Sexual abuse is a social sin


Rotten applesIn an effort to encourage and support Catholics shaken by clergy sexual abuse scandals, Bishop Greg O'Kelly of Port Pirie wrote a pastoral letter to his people on 20 November. He rejected generalisations and inaccuarcies in some media reporting, insisted that responsibility for wrongdoing lies with 'individuals within the Church' rather than with 'the Church', and pointed to the good done by many church organisations.

Much of what Bishop O'Kelly says is true, but he misses the opportunity to examine the relationship between personal and collective responsibility. There is such a thing as social responsibility and the Catholic Social Teaching concept of structures of sin can help Catholics to understand and deal constructively with their shame.

Bishop O'Kelly objects to the assertion that 'the Church' has committed sexual crimes against children, shielded offenders or obscured police investigations, yet presents examples of 'all the good that the Church continues to do'. I don't think we can argue that 'the Church' is responsible when individuals and Catholic organisations do good things, but that 'individuals within the Church' are responsible when evil acts are committed.

Sin, strictly speaking, is a free act of an individual person. Structures, processes and institutions, such as organisations and their cultures and policies, do not sin — people do. This is why Bishop O'Kelly rightly says that individuals are responsible for abuse.

Social structures, processes and institutions, organisational cultures and policies can reflect, reinforce and even encourage personal sins. They can do this by restricting our freedom to choose the good by conditioning and influencing us, or by condoning or providing opportunities to sin with impunity.

Catholic Social Teaching calls these structures of sin. They may mitigate but do not remove personal responsibility. They also give rise to a social responsibility. We share in responsibility for harms that we have not directly caused if we share in the responsibility for creating, maintaining or failing to challenge structures of sin.

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Reconciliatio et Paenitentia  explained it in this way:

Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups ... she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.

It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. The real responsibility, then lies with individuals.

Responsibility lies with individuals, but not just those who directly committed acts of abuse.

We can't avoid the fact that the Catholic Church in Australia is a social institution by describing it in theological terms as the Body of Christ. Both dimensions of the reality of the Church must be acknowledged because this mystical body continues to be incarnated in time and place — and not as a collection of individual body parts.

We have already seen evidence that the organisational cultures and policies of some Church entities in particular times and places put the reputation of the Church ahead of the wellbeing of children. Such organisational cultures and policies can surely be called structures of sin just like the 'all-consuming desire for profit' or 'the thirst for power' which Pope John Paul II identified as structures of sin in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Pointing to the good things done by the Church doesn't help. Catholics need to take responsibility, both personally and collectively, to dismantle structures of sin and build up instead structures of grace. The Church is indeed the Body of Christ, and the head can't say to the foot 'you kicked that person, I didn't'.

Sandie Cornish headshotSandie Cornish is a specialist in Catholic Social Teaching. She is Director of Mission for the Society of the Sacred Heart Australia-New Zealand Province and has worked in justice and peace agencies of the Catholic Church at diocesan, national and Asia Pacific levels. The opinions expressed here are her own. 

Topic tags: Sandie Cornish, social sin, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

This is excellent. There are so many good points in it, but I single out two. It makes no sense to argue, as we so often do, that the Church does the good things done by members, but does not do the bad things done by members. We "put the reputation of the Church ahead of the wellbeing of children": we also put the maintenance of the Church's wealth ahead of just compensation for victims.

Jim Jones | 06 December 2012  

I, as a priest, am personally offended by Sandie's comments directed at Bishop Greg O Kelly's pastoral letter to the Catholics in his diocese. I published comments on the calling of the Royal Commission in our Parish Bulletin. I allowed the people at Mass on the Sunday after its establishment to speak about their feelings, as Catholics. For someone involved in the formation of leaders in a Catholic organisation, I feel you should have more compassion for those leaders who daily front all the matters concerned - from listening to the victims of abuse to knowing abusers/criminals to attempting to live courageously and humbly, the charism of celibacy. What we don't need is to have our letters, our attempts at engaging our Catholic parishioners in conversations about those same matters taken out of context and used against us by some people pushing a an agenda different from what our attempts are about. Fair go Sandie, write about issues without attacking the very people you are supposed to be supporting.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 December 2012  

Thank you, Sandie. I think you've hit the nail on the head. The Royal Commission will examine the systems or "structures of sin" or corporate cultures that allowed sexual abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful to occur and continue to occur while others in power turned a blind eye.

