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Hiding weakness no way to answer sex abuse charges


Hiding weakness no way to answer sex abuse chargesWhile Bishop Geoffrey Robinson was coordinating the response of the Australian Catholic church to sexual abuse by its ministers, he was angered by Vatican officials attempting to silence him. He had asked whether clerical celibacy and the way power was exercised in his church contributed to abuse. He wrote his cogently-argued book because his church seemed to give a higher priority to a good institutional reputation than to concern for truth.

The desire to protect a good reputation is not confined to churches. Almost any organisation responds to criticism by rebutting it. But idealistic organisations, including churches, are particularly sensitive to claims that they have behaved badly. Their reason for existence is at stake. Churches believe that they are invited by Christ to live lives worthy of their calling. Many churches also believe that the Holy Spirit works through their institutions.

Because from the beginning the church had such a high sense of its calling, it found it difficult to deal with members who sinned seriously and publicly. It seemed inconceivable that people who were set apart by God would act in ways that betrayed their calling and the church they formed. Yet experience taught that Christians, like others, murdered, acted adulterously and, when persecuted, denied their faith.

Local churches then had to decide whether to receive them back or not. Some refused to do so; others did so readily; most would do so only after a regime of public penance that could last for many years. In most churches, two strikes and you were out.

Rigorous or lenient attitudes were often associated with the images people had of the church. When people saw the church predominantly as the stainless bride of Christ or as the ark, they were often severe to sinners. Infidelity and abandoning ship seemed to make return impossible. If they saw the church as a net full of fish, or a field where wheat and weeds grew together, then reconciliation would be conceivable.

Eventually churches found ways to hold together under some tension the conflicting demands to live faithfully and to reconcile their sinful members. But then they faced another, more difficult, challenge. Critics claimed that sinful attitudes and actions were woven into the patterns of authority, celebration and support that made possible the daily life of the church.

Hiding weakness no way to answer sex abuse chargesThis claim was often heard in the late medieval church; it fed the demand for reform embodied in the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic response was largely defensive. It affirmed the structures and ways of working that the Reformers attacked, elaborated a high understanding of the church, and addressed the need for change by strengthening education in the faith and discipline. It focused on individual sins and not on the capacity of institutions to corrupt people.

As Bishop Robinson demonstrates in his book, the Catholic Church has responded in a similar way to the scandal of sexual abuse by its representatives. Practices like requiring celibacy of clergy, and institutional relationships between clergy and laity, were reaffirmed and removed from discussion. A high theology of the church was commended. Meanwhile, procedures were developed at a local level to deal with accusations of abuse.

This strategy, while not ineffectual, clearly has weaknesses. Members of local churches can become disillusioned, believing that their church has denied the reality of abuse and that its response has been half-hearted and ineffective. The failure to ask whether celibacy and institutional forms of exercising power nurture abusive behaviour lead people to believe that in fact they are influential.

These weaknesses are accentuated by the high imagery used to describe the church. When we see the church as sinless, as the bride of Christ, or as mother, and when we associate it with an idealised image of Mary the mother of humanity, it is hard to reconcile the lofty images with the often grotty reality of church life and of its institutional relationships.

The early church had a wide store of images to describe the church. Some of them expressed the tension between high calling and broken response. They described the church as a ‘chaste prostitute’, making use of the broad range of women of doubtful reputation in the Old Testament. Such images discourage the assertion that the church is sinless but that its individual members are sinful. They also discourage the assumption that the structures of authority are sinless, but individual officers are sinful.

A church that recognises its struggle to follow the way of Christ has no need to defend its reputation. It can learn from its mistakes.



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Existing comments

Those that look the other way and stand by and do nothing are as guilty as those that commit the crimes

Karen | 06 September 2007  

Andy: an anecdote that may be in the spirit of your comments.

