Wheels of change in tackling clerical sexual abuse still grind too slow

The Tablet 13 June 2018 | by Richard Scorer


This year’s annual report from the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) comes at a time when clerical sex abuse is back in the headlines. On Monday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, who has been accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse. The previous week, the Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, was convicted of concealing abuse committed by a priest in the 1970s.

In England and Wales, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) held a three-week hearing in December last year into abuse scandals at two Benedictine schools, Ampleforth and Downside. Following revelations about Ampleforth, the Charity Commission decided in April to strip the school of responsibility for safeguarding and to impose external oversight. For all the many reports, commissions and papal directives, the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church shows no sign of abating, nearly 40 years after it first surfaced.


The bureaucracy and language of safeguarding can easily become a kind of managerial voodoo, remote from the realities it is trying to describe. Thickets of policies and procedures can make it difficult for clergy and lay people alike to understand in simple terms precisely what should be done and by whom. Worse still, as the case of the Ampleforth teacher exposed, a narrow focus on box ticking can allow abusers to hide in plain sight.

The lesson of IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse) can be expressed in that old business school adage: culture trumps strategy every time. It is not only structures and protocols that need to be reformed, but hearts and minds. The temptation to cover up abuse for reputational reasons can be particularly acute in religious settings. The Church seeks to be a moral beacon for the world around it, yet clerical sex abuse cases and the scandals surrounding them powerfully undermine this claim. All too often this leads to a cognitive dissonance – a belief that a priest is a good man and couldn’t possibly commit such crimes – or, if the evidence is irrefutable, the offence being put down to a momentary lapse on the part of the perpetrator. A culture of victim blaming is created.

Even where the reality of abuse is recognised, reputational pressures may still discourage external reporting: a problem seriously compounded by safeguarding policies that still sometimes say “should” rather than “must” report abuse to statutory authorities, and leave wriggle room for those who prefer to keep allegations in-house. As a former head of COPCA (the Catholic Office for Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults) said to IICSA, the time has come to impose mandatory reporting requirements, backed up by legal sanctions.

If the temptation to cover up abuse can be particularly acute in the Church, so can the temptation to absolve it. The IICSA hearings were replete with instances of clerical abusers being protected from accountability by a distorted concept of forgiveness. Facile injunctions to forgive without action being taken to investigate criminal activity still infect far too much religious thinking about child abuse. It is not enough just to mark this down as muddled thinking.

But a serious reappraisal needs to probe deeper still. Looking at the Catholic Church from the outside, it seems to combine an unhealthy exaltation of the clergy with a serious neglect of their emotional well-being. Much ink has been spilt on the dangers of clericalism and in the hearings I talked about the clerical arrogance that equates the Church with God. Clearly, where priests are minded to abuse, that sense of superiority can shelter them from the reality of their behaviour and instil fear and submission in their victims.

But recognising this is only the start: the battle against clericalism in the Church has to be more than merely rhetorical. Abusive priests are often the product of a culture: it has been obvious for decades that the all-male institutional environment of the seminary can infantilise, and may be a poor preparation for life outside, particularly given the emotionally immature starting point of some seminarians. There have been new guidelines on priestly formation, reforms of the curricula, and an increased emphasis on psychological vetting of candidates for the priesthood. But little has really changed at the fundamental level, and, most problematically, many priests continue to face the terrible choice between the emotional loneliness of celibacy and the secrecy and guilt of illicit relationships.

An even more fundamental issue looms over all of this: the absence of women from the Catholic Church’s power structures. I have never believed in a simplistic or reductive relationship between gender and abuse. But there is now more than enough evidence that women are more likely to report concerns about abuse, and, in any case, greater diversity within clerical power structures would almost certainly counteract the group-think that so often underpins abuse scandals and their cover-up. The Church of England has started down this road. Women priests and bishops are most certainly not a conclusive panacea for abuse, but they will certainly help.

Facing up to all of these issues would entail a profound reappraisal. From the outside looking in, there seems little prospect of that happening. This is why the debate has travelled in the direction of the imposition of external oversight and mandatory reporting. The decision by the Charity Commission to intervene in Ampleforth may be a harbinger of things to come. The good work of safeguarding professionals in the Church should be commended, but in the absence of a more profound process of change I fear we will still be where we are now in a few years’ time.

Richard Scorer is Head of Abuse Law at Slater and Gordon UK and the author of Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis.