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Sex and humility in the church and the military


In the wake of the defence force Skype sex scandal, former diplomat Bruce Haigh made the simple but fundamental point that things start to go wrong when commanding officers lose sight of the reality that they are there to serve, and instead act to protect their reputations. 

He put into context Defence Minister Stephen Smith's dressing down of military top brass:

[A]fter the Australian intervention in East Timor, Howard glorified the military … putting them beyond the scrutiny and accountability normally expected of public servants. He did the same with the Federal Police after 9/11. Howard encouraged the ADF to think of themselves as elite; Rudd and Gillard did nothing to reverse that.

Haigh's point holds true for leaders of institutions including unions and churches. Union leaders and bishops can be looked upon as demigods by members and the faithful. This makes it difficult for them to serve their constituencies. Servants need to be humble.

Bishop Kevin Manning suggests that the sex abuse scandals have paradoxically made the Church better able to do its job.

'The Church is shamed and humbled. But a humble Church can preach the Gospel more convincingly than one in whose halls abuse has been overlooked.'

When there's news of behaviour that is at odds with the fundamental values of an institution, the instinct of many leaders is to cover it up and carry on with business as usual. After all they are duty-bound to do all they can to protect the institution. It's usually specified in their employment contracts. 

Haigh comments on military officers' reaction to the recent unacceptable abuse of the female student at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Once the story broke, defence went into damage control. Senior officers, including the head of the ADF, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, sought to play the matter down, when what he should have done was to immediately front the media, condemn the appalling behaviour.

What happens to the institution once it goes public with its weaknesses?

Bishop Manning ponders whether a church ravaged by sex abuse scandals is fit to receive new members. He believes a humiliated church is an authentic church. He says adults embracing the Catholic faith 'cannot be doing this in ignorance of the sex abuse scandals' and the duty of Catholics 'is to welcome them into a Church that is humble'.

It is up to leaders to project images of themselves that are at once strong and humble. In the lead up to Easter, Christians meditate on Christ humiliated, the king crowned with thorns. Humiliation is a condition that leaders do not ask for, but must accept when the time comes.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Bruce Haigh, Skype, sex scandal, military



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Existing comments

Very perceptive - very astute.

Bob GROVES | 18 April 2011  

The French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, once said of Pope John XXIII: 'This was the secret of his personaility: he loved people more than power.' While all of us should embrace this ideal, it ought to be a sine qua non for appointment to high office in the Church. Sadly,some of the leaders in our faith community have got it back to front. There is more than a grain of truth in Morris West's assertion in his Veech lecture that the primacy of authority has replaced the primacy of charity.

Br Brian Grenier | 18 April 2011  

We see the abuse of power in all institutions, especially old institutions such as the military and the church. Undemocratic governments had to rely on dehumanisation and fear to make “good soldiers and sailors”. The result was that a few murderous leaders on all sides could order their soldiers into mindless suicidal battles. The Western Front of the First World War was a prime example of what these leaders could achieve by virtually enslaving their people to “die for their country”. The effectiveness of dehumanisation was also shown when Hitler, Stalin and others managed to wage “total war”.

Dehumanisation has no place in a modern military of a modern democratic country. All people are equal, but they may have different roles. Different roles do not mean that all people must respect the dignity of all others.

Our constitution needs to be changed and have “equality for all” as its base. Everyone must be equal and everyone needs to be treated with respect and dignity. Respect for all and each other has to be the base of our society. Without respect, abuse in the church, home, school and military will continue.

The military has also to change. We do no longer need cannon fodder of enslaved people as in past wars, but we need proud, respected and bright people to defend our country. Old bullying methods of dehumanisation have no place in a modern military of a modern democratic country.

Beat Odermatt | 18 April 2011  

Excellent article MM and comment by Br Brian - if debate of this quality can be honestly reflected upon by the hierarchy, perhaps there could yet be some purpose in laity staying connected with church...

Helen H | 18 April 2011  

Anyone who thinks that this is an article that has any basis in reality should read the Australian Defence Association's website to get the fact.

Jim Molan | 18 April 2011  

Timely in holy week, an article about the necessity to subdue the ego and pursue truth.........even at the expense of self.

hilary | 18 April 2011  

The word humility originates from the Latin 'humus'- to be grounded. I see no evidence that the Catholic Church is grounded in anything more than it's own institutional values. Where is the evidence for its concern for nourishment and healing and restoration - for the victims of abuse? What about the church's attitude towards the equality of women? Jesus' mission was to nurture, heal and restore those who had been victimised by the false attitudes of those in authority. Jesus wept then and if he was to visit the Vatican today I'm sure he would weep again.