A few years back I was criticising Government and local administration policies on university education, and my theologian wife asked me why I was spending so much time on this. Universities as we had known them, as students and teachers, had been genuinely geared to learning and teaching, and admins. seen themselves as serving this common enterprise. I spelt out in detail ways in which this was no longer so; and how senior administrations were instead making their decisions on the basis of a financial bottom line, on a desire to consolidate their own power, and on promoting an “image” that was good PR. They often sincerely thought that all this was necessary for the good of the institution, and so of course for the ideals for which it was supposed to exist; even when these decisions were destructive of those ideals.

She replied, “That’s terrible! The Universities are becoming like the Churches!”

john fox | 06 September 2007  

As usual, Andrew has set it out clearly. "Only your Father in heaven is perfect". We live in a world where people question what you are hiding when you respond defensively. But we can't move on until sexual abuse has been properly addressed, NOT swept under the carpet. NOT a witch hunt either, but an ackowledgement of the pain and suffering that have been caused, that money does not assuage. Pain and suffering that go on for years and years. This is a sin that must be admitted or it eats away at the Church like a cancer. The last two sentences of Andrew's article say it all.

Patrick Jurd | 06 September 2007  

Bishop Robinson should be thanked and congratulated to have the courage to write this book. As a bishop of the Church his pain would have been considerable, yet clearly not as great as the pain of continuing to live with the failings if not hypocracy of a Church that treats bishops and priests as unaccountable. If this book can open discussion about the Church's own taboo topics, it will serve the people of God well.

Carmel Ross | 07 September 2007  

Ted Kennedy, Geoffrey Robinson...there are some lights in the Church.
Thank you, Andrew Hamilton, for this article.

Francis Brown | 07 September 2007  

The Church needs to return to the charism of its Founder!

davidanthony davies | 07 September 2007  

It has to come from the voice of the Pope before his people will listen to the truth.

I thank Bishop Robinson for his book and I can see that he too will be treated like Rev. Fr. Thomas Doyel, who went out of his way to help the sexual abused men and women by priest/nuns of the catholic church and he is still doing his good work.
Ann Thompson


Ann Free Spirit | 08 September 2007  

I too would like to thank Andrew Hamilton for once again providing us with a thought-provoking, insightful article. However, with regard to the problem of the "high imagery" which is used to describe the Church: the real problem, I think, is that the Church hierarchy treats real-life marriage and motherhood as some sort of pure, theoretical ideal as well. If the powers-that-be in the Church were more open to the real-world experience of family life, then we wouldn't need to resort to that rather curious phrase, "chaste prostitute", as the image of the Church. We could still use the metaphors of marriage and motherhood, but they would very aptly express something that is beautiful and sacred and life-affirming, while at the same time not being immune from "grotty reality".

Cathy Taggart | 09 September 2007  

Why is it that Enron's responsible leaders are in jail, Martha Stewart went to jail, Conrad Black was brought to trial, was found guilty and is awaiting his sentencing...but Cardinal Bernard Law is an Archpriest in Rome, Cardinal Mahony lives in his palace in Los Angeles, and Bishop Brom and all the other Bishops guilty of cover-up of the worst crime in church history are not in jail but rather living as Princes of the Church in their Bishops' Palaces? Why are the priests guilty of clergy sexual abuse not in jail (except for a few handful)? Why are none of these pedophile priests excommunicated or "notified" like Jon Sobrino.
( http://pope-ratz.blogspot.com/2007_05_01_archive.html)

Paris | 07 October 2007  

Very insightful Andrew.
It perplexes me why the church from it's fundamental base finds it so difficult to embrace human sexuality in all it's diversity.
I see only too clearly that sexual abuse flourishes in a climate where honesty and openness of the way God has made one, is facilitated in a climate of fear and hiding, closet would be a more inclusive descriptive word.
Maybe if we always embraced open and honest human sexuality the institution would not have attracted those wishing to suppress who they really were, or even those who were never able to be who they really were in the institution of the church. I believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life who hungered only for justice. Truth is key for all of us in living our life, thats what HE calls us to.

Robert Allen | 28 August 2008  

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