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Purifying language vital to renewing 'polluted' churches



The crimes of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and in other institutions, have generated a wide literature. It encompasses the experience of victims, the institutional causes of clerical abuse and the steps needed to do justice to its victims and to ensure it does not happen again.

Jane Dowling's Child Arise! The Courage to Stand. A spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuseOther writing offers help to victims to deal with their experience. An impressive example of this last category points to a wider challenge to our society. Jane Dowling's Child Arise! The Courage to Stand. A spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuse — which last month was named the Australian Christian Book of the Year — is addressed to Christians who have suffered abuse within the Church and whose faith is still central to them. Many, of course, have understandably abandoned it.

Dowling, who herself was a victim of clerical abuse, offers a program of reflections that bring together scriptural themes and the effects of sexual abuse by church representatives. Most striking in her book is the extraordinary labour required to purify the language of a tradition that has become polluted.

Christian prayer to God as Father, for example, will necessarily evoke images of abuse by reverend fathers who have abused, refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for the crime and have blamed the victim. From her own experience Dowling insists on the need to feel the full weight of fear, anger and betrayal associated with the image before seeking the richer possibilities in the scriptural tradition.

This process of resting with the associations of abuse attached to Christian words and images and slowly recovering their humane depths needs to be repeated again and again before the tradition can become life-giving.

This laborious and exacting process suggests that purifying the wells of a polluted tradition depends on a very slow reading that only experience can enable. It must be undertaken by those who have suffered from the pollution and not by those who have shaped, controlled and opened the language to poisoning.

Furthermore this purification of language is vital to churches not simply as a therapeutic exercise for victims but as a condition for their renewal and reconciliation.

These reflections may also be pertinent to the wider society. Brexit and the Trump phenomenon have been characterised by a coarsening of public language. It has been displayed in brutal partisanship, the reduction of complex argument to single slogans and the refusal to take responsibility.


"Public support for a royal commission acknowledges that the language has been poisoned and that the process of purification cannot begin in the banks, but only an open enquiry in which their victims have a voice."


In Australia the language used to describe national purpose and wellbeing has also been polluted. It has long been spoken of in economic terms, with the assumption that economic growth based on free and competitive markets would ipso facto benefit all Australians. But it has been increasingly evident that this economic language has been coopted to enrich the few. It cannot now cogently be used with ethical weight in public discourse because it is simply not trusted.

This can be seen institutionally in the lack of credibility enjoyed by any claims to act in the public interest made by banks or by business associations. The claims of banks to act in the interests of their clients and to contribute to the welfare of Australia have been shredded by the leaked crude conversations between their employees rigging the interbank rates, the use of customers as pawns in the making of profit, and the failure of the banks to take responsibility for their actions.

Public support for a royal commission acknowledges that the language has been poisoned and that the process of purification cannot begin in the banks, but only an open enquiry in which their victims have a voice and the mechanisms of self-enrichment are made bare.

This may also be true of business which has always spoken of its service to the community and its commitment to the welfare of its workers. The unrelenting flow of stories suggests that, although some businesses are beyond reproach, this language has also been poisoned.

In the last week's news we can read of the behaviour of the 7-Eleven franchise whose professions of ethical rectitude sit uneasily with a business model that almost demands that franchisees underpay their vulnerable workers. We can also read of mining companies bribing foreign officials to gain contracts, the lack of responsibility to the local community shown by Rio Tinto in walking away from the Ok Tedi mine, or of coal miners in promoting the denial of climate change and spruiking the benefits of coal export to the poor in developing nations. We read with incredulity the protestations of good corporate citizenship.

Few people now trust that the unrestrained competitive pursuit of profit by banks and businesses will benefit the public interest. Nor will they trust that lowering the deficit by further disadvantaging the most vulnerable is a moral imperative, still less that it will make a society fit for our descendants.

The language common to government, banks and business has been poisoned. No more than church language can be purified by bishops and priests can this public language be purified by ministers, directors and chairs of boards. The purification will be a slow process that must begin by listening to and learning from the victims of corporate self-interest.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, clergy sexual abuse, banks, Brexit, Trump



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Existing comments

A necessary argument, well put as usual, Andrew. But may I suggest an editing correction? The Ok Tedi mine in PNG was a BHP mine, before BHP joined up with Billington.

Ian Fraser | 31 August 2016  

Another great piece, Andy. Thanks for pointing to the ways in which language frames not just personal experience but the socioeconomic order, and also therefore a significant part of repairing these ruptures.

FM | 31 August 2016  

T S Eliot said "I gotta use words when I talk to you". It's not the only way to communicate of course but there's no getting away from the fact that words can evoke powerful reactions. Insults are easier to fling than undertaking thoughtful conversation. For, say, a feminist there are a number of troubling words and images in Scripture which need careful understanding. Dowling's book looks like a very worthwhile read.

Pam | 31 August 2016  

This excellent article reminds me of Jonestown . The 'faithful' were urged to drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide and so wipe themselves and the institution out. They were highly dependent on their leader and he was responding to a threat from without. Polluted language or drink has to be palatable to be successful. The market spends big money finding the vulnerabilities of the punters and then designing words which will be palatable, nay fashionable so as to sell stuff. Living in our society without critical thinking, discernment is like believing that all you see in the movies happens. Corporations and politicians need collaborative and highly paid media to spread their fertilizer.

Michael D. Breen | 01 September 2016  

I ought limit myself to saying this article by Andrew and the book by Jane Dowling ought to be compulsory reading for every Australian eligible to vote. And every Australian over the age of sixteen. But of course if the reading is compulsory many will read with the same attitude they take to "compulsory" voting. They will look at the names and status of the two writers (candidates) and reject their views right away. Others will read them with closed minds, with an unwillingness to change their prejudices. And still others will read them and say: So what? That is the way of the world. Get real. On the ABC show GRUEN we see how language/symbols is/are manipulated. Of course such a show can appear only on a non-commercial TV station. I have a grudging admiration for the PR panellist who can articulate brilliantly the advertising skills and tricks agencies use to promote a brand and then praise its professionalism - because it will get peoples' attention, cause them to like the brand and induce them to buy the product (whether they need it or not). Yes, Andrew, the purification of language will be a slow process indeed.

Uncle Pat | 01 September 2016  

I am sorry to overload the agenda. But the language of Australian foreign policymaking has itself been polluted by current US agendas of dangerous and unnecessary strategic confrontation with Russia and China, great powers condemned for allegedly 'not sharing US values' , whatever this may mean, and condemned as rough beasts standing outside the international security system, rather than (as they in fact are) essential and respected parts of it. It is becoming harder to have a useful conversation about Australian foreign policy with people in government and public administration, because the language here has been polluted too by demonisation of competing great powers. Australia is losing capacity to make balanced judgements on this area.

Tony kevin | 01 September 2016  

The magic of words! Smoke, mirrors and deceptive illusion to the benefit only of the magician.

john frawley | 01 September 2016  

Language change re traditional Christianity for those abused needs serious looking versus linguistic overeactions-viz changing language for most who are unabused.

Father John George | 01 September 2016  

Jane Dowling has done victims a true service, in sharing her own journey she found a way for victims to engage with their own spirituality and perhaps find the God that Jesus talked about. For me, her book was about learning to put words around traumatic childhood experiences, where previously trauma had no language except PTSD. Andrew you have chosen to focus on the pollution that emerges from Church language. Women at church feel negated when reciting the Nicene creed: 'for us men and our salvation': What do the children think? I suspect boys don't notice but girls can feel 'put-down by this phrase, it promotes the wrong attitude in the young minds. Congratulations to Jane Dowling for writing a book where language really brings the God of Jesus alive for those whose hearts have been shattered by the attitude of the Catholic Church.

Trish Martin | 01 September 2016  

This and other gratuitous critiques re Trish Martin need survey scientific research, versus extrapolating from individual reactions to generalisations on all, most, or significant numbers. "Women[how many?] at church feel negated when reciting the Nicene creed": ' etc.

Father John George | 02 September 2016  

The church's language and example of "fatherhood" has not only been warped by the example of a supposedly celibate "Father" as abuser, but the image and attitude towards the "Son" is also evident in the way we judge LGBTI people. How many compassionate fathers would simple accept that a gay son must simply resign them self to a life of solitude and celibacy? Has this detached, unearthed, asexual father-figure led to the expectation his son will be a eunuch?

AURELIUS | 02 September 2016  

Great article. "almost" demands they underpay..though? I'd say it goes without saying. Walmart underpaid so badly that employees had to collect food stamps after being paid. Walmart forbade them to continue that practice becasue it made Walmart look bad. So the employees went and got their food stamps a bit further away where it wasn't so obvious where they'd just come from. Perhaps they had to take their uniforms off. Seems Walmart was OK about that.

Jillian | 04 September 2016  

Andrew, I have not read the book you refer to, and wonder how many of the commentators have? Your article fails to give any examples apart from "father" and rapidly moves from church to business and government and I think you should have had a separate article for them, because it takes the focus away from what the author of the book appears to be on about. What other examples can you give as far as the church is concerned?

Frank S | 05 September 2016  

Words and images used in church are designed to be life-giving and language has enormous power to shape and sustain acceptable community values. Fr. John George the women who recite the Nicene creed have already been conditioned by a society that fails to give them equal dignity with men. When we recite sexist lines in church it is with a hardened heart. My point is that young boys and girls minds are being shaped with church language that does nothing towards life-giving equality. Domestic violence is rife in society and its within the power of Church to make a move to educate boys and girls in the way of Christian values.

Trish Martin | 05 September 2016  

Trish To blame the creed for domestic violence says it all; forget the "we" refrains and present scientific corroboration.

Father John George | 06 September 2016  

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