What we should be doing?

Richard Adams

Thursday, 16 February 2017

In this article Richard offers a penetrating analysis of the issues at stake for us, asking some very pointed questions of catholics, and for that matter of all christians and all concerned citizens. Nobody can wash their hands in this issue and say: "I had nothing to do with it!" What Richard asks here of catholics, the Royal Commission will be asking of every Australia before they're done:

Surely we need to ask what it is in our theology, our actual beliefs, our rules and practices, our structures, has allowed so much evil to happen to children and the vulnerable. Now I think that whether the Church leadership likes it or not, and one suspects that they won’t, the Royal Commission is going to be asking such questions and perhaps suggesting some uncomfortable answers.

There are various suggestions. Some think we should be about:

  1. Raising awareness of child abuse and/or

  2. Protecting children.

I do understand that child abuse within the Church and within families has been going on for thousands of years. It is arguable that we have not been aware nearly enough―so point taken.

Few would suggest that we should not protect children. To suggest otherwise is equivalent to being against motherhood – in fact that perhaps is exactly what it is. Again this is a valid objective but is that all?

There is something that is missing and I think it is important, so important that if we are not about it, we might as well all go home now.

Here, according to the National Catholic Reporter, is what Tom Doyle said in his address on February 7 to the Australian Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse:

"If you want to recommend one thing, it is that there has to be a primary concern on the care of the present victims, the ones who are there, those whose souls have either been damaged beyond repair or who are seriously suffering," he said.

"Listening — letting them cry, be angry, yell, scream, whatever ... and trying to help the people understand, you know: 'You aren't guilty of anything,'" is "more important than all the protocols, all the structures, all the policies, all the paperwork, all the talk, talk, talk that has been going on," said Doyle.

I heard the telecast too. That is exactly what I feel and have been trying to do long before I joined this group. It is what I want to do. I do not believe that it is Christian to close our eyes to the present consequences of past evil in the Church. Some have insisted that we do just that. I reject that absolutely.

Some of the dangers of getting it wrong

Let’s return briefly to considering the protection of children. The argument is not about whether we should protect children. Of course we should but let’s not pretend we are the only ones that think that or that we have particular skills to offer.

I am not sure that some of the strategies currently employed supposedly to do this are actually productive or useful. For instance, gaoling for the few remaining years of his life some half-demented old priest or religious brother may go some way to convincing his victims that they themselves were not responsible for what happened but such punishment contributes no protection for today’s vulnerable and deters the powerful not at all. It is not the right solution so let’s not pretend that it is. It is the mentality of an eye for an eye and as Christians we can have no part in that.

Far better would be not alleging that the victims are liars when we know that what they said was true, not using every legal device to avoid culpability and not suing them for costs when deficiencies of Australian law deny them justice (the Ellis case comes to mind for all three).

Statutes of limitation should not limit compassion

We need to be the ones to show compassion to the victims. Statutes of limitation are about the increasing difficulty of justly assessing the culpability of the perpetrator, not lessening the need to care for the broken souls of the victims. Their sufferings have remained hidden for too long. It is not something in the past but current now.

Don’t limit protection to legal assessment

In seeking to protect children we run the risk of putting too much faith in methodologies for assessing people. This is what speaking of psychological assessments Teresa Bernadette Devlin, (Chief Executive Officer of the National Board for Safeguarding Children with the Catholic Church in Ireland.) said to the Royal Commission:

Now, if you or I went for a risk assessment today, the best that we could hope for is low risk.

There is no-one that is no risk. It doesn't happen. No-one would say you're no risk. So if someone comes back with a low risk assessment, what do you do?

I do not want to misquote Teresa Devlin or quote her out of context. She was talking about many other things but her organisation has discovered that it cannot use psychological risk assessment (a step beyond police checks of past criminality) to predict the guilt or otherwise of an accused priest.

There was a time when priests were assumed to be “no risk” but events have shown the deficiencies of that theory. If you cannot trust a priest who can you as a Catholic trust? Certainly we should not assume that passing a working with children check is sufficient to protect children. That would be to make the same mistake as we did with priests but substituting one institution (the police) for another (the Church).

