Anyone with any exposure to the media cannot be unaware of the ongoing saga with regard to child sexual abuse which just seems to go on and on. Here in Australia, two weeks ago, one of the Australian archbishops was forced to step down after it was discovered that he covered up instances of child sexual abuse. Then there's Chile, where the entire Chilean Catholic leadership
Here in my home town, Melbourne, most of the crimes occurred during the reign of a liberal Church environment, while in Chile and Ireland, the crimes occurred within a conservative institutional framework: It's a problem that crosses factional lines. Furthermore, investigations into the abuse show that it has historically extended all the way back, well before Vatican Two, so it's not a problem, as some "conservatives" would like to say, of Church liberalisation, Many of the crimes occurred during the papacy of "conservative" Popes and during periods of traditional orthodoxy. These statements are are not my opinions, they are statements of fact.
A lot of rubbish has been written about the issue but as I see it, the sexual abuse saga needs to be considered on two levels; that of the personal and of the institutional.
With regard to the personal level, in any institution of any size there are always going to be members that are going to go bad. the Catholic Church is no exception. The job of a priest is hard, temptation is constant and the selection criteria are going to favour either the holy or the weird. Furthermore, priests are men and like all men, sinners: it's a fact of life that you're going to get a few bad eggs. From the figures that I have seen, it appears that roughly ten percent of priests were child sexual predators, a figure that appears to be less than that seen in the general community.
I grew up in a working class migrant community and in my childhood stories of "bad priests" were a not infrequent thing; the issues involved usually implied illegitimate children, fraud and alcoholism. The thing is that most of the community could make a clear distinction between the actions of the an individual priest and the institution of the Church. Individual priest may have been bad but the Church as a institution was good.
It's my opinion that it is at this, institutional level, where the sexual abuse saga seems to have done the most damage. It's at this level where the Church has been undermined most grievously. It's widely acknowledged that sexual abuse saga was a significant factor in the dechristianisation of Ireland.
The church is in an unusual position because, given its moral nature, it must be seen as an exemplar of what it preaches. If it fails to do this it seen as a corrupt organisation with all the negative sociological and religious implications that entertains. When you espouse high moral standards yet turn a blind eye to the corruption in the ranks you're going to be seen as a hypocrite, which totally undermines your original moral position. The bottom line is that the church, as an institution, failed to adequately deal with the problem of sexual abuse at the institutional level. And now it is paying the consequences.
And this institutional failure needs to be seen in a broader context. While sexual abuse allegations are the salacious topic du jour, the financial shenanigans of the church have proven to be just as resistant to eradication as well. Theft does not generate as much moral disgust as the sexual abuse of children but it's a moral evil none the less, and it's an evil that's been extremely difficult to eradicate. A healthy institution would purge itself of these corrupt elements and yet it can't. Rather, it has taken secular outsiders, sometimes quite hostile to the Church, to expose and force change upon an institutional apparatus which seems blind to its own failings and responsibilities.*
A common theme which emerges from investigations into the matter is that a repeated motivation among many of the clergy for keeping the abuse quiet was the desire to avoid scandal. In other words, the clergy were more concerned with need for the church to appear to be good rather than it actually being good. I don't know how to phrase this less bluntly but this, dear readers, is Pharisiacism 101, all done with the most noble of intentions of preserving the the image of sanctity while turning a blind eye to corruption, and in the worst instances, persecuting those who exposed the crimes.
What's very interesting in this whole saga is that the laity seem to have had a greater grasp of the seriousness of situation than their clerical superiors, but given the monophoric structure of the Catholic Church, meant that their concerns went unheeded. Bishop Long, himself a victim of sexual abuse, highlighted this mentality in his testimony to the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse here in Australia.
MS FURNESS: You've also heard evidence that clericalism has been described as a factor or playing a role in the abuse of children and the response to that abuse and the connection between the deference and power that is part of clericalism and the more traditional approach of some seminarians. Now, do you see it like that?
BISHOP LONG: I do, and I see the clericalism as a by-product of a certain model of Church informed or underpinned or sustained by a certain theology. I mean, it's no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I'd describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained. So you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid.I personally think that this is a superficial analysis but does illustrate the institutional mentality of the clergy and their hierarchy of "holiness". The problem with this institutional mentality is that it a fertile breeding ground for the Pharisaical mentality and it's a mentality that those of conservative temperament are particularly prone to.
I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it's old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism, if you like.
BISHOP LONG: Accountability in that perfect Church model only works upwards. You're accountable to the person above you. As long as the bishop has the backing of the Pope, he's safe. As long as the priest has the backing of his bishop, he's safe. There's no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards, and that's the critical problem, as far as I see. That discipleship of equals calls into question that upward accountability that is in operation as a result of that ecclesiastical model of a perfect society where everyone knows their place and the pecking order is strictly dictated by ordination.
What the child sexual abuse saga has illustrated is that there is something seriously wrong with the institutional governance of the Church, and while it does appear to be making some attempts to change church procedures in order to protect children it--as an institution--still seems clueless as to why the problems occurred in the first place. As I see it, the institutional cancer still remains.
Traditionalist interpretations with regard to the failure of Christianity in the 20th Century tend to see the issue as one of disobedience of the faithful to the hierarchy, i.e. a failure to respect authority. But clearly a obedient faithful which which knowingly kept quiet about the abuse--under the authority of a bishop-- would have been just as morally reprehensible as the hierarchy which turned a blind eye. The institutional church is much like a general blaming his troops for a battlefield loss, it never occurs to them that he problem may be with the quality of the generalship and the decisions made. It's this blindness which is the core of the problem and it's one of the reasons for the dechristinisation of the West. I have this sneaking intuition that the clergy may have inadvertently set themselves against God.
*A long report commissioned by the Catholic Church into the nature and extent of the sexual abuse crisis.