Trish Martin | 18 April 2011  

Re Jim Molan's comment about "basis in reality".The Australian Defence Association's reliability as an objective source of information is very shakey and its credibility dubious. ADA is obviously a media conduit for ADF senior personnel.
ADA could be right on this Skype issue and let's hope the enquiry does get to the basis in reality behind all that has happened.

The point I thought Michael Mullins was making was that the kneejerk reaction of senior officers in most organisations (particulary those with a rigid top-down management structurre, eg the church, Armed Services, Law Enforcement Agencies),when something goes wrong,is to go into damage control, which often means information control. It can also mean certain bizarre solutions. There was a saying in DFAT: There are two sure ways to get a plum overseas appointment - do something really brilliant or do something really really stupid.

The same could be said about some appointments in the catholic church.
MM's hope was, as is mine,that the humiliation experienced by the authorities, when their activities are exposed, will lead to humility. Not only in their personal lives but also in the ethos of the organisations they lead.

Uncle Pat | 18 April 2011  

I don't have a great problem with the general drift of this article - in fact, it has some useful points. But, I suggest there is more. The whole of society must get to the point where it is shamed at the way we have sought to live.

We love to claim freedom, the end of censorship, the advent of enlightened thinking and so on, but the moment the proverbial hits the fan, we find some way to come across with a "holier than thou" attitude. It is here where the Minister for Defence has failed. All the enquiries will not fix this, but they will provide valuable political fodder for more than a few to escape their responsibility in terms of the degradation of morality.

The incident is unsavoury, wrong - pick what words you like. But the mileage that some are making out of it, including the bullying of some leaders, is no answer to the issue. But we won't give up our "right" to retain sex as a valuable part of our entertainment world and grog as a suitable lubricant to enhance such an environment. Wake up - everybody!

Wally Schiller | 18 April 2011  

For Uncle Pat, your point could be true in general but I ask that you consider exactly what the knee jerk reaction of senior officers was in this case. The only knee jerk reaction that I saw was the Ministers.

Jim Molan | 19 April 2011  

Sadly there is little humility comes forth from our Church leaders .Ratzinger refused the resignation of humbled Irish Bishops ,who did so in contrition of their poor handling of child abuse caces .Fortunately we have one exception in Qld .Bishop Bill Morris ( Toowomba )declared his support for abuse victims even if it required liquidating assets .

John Kersh | 19 April 2011  

We have a lot to learn from Eastern Health practises and from the early church.We must have respect for the "Body" as "The Temple of the Holy Spirit". this means respect for the whole Person regardless of gender or age including young children.One of the great changes in the last 50 years and in the right environments is the way in which people of both sexes can socialise together with full trust and respect for each others integrity. unfortunately some institutions including churches have not come to terms with this reality.

john Ozanne | 19 April 2011  

Re - Jim Molan's polite comment on my comment.
The point I was trying to make was to voice my support for what I thought Michael Mullins was trying to extrapolate from the Skype incident and its consequences. Even MM based his commentary on things written by Bruce Haigh (ex-diplomat) and Bishop Manning (church leader)to illustrate the tendency of leaders of organisations when something goes wrong to put the reputation of their organisation first rather than make a fearless and moral examination of what actually happened and then decide what can/should be done about it.

I personally don't know what the kneejerk reactions of any of the players in the Skype incident including the immediate reactions of senior defence officers and the minister.

I hope the enquiry will find out and let us know who did what when and why once the Skype incident became known within ADFA, within Defence, and within the Minister's office.

There might be lessons for the catholic church on how to deal with bad news/behaviour within its ranks - no matter how embarrassing or humiliating.

Uncle Pat | 19 April 2011  

I doubt Bishop Kevin Manning's opinion that the sex abuse scandals have made the Church better able to do its job. As Michael Mullins observes: "When there's news of behaviour that is at odds with the fundamental values of an institution, the instinct of many leaders is to cover it up and carry on with business as usual." Surely the leaders of Christ's Church are better than that? But that was exactly the response of the Church under the leadership of JPII and then Cardinal Ratzinger to the sex abuse scandals; worse, in protecting the institution they exposed more vulnerable children to predators transferred to new parishes – surely an immoral and criminal policy. Further the Vatican under now Pope Benedict is seeking to canonise JPII, thus endorsing his pontificate and covering up this dark side to better be able to carry on with business as usual.

Peter Johnstone | 21 April 2011  

Michael this article brought me to tears. It is beautiful. As an abused child (decades ago), I can relate to these issues, as I am damaged as a result. I also have witnessed ordained priests behaving in a grand manner, as though he or she is above the rest of us. And I have known others who are truly humble.

To me, humility and service are the basis of Christian practice. My favorite Gospel reading is Matthew is 20: 25-28. It says it all.

LouW | 22 April 2011  

A humble church! For the first time in many many years I have felt, on hearing these words, that the Roman Church might regain the authority to preach the Gospel.

graham patison | 24 April 2011  

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