Preventing clerical child abuse goes beyond paedophile priests

Dark days at the Vatican. Philipp Bohnenstengel

The blame game about child abuse in the Catholic Church continues. While the Vatican are to give due consideration to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s demand to remove offenders and hand them over to the civil authorities, a major sticking point remains. The church puts canon law above civil law; outsiders such as the UN are depicted as “interfering”. At times, the church also argues that these matters are historical and that it was not the responsibility of the Vatican but of local dioceses and their bishops.

The reputation of the church is clearly a central concern for its current defenders, and its public apologies to victims tend to ring hollow. This reflects a central political stand-off of our postmodern times: are we really prepared to accept theocratic authority as superior to the legal rules of a shared civil society?

The institutional abuse of children is certainly not limited to the Catholic Church, but as a case study, the Catholic scandal does highlight the complexity of learning about child protection in any society. There are many nuances here, which might be missed if we focus too narrowly on the problem of “paedophile priests”. The problem at large can be wrongly reduced to an aberration, merely to an unfortunate prevalence of bad apples in the barrel. Instead, the barrel itself must also bear critical examination.

A wider lens

For a start, much of the proven abuse in the church was physical and emotional, and not sexual – though these processes were often intermingled. Regimes of cruelty were fostered by physical isolation, where adults had unbridled power over children. We know that institutional abuse in a wide range of settings is characterised by multiple, not single, forms of isolation. If we think about the creation of isolation and its predictable risks in systems, we can widen our focus beyond the sexual pathology of individuals and begin to see how abuse can arise from the collective policy decisions of those with good intentions.

Intellectual and cultural isolation is important: many abusers apparently lived in a personal bubble, which many had been in since adolescence. The physical sites of abuse, too, certainly contained opportunities for completely private individual acts of assault, which certainly occurred. But cultural isolation also meant that the abuse might at times also be shamelessly public.

Nuns would strip and publicly humiliate girls. Not only did that sadistic practice highlight the difficulty of differentiating sexual from non-sexual abuse, it also tells us that the argument about patriarchy in the church is a red herring. In the documented cases of abuse by nuns, the physical separation of boys from girls shaped the type of abuse of power that occurred. Yes, paedophile priests certainly exist – but they are not the whole story.

As for “celibacy” (another hypothesis floated in debates about this topic), this is a Trojan horse for abuser confidence, not a cause. Where is the evidence that celibacy per se makes adults abusive? What is relevant, on this point, is that the rhetoric of purity that comes with celibacy can psychologically disorientate us. Children and their families trusted religious staff because purity (especially when linked to deistic authority) is incompatible with danger. This was the confidence trick relied upon by abusers to go undetected and unaccountable.

For many abusers, and for many years, it worked. There are resonances here with current cases of abuse by celebrities and the assumptions of trust implied. For example, in the case of Jimmy Savile, parents naturally assumed the BBC was a safe place for their children to visit. As became evident in that case, and in all of the cases in which religious staff were naïvely trusted, we make assumptions about those acting in loco parentis at our peril.

We should also emphasise the complicity of civil authorities. The UN is correct to demand immediate and comprehensive criminal investigations, but history even cautions us on this point. In Ireland, a series of government inquiries has revealed how, time after time, the police were ineffectual in stopping abuse; they sent away complainants, and refused to follow up their pleas for justice. They accepted the refusals of bishops to retain secret files held by the church on offenders. They knew when offenders were being moved from one part of the country to another. In one case, detailed in part two of the 2009 Murphy Report, a priest (Father Edmondus) who had photographed children in hospital in London came to the attention of Scotland Yard. The photos were sent to colleagues in Dublin, who promptly handed the material to church authorities without further investigation.

This brings us back to the start. For justice to be done, not only must advocates of civil and secular authority now stand up to theocratic power; that power’s agents in the criminal justice system must also prove themselves trustworthy and effective. To end on a positive note, the Irish inquiries also praised those officers who took their job seriously and acted efficiently. We need more of this, and less confidence that the church can sort out its own mess on its own terms. As has been demonstrated by inquiry after inquiry, the latter is simply not tenable.

Progress over this matter will only be made if the collective voice of survivors guides the response of civil agencies. Investigators should place their relationships with survivor groups at the heart of their activities. Cooperation with church “authorities” will of course be needed, but that is a pragmatic requirement, not a cue for traditional deference. The church can no longer be approached credulously. The lessons learned from past failures should be our guide on this matter; above all, church “authorities” should no longer be trusted to be “authoritative”.