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Hiding weakness no way to answer sex abuse charges

  • 05 September 2007

While 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. This claim was often heard in the late medieval church; it fed the demand for reform embodied in the