Child abuse inquiries as catalyst for deep change in the Catholic Church

Justice Peter McClellan (centre), Chair of the Royal Commission into child sex abuse, delivers a media statement with his fellow commissioners in Sydney. AAP/Damian Shaw

The awful record of the institutional Catholic church’s leadership in dealing with the scandal of clerical sex abuse of minors has clearly, and rightly, been a trigger for the federal government’s Royal Commission into sexual abuse of children in Australia.

This is a record that has already prompted other inquiries here and overseas.

It would indeed be wrong to ignore the failings of other churches and secular institutions as recent events in Britain have revealed, most notably, the lax performance of the BBC in the scandalous behaviour of their pin-up star, Jimmy Savile over decades of impunity in abusing children.

British DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile OBE, who is alleged to have committed several hundred counts of sexual abuse offences between 1955 and 2009. (Photo by R. Poplowski/Fox Photos/Getty Images) Fox Photos/Getty Images/R. Poplowski

The tentacles of this scandal have reached to a variety of other secular institutions, including children’s homes and hospitals. The terms of the Australian inquiry , as announced by the federal government, have reasonably addressed such concerns by including institutions other than the Catholic Church in the Commission’s remit. Closed institutional power over the vulnerable, wherever it exists, is a key factor in the perpetuation of abusive conditions.

Even so, the Catholic Church has and continues to have major problems dealing with this issue of clerical sexual abuse, and virtually every day produces new evidence in a variety of countries, not only of abuse by clergy, but of negligence, cover-up, concealment, and deceit that have contributed to dreadful injustice to victims.

Significantly, these problems have combined with other tensions and stresses within the church to expose an even deeper crisis in the church’s structures and doctrines, and have contributed to a broad disaffection of laity and significant sections of the clergy with the church’s leadership and its exercise of authority. In Ireland, for example, the previous widespread attitudes of respect and deference towards church authorities and institutions have almost entirely disappeared, conspicuously amongst the young, but even dramatically amongst the older generations.

The sex abuse crisis has crystallised for many Catholics an alienation from church structures and authority that began with the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 reasserting the standard ban on artificial contraception.

It has been confirmed by the passing of the years as a crucial turning point in the Church’s grip upon the obedience of Catholics, since it is clear that a vast majority of Catholic laypeople disregard the ban with no compunction and that hardly any clergy in the industrially advanced world advert to it in their preaching. It is true that some American bishops made contraception a sort of issue, along with the more central one of abortion, in their ill-judged intervention in the recent American election, but the total failure of that intervention to have a significant impact on the outcome merely makes my point.

Sadly, loss of authority on this matter has reinforced the determination of church leaders to hold the fort on a range of disciplinary and doctrinal issues that the reforms of Vatican Council II opened the way to review. This has produced numerous exercises of arbitrary, unconscionable and clumsy disciplinary measures against clergy, such as the forced resignation of

Former Bishop of Toowoomba William Morris, who was removed from the position by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. AAP/Catholic Media Office

Bishop Morris of Townsville, the disciplining of the Irish priests, Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian Darcy, for writing about issues that the Vatican regards as closed, the clamping down on the organisation representing American nuns, the United States Leadership Conference of Women Religious (USLCWR) which has had the indignity of being placed under the guidance and oversight of, guess what, a man, the Archbishop of Seattle. The Vatican apparently found fault with the Conference’s fidelity in promoting church teaching particularly on life issues.

Since the liberalising winds of Vatican II, the various orders of nuns have been in the forefront of new thinking and fresh policies in religious life.

Much of this campaign of repression, as indeed, the child sexual abuse and the cover-ups, are connected with the Church leadership’s obsession with all matters to do with sex and the regulation of it. This is not indeed new, because since the early years of Christianity, there has been a concern with the control of sexual conduct.

Such concern was understandable in certain contexts and cultural backgrounds, involving dubious sexual practises in societies surrounding the early church, but this was augmented by a later obsession with the supposedly supreme virtues of virginity, and a grudging concession that married sex was only legitimate when geared (somehow) towards reproduction.

Add St. Augustine’s view that Original Sin was transmitted through the generations by the “lust” accompanying sexual reproduction and you have a heady mix. One might have expected that this history would have produced more vigilance in detecting and confronting sexual crimes by the clergy, but by a weird irony this deep suspicion of sex seems to have been an element in the collusive attitudes of church authorities to the sexual abuses of children by its ministers. It is as if the belief that all sexual activity is somehow tainted makes the egregious destruction of childhood innocence just another failing to be expected. Or perhaps the concentration on policing sexual misdemeanours of the laity helped blind authorities to the offences of the supposedly chaste and celibate clergy.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Saint Peter Basilica in Vatican City. AAP/Claudio Peri

Of course, another potent factor in the secretive and dictatorial reactions of too many Catholic leaders to the current crisis is the fear of a loss of authority. This is not merely the outcome of a selfish attitude to the loss of personal and institutional power and status (though one can never underestimate the effects of that in human affairs) but a genuine alarm at the splintering of what the authorities see as orthodox belief.

This reflects a rigid conception of what it is to be a Catholic Christian, a conception that has long historic roots in thundering denunciations of heresy, promulgation of excommunications, division of Christian communities, and persecutions. Other communions, of course, have a similar record, but the tendency to centralise authority in the papal office and its administrative support team in Rome has created a uniquely authoritarian, indeed dictatorial, style of leadership.

The style is not new, of course: it dates back to the consolidation of Roman clerical power in the reforms of the 10th century which also introduced the regime of priestly celibacy. Yet it has proved extraordinarily resistant to the widespread demise in the modern world of the secular models of imperial and monarchical sovereignty from which it was largely derived.

This picture of the role of authority has been buttressed by a distorted image of the history of Catholic doctrine as a constant preservation, with some elaboration, of an initially given “deposit of faith”, inerrantly propounded and defended by papal authority. I have no space to expose the defects in this image, but it is built so deeply into the present structure of the Catholic Church that it would require a drastic change in the church’s system of governance and its self-understanding to root it out.

Defence of the image and fear of its reshaping is behind so much of the Vatican’s reactionary efforts to overturn what its officials see as deviant developments from Vatican II.

Justice Peter McClellan, who will head the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. AAP/Damian Shaw

When priests question the ban on even discussing the ordination of women, or “colonial” bishops dare to point out that the drastic decline in vocations to the priesthood could have something to do with clerical celibacy or with denial of women clergy, the fury from above and from those below who share the Vatican picture of authority is immense.

Also reinforcing the anxieties of Roman authorities is the increasing evidence that large numbers of ordinary Catholics have already made up their minds about the irrelevance of the Vatican and Episcopal fulminations against artificial contraception, homosexual practice and gay marriage, pre-marital sex, assisted reproduction, and even certain aspects of euthanasia and abortion. International surveys have consistently shown this cleavage between official teaching and the sincere beliefs and practice of the flock. For instance, surveys in the United States regularly show that the official Vatican line on contraception and abortion has very little influence upon what Catholics think. One recent poll of American Catholics in 2009 found that only 14 percent agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal.

A 2008 poll showed that 86 percent of Catholics approve of abortion when a woman’s health is seriously endangered, 78 percent think it should be possible for a woman to obtain an abortion when a pregnancy is the result of rape, and 66 percent supported health insurance coverage for abortion when test results show that a fetus has a severe abnormal condition.

On contraception, a 2008 United States poll showed that “sexually active Catholic women older than 18 are just as likely (98%) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99%). Even among those who attend church once a week or more, 83 percent of sexually active Catholic women use a form of contraception that is banned by the Vatican.” Recent Gallup Poll figures have shown that 40 percent of Catholics (compared to 41% of non- Catholics) found abortion “morally acceptable”. In another poll, 44% of regular Catholic churchgoers found homosexual relations morally acceptable and 53% of them agreed that heterosexual relations outside of marriage were morally acceptable. The percentages in both cases were higher amongst the non-regular church-going Catholics (61% and 77% respectively).

These figures tell a remarkable story. Outside the United States the situation is often similar, if not more dramatic, certainly in predominantly Catholic European countries. The Vatican either ignores this disjunction between official teaching and general belief and practice or treats it as a sign of widespread apostasy.

But the time for such lofty disregard is over, and the crisis about the institution’s profound failure to deal with the sexual predations of its clergy should be an opportunity to abandon the defensive and arrogant attitudes to the modern world and to so many of the church’s own adherents that has been for too long the church’s leaderships’s stock in trade.

It is an irony that this opportunity will come courtesy of the righteous fury and just judgement of elements in that very “outside” modern world so scorned by the Vatican.


Pope Benedict XVI has announced his retirement. Given his commitment to negating the impetus of Vatican II and his weak leadership in the child abuse crisis, his retirement signals an opportunity for the Church to provide new, consultative, non-dictatorial stewardship and to re-examine its self-image.

I am not confident that the cardinals, especially those appointed by Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II, will have the character and nerve to do so. But if they do, then the words of Malcolm in Shakespeare’s Macbeth about the executed Thane of Cawdor will have a special relevance. To paraphrase the Bard: “Nothing in his papacy became him like the leaving it.”