Donella Johnston | 06 December 2012  

Catholic church hierarchy had their chance, many times, to do the right thing when it comes to clergy sex abuse and the all too often cover ups. They have all failed miserably. Less talk and more help for the victims.

Mike Ference | 06 December 2012  

Winyan, Wichasha, your Chincá are in harm's way ! Translated: Mother, Father your children are in harm's way! Video:

Bob_Schwiderski | 06 December 2012  

Thank you, Sandy, for a clear, honest, confronting analysis of the sex abuse issue. The failure of "the church" cannot be brushed aside; and it's not helpful to be "personally offended" by such comments while refusing to face the issue. There surely are structures in our church that cry out for examination: start with compulsory celibacy, get to the abuse of power in church governance, consider the exclusion of women from the language and processes of our church - then invoke the Holy Spirit and involve us all in a search for reconciliation and healing. And my thanks to Eureka Street for this forum.

Brian Gagen | 06 December 2012  

Thank you for this article. Please note Australia's brave lead here has resulted in a petition calling for a similar USA commission being filed in the USA with President Obama accessible at:

Jerry Slevin | 06 December 2012  

'Sins'? What 'sins'? The debate will only progress when we use truthful language. The issue is how the church and its adherents deal with crimes against children. 'Crimes'. It's not so hard to speak the word, is it?

Frank Golding | 06 December 2012  

Thanks,Sandie Cornish and Jim Jones. You've said it all.

Caroline Storm | 06 December 2012  

when I first read Bishop Greg Kelly's words I was shocked and wondered if anything had been learnt from the reaction to Cardinal Pells press conference. his words seemed so at odds with the words an approach of Father Steve Curtin in the Provincial Express. I remember when I first told my mother about a priest who had groomed or raped me and so many of my friends. There was horror and shock and then an inculturated response. "Don't hurt the Church". I remember saying we are all the church, the mystical church and not accepting that will hurt the church. I described the abuse as a trauma, a cancer that affected the whole body and accepting that was the only way through this. Silence would only mean more sickness. Saying I am ok , my heart is strong and I will ignore the cancer in my belly doesn't heal the sickness that affects the whole. I was angry at the head of the body, priests and bishops who knew and stayed silent and their failure to see or accept the head and body were all part of the same mystical body of Christ. And reading Greg Kelly's words of seperatness really did upset me.

john | 06 December 2012  

I feel that Sandie Cornish's commentary on The Bishop's Pastoral Letter is somewhat unfair because it ventures into a different academic level, quoting encyclicals and Social Justice nuances which, I believe, would be unfamiliar to the majority of the Letter's audience. I applaud the Letter for what it set out to acknowledge and achieve; I only wish I had read it first in my own diocese, where the 'elephant in the room' hasn't thus far been noticed, much less commented upon.

Alan Miller | 06 December 2012  

I couldn't agree more with Sandie that when silence or denial in the system condones criminal acts against minors it is more than the individual perpetrators who do damage.I think we need to expose the effect on the individual victims and the effect that the system's response has on the victims. Many have not spoken up because of the pressure of the latter.

Chris Gardner | 06 December 2012  

Thanks Sandie for telling it like it is. Bishop Greg O'Kelly's pastoral letter suggests he doesn't understand the connection of the abuse to the clergy who were doing it and protecting them from being prosecuted. It is also difficult for a reader of the letter to see it as other than an uninformed observation of the connection to evil that is evident in the protection of the abusing clergy. I can only hope he lets some of those abused read any future proposed pastoral letters on abuse that he intends to issue. Thanks again for expressing the issue so clearly. Carmel

Carmel Sheehan | 06 December 2012  

Frank Golding, what's the problem with 'sins'. Sins are offences against God. Crimes are offences against the law. Not all sins are crimes. Not all crimes are sins, but I guess they would be if governments were totally moral and ethical. Many crimes are also offences against society, and these ones certainly are also sins. It is silly to say 'That isn't a crime, it's a sin', but it's just as silly to say 'That isn't a sin, it's a crime'.