Just as banks do not trust their employees not to steal but design procedures to expose wrongdoing so we have to be aware of situations that imperil children and make sure that wrongdoing is uncovered. That is expertise I do not have. However, it is important also not to be naïve about potential loop holes in such systems. Putting glass doors on confessionals will not stop children being in peril if the potential perpetrator is free to organise one-to-one tuition outside school hours. Who has the authority to stop that happening? Is authority the answer or should we be seeking the right attitude towards compliance from the potential perpetrator.

What does this mean for our faith?

Many people are absolutely disgusted by the behaviour of some in the priesthood—rotten apples for sure, and in canon law terminology correctly described as scandal but it is not the whole issue nor is it the biggest scandal.

Certainly paedophilia, that is the sexual attraction of adults (mostly male) for prepubescent children, is not limited to Catholic priests but doubtless occurs widely in every culture and society. Older children are also abused and that is called ephebophilia. It is still child abuse. Much of child abuse is hidden so accurate statistics are not easily found. Evidence was presented to the Royal Commission relating not only to most faiths, including Judaism, but also youth movements like the Scouts and the Church of England Boys Society. It has occurred in many exclusive public schools as well as the juvenile justice system and state care homes. This information should not be used to excuse child abuse by anyone including Catholic priests and religious. Francis Sullivan noted that about 40% of the abuse reported to the Royal Commission occurred in the context of the Australian Catholic Church. It has also occurred internationally where we were told it did not (since it was just an Anglo-Saxon problem). Lawyers representing the diocese of Regensburg are expecting up to 700 cases of sexual abuse of choir boys at the diocese’s cathedral. Regensburg is where Fr Georg Ratzinger served as Domkapellmeister, at St. Peters Cathedral. It is not alleged that he was responsible but clearly something was rotten there.

Bad though these observations are for the Church I think there is something worse and the Royal Commission is focussed on that problem. What has really been atrocious has been the institutional response, not the failings of the weak and fallible.

What can be said? The best way to put it is that it looks very much as though the response of the powerful in the Church has been to invoke Machiavelli rather than Our Lord. Mendacious behaviour has been actual policy. For many that poses the most serious threat to faith. Is it our problem? We are unlikely to be able to change the institution but we are the Church and each of us has responsibility for what we ourselves think and what we say to others.

The Gospel message of God’s love for the downtrodden and broken seems to have been displaced by something entirely different. We need to be thinking about what has occurred and what we might do.

Surely we need to ask what it is in our theology, our actual beliefs, our rules and practices, our structures, has allowed so much evil to happen to children and the vulnerable. Now I think that whether the Church leadership likes it or not, and one suspects that they won’t, the Royal Commission is going to be asking such questions and perhaps suggesting some uncomfortable answers.

I think we have to go beyond what the Royal Commission determines because they are about what Australian Law can do to provide justice and to protect children. We, or at least I for one, believe that we have to be about preserving the Gospel because that is what has been entrusted to us as a Church to do. It is what the bishops say they have been doing though their methods have been very secular and perhaps what they have been defending has been their own actions rather than the Gospel.

Again Tom Doyle has pointed out that we have been ignoring the spiritual damage caused by child abuse. We cannot be Church unless we get this one right. We need to think about and understand that damage. We also have to be conscious that we cannot put victims up for interrogation. These are people who have been severely hurt. They are not there to help us fix our church.

I think we also need to understand doctrine, how some beliefs have arisen and what may need to change. For most people much of what we believe about priesthood is not doctrine but what we were taught as children and have grown up believing without much adult thought.

Here are some questions that I think we need to be willing to re-examine:

  1. What do we actually believe Our Lord was on about?

  2. What is the proper meaning of obedience?

  3. What do we believe about sex?

  4. What do we believe about the role of women in the Church?

  5. What is the responsibility of the Church for children?

  6. Who are the Church?

Those beliefs greatly affect our view of priesthood.

What has happened in our church has been awful. Rather than all walk out we need to ask what God might be asking us to do.