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Ryan Report: crimes of the 'human' Church

'Ryan Report', by Chris JohnstonThe drama that surrounded the death of Richard Pratt showed the manner in which the desire for simplicity can distort reality. It seemed beyond the capacity of the media, and of many public figures, to acknowledge that Pratt, although a man of extraordinary generosity, also committed immoral acts that defrauded many people. 

The inability to see that a single person is capable of committing both good and bad confines us to a morality painted without any shade of grey. This can only hurt our society.

Just as individuals are capable of both good and bad, so are institutions. Take the Irish Commission to Report into Child Abuse, known as the Ryan Report. The report details abuse in Catholic educational institutions in Ireland from as early as 1914 through to 2000. Most of incidents reported occurred between 1936 and the 1970.

The commission heard evidence from 1090 witnesses; 90 per cent reported having being abused physically, and about half reported having suffered sexual abuse, along with neglect and emotional abuse. These witnesses identified over 800 individuals, religious and lay, who had abused them physically and/or sexually in a religious environment.

The report's publication was ten years in the making and was dogged by many problems. The first chair of the commission, Justice Mary Laffoy, resigned in 2003, claiming that the lack of cooperation from the Government had rendered the commission powerless.

Justice Sean Ryan was then appointed but there was further delay when the Christian Brothers asked whether it was constitutional for the Investigative Committee to make findings of abuse against Brothers who could not properly answer allegations. The success of this action meant the final report did not name a single perpetrator.

During the course of the commission, only the Rosminians sought to understand abuse; other Congregations sought to 'explain' abuse. It became evident that some members of the Church, and sections of civil society, fail to understand that the abuse suffered by so many in the 'care' of religious institutions must be fully acknowledged.

The Pope was reported to be 'very distressed' by the report after meeting on 6 June with the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin. The Vatican has, however, made no statement beyond official spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, commenting merely that this was 'a matter for the local church'.

But this matter goes beyond any local church. Eventually the Vatican will have to stand in solidarity with the victims of these crimes. The Roman Catholic Church makes the claim of being a universal church, and so its successes and failures must be understood within that dynamic. Like individual persons, the Church is capable of acting well and badly. To separate indivduals from the church diminishes the responsibility of the whole body.

The catalogue of sins laid out by the Ryan Report, but known long before, must be acknowledged in full. It would be wrong to deny that these are acts of the Catholic Church. It would also be wrong to respond to them simply with detached moral indignation. These barbaric acts occurred alongside self-sacrificing work and love within the very same Church. Instances of care and tenderness do not lessen the evil of abuse. Nor does the abuse cancel out the instances of goodness.  

This reality is difficult to confront. It is antithetical to the simplistic accounts presented by the media and public figures. To ensure that such crimes never again occur, it is necessary to hold together in our minds the whole complex reality of an often tragically human Church. To minimise the evil of abuse would withdraw the Church from proper judgment. To ignore acts of quiet dignity within the Church would undermine the standards by which it should be judged. 

Irish Ryan Report blog

Julian ButlerJulian Butler is a third year Commerce/Law student at the University of Melboure.

Topic tags: ryan report, catholic, child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, priest, christian brothers, Rosminians



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Existing comments

I agree not to recognise that being human, the church is indeed capable of both good and bad. I believe that Jesua came to help humanity handle both and that we are called to work with him on this problem. Ignoring the bad will not make it go away nor is it just to do so.

David Sykes | 15 June 2009  

Thank you for the hyperlink to the Irish material. It is very helpful to be able to look at either the original sources and the reactions of those most immediately affected by issues you comment on. I hope that the editor will make a practice of providing such links as a matter of course.

jltrew | 15 June 2009  

Some observations -

I do not see any polarity between "explaing" and "understanding". Does not abuse - or indeed anything - need to be "explained" before it can be "understood"? We cannot understand it unless we know what happened and why.

It is not so much that people in religious institutions do not want fully to acknowledge abuse as that they are worried about the impact of all this on the institutions' ability to keep on doing the good work that they have done in the past and do now.

The Vatican does stand in solidarity with the victims as is made clear by many statements of the present Pope and his predecessor.

We need to be very careful about linking the crimes of individuals to the organisations of which they are members. This can lead to the notion of collective guilt which has had tragic consequences in the past. Is the whole body of the Church responsible? Is the little old lady who has said her rosary at Mas for the last sixty years responsible?

Sin is a free, knowing, personal decision to do wrong. Sin by definition can only be done by an individual. Institutions or collectivities cannot sin, although their members can allow conditions to flourish that create a climate or opportunity for individuals to do wrong.

In this sense the Church cannot sin. This is further grounded in the theolgical notion of the Church as the spotless bride of Christ. The Catholic Church as Christ's Body on earth is a perfect and sinless society but its members can and do and will doubtles continue to sin. The writer seeks assurance that wrong-doing by members of the Church will never happen again. Regrettably, there is no such assurance.

Sylvester | 15 June 2009  

"The desire for simplicity can distort reality" Julian says. So the bland "only the Rosminians sought to understand abuse" equally is a distortion.

Gerard Bennett | 15 June 2009  

Sylvester, I agree that it's understandable if the religious orders' response seems somewhat cautious: they have a responsibility to their members to protect them from unfair recriminations, and to ensure that they can carry on their present ministries.

Howver, I disagree that the Church, as an institution, cannot "sin". The image of the Church as the Bride of Christ presumably came from the OT image of God being the husband of the Israelite people. There are plenty of references to Israel being an "unfaithful wife", even, I think, a "whore", when her people flirted with other gods or otherwise neglected their side of the Covenant.

If the hierarchy of our Church could but accept the idea that the Church is not always "a spotless bride", but can go astray in the whole way it operates as an institution - then I think this would be a lot better for all of us.

Cathy T | 15 June 2009  

The Church can't have it both ways, the truth is always the best way to come clean. Gone are the days when respect for the good name of the Church covered up a multitude of these abuses and so perpetuated the abusers continued evil actions against children and the defenceless persons placed in their care. Vows of Silence by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner opens up a frightening reality of what many would like to forget ever happened but it won't go away till it is acknowledged.

Anthony K. Toms | 15 June 2009  

Cathy T - I guess it depends on one's idea of what is sin, but I think it is essentially personal. Institutions are not themselves personal, even if they are made up of persons, and therefore cannot, qua institution, sin.

To attribute sin to collectivities - communities, races, nations, groups, churches, political parties, etc - is to prepare the moral ground for shovelling Jews into the ovens simply because they belong to the Jewish group or to shoot and starve millions of Aremians simply because they are Aremenians. One could multiply the examples ad nauseam. It would be wrong, nevertheless, to say that the murder of Jews and Armenuabns is the fault, respectively, of the German and Turkish people as a people. Likewise, it would be wrong to say that the abuse of young people entrusted to the care of priests, brothers and religious is the fault of the Catholic Church.

Certainly, the Old Testament saw Israel as Yahweh's wife, often unfaithful, but that is an adumbration of a much richer and higher notion in the New Testament, particularly Saint Paul, that in the new and final covenant, the Church, the assembly of all those who follow Jesus, are the Bride of Christ, members of his mystical Body, which cannot sin. I am not saying that members of the Church, even those in high authority, cannot sin. They do. That is obvious, from personal experience. That is the reason why Christ gave us the sacrament of penance. What I am saying is that the Church cannot do wrong precisely as that perfect society founded by the Lord: "perfect" in the sense of being complete, that is to say, equipped with all the means of sanctification - authority, sacraments, scriptures, etc.

Infallibility provides us with a good parallel. Individual Catholics can be mistaken, even Popes under most circumstances, but the Church qua Church is incapable of error. In the same way, the Church qua Church is incapapble of sin.

Sylvester | 15 June 2009  

I think Gerard Bennett would find if he followed the link to the Ryan report that "only the Rosminians sought to understand abuse" was a finding of the Ryan Report - it's Justice Ryan's finding, not Julian's distortion. Justice Ryan found that the other orders tended to rationalise and deny the accusations to protect themselves and avoid scandal. This was certainly our experience in Australia, as well. Thankfully, since the report has been published there has been a considerable change in the Irish congregations' approach.

Karl Johannes | 16 June 2009  

"the desire for simplicity can distort reality". How true!

Let's drop the word "sin" re institutions. Sin is a personal act.
Let us substitute the simple expression "bad things" for the physical/sexual abuse that was carried out on children/people in the care of catholic institutions. We, the rest of the catholic church (hierarchy and/or laity) will at times share some of the responsibility for those bad things if we do not disclose them or hinder them from happening or protect the perpetrators.

Dragging analogies like "the Church" being the Bride of Christ, only confuses the issue. Flick passing responsibility to "the local church" shows a lack of courage to run with the ball - bad things are happening in the church everywhere. So are good things, many good things.

Sometimes we do good, some times we do bad.

We may be a redeemed, but we are still a broken people.

There, I too am resorting to analogy in trying to grasp the mystery of God's interaction with mankind.

Uncle Pat | 16 June 2009  

I believe all these matters are interelated as Bishop Robinson suggests

These matters are all related as Bishop Robertson suggest. As a relatively "new" cathloic ,it seems to me a total change of heart is required of the Curia and any Cardinal incapable of the should go.

Tony Sallmann | 16 June 2009  

I thoroughly enjoyed Julian's sensitive and beautifully written article... As a final year student at a Catholic brothers' school in Sydney in the fifties I had the well-earned reputation of being an inveterate late-comer. The first lesson of the day was English and it became a litmus test of the teacher's mood whether I was given 'the cuts' or simply told to sit down. If being painfully punished for simply coming late constituted physical abuse, I wasn't aware of it nor were my class mates. If we were ignorant about such matters then, but enlightened now, is this a tiny indication that all creation is moving towards perfection in Jesus Christ?

Claude Rigney | 16 June 2009  

Sylvester, your argument that “the Church qua Church is incapable of sin” is a distraction from the question of the Church's responsibility in dealing with evil perpetrated by some of its representatives. For any organisation, let alone Christ’s Church, to fail to respond adequately to evil behaviour by some of its members is to compound the evil, an additional evil perpetrated by the those individuals complicit in that inadequate response. I doubt if anyone would accept, as you suggest, that this implicates the little old lady who has said her rosary at Mass for the last sixty years.

An institution has a grave responsibility for ensuring appropriate behaviour by its representatives. Members of institutions, particularly their hierarchy, must ensure that institutions are accountable for their decision making as it affects society. An argument about whether or not the Church can sin may be interesting, but in the context of Church representatives using their Church positions to abuse children, that argument is a distraction from the real issue.

Julian Butler points out the consequences of denying that these are acts of the Catholic Church, noting that “these barbaric acts occurred alongside self-sacrificing work and love within the very same Church.”

Peter Johnstone | 16 June 2009  

Peter Johnstone -

The notion of the Church as sinless is not a distraction but an attempt to add some theological perpsective, as a corrective, to the tendency in the secular media to rage against the Church and all its works in this wretched matter of child abuse in Catholic institutions. I fully realise that this theological principle won't wash with the media but it might help Catholics to get an angle on the real implications of this crisis.

I agree that the initial response of the Church hierarchy was very poor, partly because of incredulity that priests and religious could do such things and partly by an over-concern for the Church's public good name. Since then, however, ongoing problems and tensions notwithstanding, the Catholic Church has been a pioneer in recognising the problem, acknowledging responsibility and putting in place guidelines and protocols in an endeavour to stop the abuse of children in the future. At this level the Catholic Church has out-performed many religious and secular institutions. Not that this a matter for self-congratulation.

Acts of psychological and physical abuse of young people by priests and religious are no more "acts" of the Catholic Church than explosions of anger of frustration against the poor, pensioners or unemployed are "acts" of the Department of Social Security.

We need, too, to keep in mind that Catholic priests and religious who abuse young people act contrary to the fundamental moral principles and expectations of the Church. The secular media sometimes seem to give the impression that such abuse is inherent in Catholicism - hence the determination to fix the blame on "the Church" without further ado.

sylvester | 16 June 2009  

To analyse this matter in terms of individual sin is simplistic. By their fruits shall ye know them. Surely the worldwide phenomenon of sexual abuse by clergy tells us something about clergy attitudes in general and about the church's doctrines on sexuality over the years. Any psychologist will tell you that the immaturity of sexual identity, together with the aura of arrogant infallibility, that characterises many offenders is the obverse of the coin of church authoritarianism in doctrine and practice.

Robert Young | 19 June 2009  

Why is it that the action of a few only, is adversely applied generally to all when it relates to religious orders??

Many "parents/adults" similarly abuse children or commit other crimes but the media in particular does not apply the same connection/label to other "parents," "males," "females,"or "their relevant occupations other than religious"

Senior | 19 June 2009  

While only individuals can sin, the institutions in which they function have an organisational responsibility to create a culture and a set of rules and practices to minimise this. The hierarchy of the (small c ) church has a temporal role just like any set of managers. The church has signally failed to manage these issues in the past in a way consistent with their moral duty. Many of the responses I have read appear to be likely to lead to hand wringing plus business as usual. They are excuses rather than diagnoses. Unless we search our hearts and our rules structures and practices to identify any way in which the servant church qua visible human organisation has been complicit in these individual sins we stand less chance of avoiding such things in the future. This was not just an accidental collection of independent individual sins, but a systemic failing of the small c church. I am saddened to see the ineffective responses/excuses of the past recycled in this commentary. They have the potential to allow the breeding onditions of such sins to persist. In any case the notion of the pilgrim church being without spot is an eschatological vision. The biblical material clearly moves on two planes: imperfection and perfection, sin and death and the one day but not yet triumph over sin and death. Let us not confuse the two in an attempt to avoid our organisational responsibility. These are, in a way the failings and sins of all of us.

It is necessary to distinguish between the church as the mystical body, bride of christ etc and the organisation, with its own political, territorial and legal apparatus. it is the latter that has failed in this matter. It is in no way a matter of attributing collective guillt to point to cultural and organisational failings of the human structure and practice that is the visible church.

Robert Young | 19 June 2009  

Judge Ryan was mandated by the Irish Parliment not to mention any of the perpetrators or survivors and he kept to this mandate as far as the Religious were concerned. In volume 5 secion 2 of the report not only has my name been given but my age in 1935 and why I was takento court. I spent 14 years in Goldenbridge one of Irelands Institutionfrom age 23 months till I was 16 years old

May Cornish -Henderson | 19 July 2009  

Until the Vatican is forced to own this, it has been a toohtless waste of time. It has also revisited hell on the innocents involved. Once again, shame on the Catholic church. Anyone who believes Jesus would have tolerated ANY part of the crimes commited or the subsequent coverup by "his" church is seriously deluded.

Tony Willis | 05 December 2009  

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