Gavan Breen | 06 December 2012  

Here we go again, Gavan Breen is up in arms because Frank Golding quite rightly points out that sex abuse is a crime and should be treated and called as such. Gavan assumes everyone knows what he means when he writes 'God' and believes in it too. But what if you don't Gavan? Then calling something a 'sin' is just a closed community in-phrase that means nothing of any value to those outside of the group. Of course, recent history shows us all that indeed, the Catholic Church does regard sex abuse as a sin, or 'misdeed' as I saw here some weeks back, and not a crime at all. Which rather puts peoples backs up when the word 'sin' is used so freely, and particularly so when people write in to defend its use above that of calling it a crime first. Of course, if you want to kid yourself that is up to you, but I for one knew exactly what Frank had in mind, and I support him, strongly. Sex abuse is a crime, pure and simple. Those who wish to paint it as a sin, dismiss its seriousness and should be ashamed.

janice wallace | 06 December 2012  

Greg O'Kelly still doesn't understand that the attitudes of Catholics who say it was just a number of perpetrators who did this and a few who covered up, is preventing them from facing the truth about how our catholic culture of denial and ostracising critics has fostered the climate that helps such crimes flourish. Jesus himself would lose patience with clerics who like the Pharisees are so caught up with what makes a good catholic they fail to see just what it is about our culture that still leaves our children vulnerable.

Pam Krstic | 06 December 2012  

GAVAN BREEN you asked the question: "what's the problem with 'sins'. Sins are offences against God. Crimes are offences against the law". I'll try to answer it as plainly as I can.

The difference is that in this context a sin is defined by the laws of the church and mediated by the church helping the sinner come to terms with God through repentance. The victim of a sin? No where to be seen in church handling of sins.

A crime, by contrast, is a breach of the law of the society (it may also be a sin) that causes injury to the victim(s), and by a process of investigation and prosecution, the victim experiences acknowledgement of the wrong and can see justice done. The concept of restitution applies for the sake of the victim. The victim wants to recover their dignity and self-respect. The criminal still has the option of seeking salvation.

The difference was starkly illustrated for me on the occasion when Cardinal (then Bishop) Pell accompanied and supported one of the worst criminals, Father Gerard Ridsdale, to face court in Ballarat years ago while his many unaccompanied victims made their own way to court with not a skerrick of support by the church.

In the context we are discussing here, there is another difference: the crime is committed against a vulnerable child and the whole of society - not just the church that employed the perpetrator - has a duty of care to look after the interests of the victim. The crime represents a massive breach of the simple trust that the child and the family placed in the person who turns out to be a criminal (and a sinner).

Frank Golding | 06 December 2012  

I always regret giving offence but I feel that Fr Mick Mac Andrew's claim that I attacked Bishop O'Kelly is unfounded. I acknowledged the good intention of the pastoral letter. I acknowledged the truth of much of its content. But I pointed to a missed opportunity. That is not a personal attack.
I was trying to draw attention to part of our Church teaching that can help us in this situation. Perhaps in further pastoral responses it could be used. Pastoral concern for people shaken by clery sexual abuse is the context of Bishop O'Kelly's letter and it is the context of my response to it.
Nothing any of us can say about these matters is ever adequate, but we can keep seeking truth, justice and healing together. Imputing 'agendas' doesn't help.

Sandie Cornish | 06 December 2012  

Spot on Sandy. Well done. I agree Bishop O'Kelly not only missed the point, he missed an opportunity and repeated Cardinal Pell’s mistakes. That is nothing but the truth. If he takes offence at that, then he has misread your intent and/or he needs to listen more to what lay Catholics are saying. I would rather people took notice of what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has said and written. He has the knowledge, understanding and empathy to represent the victims and in fact the whole Body of Christ. Truly the individuals are ultimately responsible for their crimes. However, the structure within which they operate will either encourage or discourage criminal activity. The structure can also be an element in forming the organisational culture. If the structure is inappropriate, it can be vulnerable to the development of a negative culture. A hierarchical structure will offer the leader(s) inordinate power. I have long observed this happening in organisations within which I have worked, and in schools which my children attended, where the leader sets the culture. And now I see from what has been reported that a similar thing has happened within dioceses and effectively independent orders of the Church. If the leader is a criminal, he can set up a criminal culture. This is then readily perpetuated as newcomers are “inducted”. We need to change the structure because the problem is systemic. Broken Rites notes that sometimes “Towards Healing” has worked, but that is hardly a ringing endorsement and in the end it depends on the leaders – whether they truthfully implement it. Even then, it is a reactive approach. It is too little too late to effectively heal those who have already metaphorically (or actually) jumped over the cliff. We need a proactive approach, to stop criminals from victimising children and other vulnerable people in the first place. Support Catholics for Renewal, it seems to be our best opportunity for change:

Frank S | 06 December 2012  

Look, let's get to the real issue that some commenting here are offended with - that a lay person - and a woman at that - dared make a suggest or hint of a challenge towards a bishop. I don't think the humble bishop would have taken an offence, but already we see the rumblings of the clergy boys' club at work - which is the root cause of the sex abuse problem in the first place.

