human being. One then also needs to be respected so far as one earns respect from others. Catholic clerics have too long expected respect by virtue of their religio-societal role (seen in the Church as arising from an ontological status not correlative to any other societal position) and thus have not seen fit to necessarily have to earn respect.
This has to, is already, and will change.
Respect comes down to humanity earning it within humanity. Forget ontology.

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 14 December 2013  

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