A “positive story” on clerical sex abuse?

Barneys Blog

Barney's Blog

Last night, after the ordination of Bishop Les Tomlinson, I bumped into Barney Zwartz from The Age, and we went together over to the Park Hyatt where drinks and nibbles were being served. One always has to be careful what one says to a journalist, but then one (even if that one is a journalist) always has to be careful what one says to a blogger…

I asked Barney what the latest religion story was for the paper, and he said “Sex abuse”. I thought he was talking perhaps of the Irish report, but it turns out he was talking of a report that has just been released by the Anglican Church in Australia. “It’s a positive story,” he said, “about the way they are really dealing with it.”

A positive story, perhaps, but we are still talking The Age here. Now I know that the author of any piece of writing in The Age has no control over the headline the editors decide to give their pieces, so I can’t blame Barney for the loudly negative headline that they gave to Barney’s otherwise “positive” piece. In both the print and online editions, the headline screamed: “Don’t leave clergy alone with children: report”.

In fact, in the story, what Barney has written was “They recommended clergy and youth workers should never be alone with adolescents where abuse could occur, such as a home, church or car.” As a measure, it could be called over-reactionary, but then one has to acknowledge that this measure is rather more directed than some previous “blanket” approaches. As Barney writes: “The report said the church needed to concentrate its effort on the areas of most risk, such as youth groups, rather than its present blanket approach.”

Aside from the measures being taken, it is interesting to note that according to statistics, there is little differentiation between the Anglican Church’s experience in this area and the Catholic Church’s. Which does at least tell us one thing: mandatory celibacy laws are not the (or even a) reason for the pattern of abuse in the Catholic Church, and relaxing the discipline would not be an effective measure in lowering the numbers of cases of abuse.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A “positive story” on clerical sex abuse?

  1. Pax

    It is a sensible measure to introduce to protect workers from the rare but existent cases of false accusation but there are instances where troubled individuals need one on one help and the safe way to allow this to occur is in clear glass offices so both people can be clearly seen by passers by.
    It is sad that there has to be a sacrifice of human spontaneity but prudence seems to require these steps to ensure such abuse can never take place so easliy undetected for so long.

  2. Matthias

    Pax ,as a teacher in Technical and Further Education system here in Australia, if I needed to counsel a student I always ensured that i could b seen and not heard ,and advised my colleagues to do the same thing. i also told students straight up that this was my method and they appreciated it.
    Regarding ireland’s sexual abuse saga,i was talking today to a colleague-aNorthern Irish catholic-who said that although the nuns and the brothers in Belfast were strict disciplinarians,she said that she never heard of any hint of abuse as occurred in the Southern Irish situation. She put it down to two things:
    -The Catholics in the North had enough to worry about with the troubles ,and if it did occur, the perpetrator could have been kneecapped or worse.

  3. Peregrinus

    A few points, in no particular order:

    1. I think the role played by celibacy in this crisis needs careful study with an open mind. I am, though, inclined to agree that clerical sex abuse is not really attributable to the discipline of celibacy, in large part for the reason that you mention – the experience of similar abuse in non-celibate institutions. That’s not to say that celibacy couldn’t have contributed to the environment of misunderstanding and denial in which the problem was so badly mishandled in the Catholic church but, even there, I doubt that it played such a large factor as some have suggested. But I think we need to know more about this.

    2. I very much doubt that the risk of knee-capping was a deterrent to sexual abuse in Northern Ireland. Since abuse victims rarely report the abuse until decades after the event, the prospect of retribution of any kind was slight. Nor do I find it plausible that the troubles distracted Catholics to such an extent that none of them ever thought of perpetrating sexual abuse. It is much more likely to have distracted Catholics to such an extent that none of them thought that sexual abuse was a phenomenon they needed to worry about.

    3. Northern Ireland did have instances of systematic sexual abuse, and some of these have been publicised. If it didn’t occur on the same scale as in the Republic, I suspect that is principally due to the fact that the same system of large poorly-resourced residential institutions for children in need did not prevail in Northern Ireland to anything like the same extent.

    4. It seems that large residential institutions of all denominations and none are prone to fostering, or at least accommodating, sexual abuse of this kind; it is not a specifically Catholic problem. But I do think it can have, and did have in Ireland, a specifically Catholic dimension –systematic internal and external denial followed, when denial could no longer be sustained, by cover-up and the shifting of perpetrators to other institutions. The recent Ryan report in Ireland found that lay employees who were suspected of child abuse were (usually) fired and (frequently) reported to the police, whereas clerics and religious were ignored or disciplined internally. State authorities and society generally did not consider that religious orders were, or should be, accountable to them for how they rean their institutions.

    5. I think what this points to is not celibacy, but a problem of clericalism and a faulty applied ecclesiology. Religious congregations see themselves not as business enterprises or as co-operatives, but as (spiritual) families. This has great strengths, but it also has great weaknesses. The class of “families”, after all, includes a great many dysfunctional families. It looks very much as though loyalty to family members, and to the integrity and reputation of the family, was systematically allowed to eclipse the apostolate, and even the gospel. That is appalling. But of course that is how actual families frequently behave when faced with wrongdoers in their midst – denial, excuses, justification, cover-up, and in all circumstances dogged loyalty.

    6. To jump for a moment to an only marginally-related thought it is popular in some socially conservative, politically Christian circles to trumpet “family values” as something the state, and society generally, should uphold. This has always struck me as mildly amusing language to choose, given that what the gospels have to say about families is almost entirely negative. But the sex-abuse crisis makes me think that there is substance in the gospels negativity about families, if the concept of “family” can lead a religious congregation, sincerely and explicitly committed to a gospel apostolate, to betray the gospel so badly, and so consistently, for so long. Obviuosly we need to think of concrete measures for the specific protection of children. But perhaps we need to go further, and ask ourselves what we learn from all this about our concepts of ministry, of religious life, of the role of the clergy and of the proper relationships between the clergy/religious and the church at large.