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No shortcuts to reform after church abuse crisis

  • 01 April 2019


Trigger warning: sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse. The sentencing of Cardinal George Pell highlighted the dismay and soul-searching among Catholics at sex abuse and its devastation of the lives of victims and their families. It also brought home the depth of the crisis caused by clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Although it still challenges understanding, a historical parallel may help illuminate it.

Emperors Decius in 250 AD and Diocletian in 303 AD persecuted Christians in response to military reverses and perceived decline in Roman values. They called for a return to traditional values and religious practices and saw Christians as a subversive and alien force, much as Muslim people are seen by some in Australia today. They first targeted bishops and clergy, then all Christians, ordering them to hand over their sacred texts and vessels and publicly to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were fined, tortured or killed. Many Christians, including bishops and clergy, had fled or apostasised (denied their faith by publicly offering sacrifice, handing over the sacred books or buying certificates of compliance).

Where the persecution was systematically pursued, it deprived the church of strong leaders and burdened it with the shame of those who sacrificed. The disruption to congregations after the persecution can be imagined. They included members who had been blinded, deafened or crippled while remaining faithful under torture (confessors), others grieving relatives who had been killed, some who had escaped notice, bishops and priests who had returned after flight to safer places and sought to resume their responsibilities, local clergy who had been ordained to serve in their place, and, significantly, many people who had publicly apostasised.

In a church which gloried in the courage of the martyrs as a sign of God's presence, apostasy was a corruption that tore at its heart. The congregations were inevitably riven with anger, resentment, guilt, confusion, and above all disillusion at the gap revealed between their leaders' and members' proud profession of faith and their cowardly repudiation of it.

The standard accounts of the time held that the crisis was overcome by the cooperative work of strong bishops who had resolved disputes and preserved church unity. They had dealt with the corruption of apostasy by establishing common rigorous rules for reconciling people who had betrayed the faith in more or less serious ways. They accomplished this through local and regional synods.

Although this reform of governance was