AURELIUS | 08 December 2012  

Why is it that only women like Sandie in the Church can see the problems of the Church with un-blinkered eyes? And why do men like Mick Mac Andrew still fail to get the message that there is a deeply rooted cultural element that is about the abuse of power. Mick says in his post that he 'published comments' and then 'allowed' the people to speak 'about their feelings'. Since when do the people need to be 'allowed' to speak, and why only 'about their feelings'? Why didn't he 'allow' them to question either himself or the bishop? Perhaps that would be getting too close to being accountable to 'the people'.

And why does he think that Sandie should be supporting the bishop and himself if she disagrees with what they say? Is there no room for public discourse within the Church on these matters?

Ginger Meggs | 08 December 2012  

Thank you Sandie.
The Catholic church teaching on Social Justice is hollow while bishops and clerics live unjustly. It is the hierarchy which has sustained this organised and institutionalised culture of social sin by hiding profit and sexual sin and not admitting guilt, not asking forgiveness and not making just reparation. Clerics cannot blame the media or any one else.That it is a seriously flawed system, is obvious to many both inside and out, yet still there is a sinful lack of response and responsibility, (apart from defensive,patronising or threatening rhetoric).Good deeds do not excuse the bad. Justice, when given reluctantly,sparingly.. is used as a token..The church cannot with hold justice (LOVE) or deem some more 'worthy' of its JUSTICE, LOVE . The church, in stating it is a ,or 'THE only', representation of Christ and God, must act like God. Justly.To all.We are all sons and daughters of God, all sacred.The church must leave ancient old testament ways and revolutionise,CHANGE;embrace the Good news, and become the radical and transformational gift it was meant to be..'Social' sin needs social justice.

Catherine | 08 December 2012  

Sadly, Ginger Meggs, I think the answer to your question is because the church is no longer the centre of community life. The sense of loyalty that led to a tolerance of inequalities no longer exists, so both loyalty and tolerance has diminished.

AURELIUS | 17 December 2012  

Apologies that I have just accessed this article. But Mr Ference deserves a response. Mike states "Catholic church hierarchy had their chance, many times, to do the right thing when it comes to clergy sex abuse and the all too often cover ups" Please give statistics of Australian Bishops convicted of cover ups and jails where they crack rocks. Till then "innocent till proven guilty" There is one USA hierarch convicted of misdemeanour ]not felony] re 'cover up' [not imprisoned]

father john george | 19 December 2012  

The sin and crime of the priest who molests children is his, but the sin of baring false witness is the Church's. False witness against a child is unfathomable. This is also a crime in our society of which hiding behind religious freedom, the only thing stopping its enforcement in this case.. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

jaxton | 19 December 2012  

Aurelius the RCC has a population of 1.5 billion people with thousands of international and ethnic acculturated localities. No painstaking scientific global researches surveying 1.5 billion RCC people exist. Surely you are not globally extrapolating from anecdotally based hypothesis?

father john george | 20 December 2012  

MORE PERSPECTIVE The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the independent research organization out of Georgetown University, has been tracking abuse data regarding United States Catholic clergy for several years. CARA issues annual reports through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). According to CARA, here are the numbers of accusations involving a current minor that were even deemed "credible" each year from 2005 to 2011: Year / # of accusations 2011 7 2010 8 2009 6 2008 10 2007 4 2006 14 2005 9 Meanwhile, according to government numbers, in 2010 alone, there were some 63,527 reported cases of child sexual abuse in the United States – an alarming societal problem that has received scant media attention.

Father John George | 31 December 2012  

No, Father George - I am not "globally extrapolating from anecdotally based hypothesis" - I am merely speaking from my personal experience as one of those 1.5 billion members of the RCC. Is that enough?

AURELIUS | 02 January 2013  

Thanks Father George for poisoning it for everyone. Try these numbers from the US Catholic News Service.

W Tonks | 11 February 2013  

I agree with W. Tonks view. And, if it might be of any slight consolation, I have quoted your comment at
relating to the injured Father's poisoned-pen at work lately in his Marring that discussion as well. Cheerio!

Jay Douglas | 18 October 2013  

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