With child abuse, we need to talk about original sin

What is distinctive about the Catholic Church that might have fostered child abuse? David Goehring

The statistics attached to the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have confirmed what many people suspected – that while child abuse has been widespread in Christian and secular institutions, the Catholic Church is dramatically over-represented.

Of the 1,033 faith-based institutions reported to the Commission, 68% were Catholic. Even when state-run and private sites are included, the figure is 41%.

The Commissioners report that they want to “find out why there have been a significant number of perpetrators in certain institutions”. Given the extent to which our Government has handed over responsibility for publicly-funded education, health and social welfare services to the Catholic Church, so should we all.

This is not a matter of Catholic bashing but of civic responsibility. There is no question that Catholic schools and welfare institutions are now essentially shaped by professional and secular values, but this is still not uniformly the case. Grappling with the Church’s self-evident problem cannot be an in-house chat.

What is distinctive about the Catholic Church that might have fostered child abuse? The grim stories coming out of Ireland and other countries have meant this question has been part of the Western conversation for more than a decade. Compulsory celibacy, the priestly pedestal, and a cloistered culture have all been widely discussed, but what has received much less attention to date is the Church’s core ideology of childhood.

The doctrine of original sin

Despite the doubts of many (including possibly the current Pope), the Catholic Church still affirms the doctrine of original sin.

Unlike the Jews or Orthodox Christians, for more than 1,500 years the Roman Church has maintained that the sin of Adam was passed on as an unfortunate inheritance to every subsequent human being.

This meant that every baby was born guilty and bad, with its inherent human nature irrevocably corrupted and attracted to sin. This was not a marginal teaching but underpinned the distinctive brand of Christianity built out of the ruins of the Roman Empire.

The creation story was the spiritual foundation on which the Western world was made, directing how people understood the divine, each other, the natural world and, above all, themselves.

Protestants share this spiritual inheritance – indeed renewing the purity of original sin was at the heart of the Reformation – but in the past two centuries have gradually moved away from admitting this as the doctrine became increasingly difficult to sell in a religious free market.

In recent decades, Catholic theologians have also tried to reinterpret the dogma in creative ways, but they are still not allowed to renounce it altogether. For good reason, the Vatican maintains that original sin is indispensable to the Church’s claim to hold a monopoly over salvation.

If everyone is not inherently guilty and bad, why does everyone need to be saved? Why else does every baby need to be forgiven for their sins through a Catholic baptism?

Original sin and the Royal Commission

Is there a relationship between the doctrine of original sin and child abuse? Could the idea that every person, small child and revered priest alike, was innately a sinner, have fostered self-justification, false forgiveness and institutional cover-ups?

It is likely that belief in original sin promoted the organisational culture of ignoring abuse and protecting abusers which seems to have been particularly characteristic of Catholic communities. Because both the victim and perpetrator were already sinners, and inclined to sin by their very nature, there could be a perverse tolerance of what had occurred.

Paradoxically it was the obsessive focus on sin (especially sexual sin) and the ready availability of forgiveness, which could downgrade the enormity of what had occurred. As Tony Coady has previously noted on The Conversation:

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.

Echoes of such thinking continue in some of the recent responses by the Church leadership to the crisis.

The element of original sin theology which has received most attention is how the doctrine justified attempts to beat depravity out of children though harsh discipline. Survivors frequently recall how they were told they were being punished for the sake of their eternal salvation.

There is little doubt that seeing the child as innately depraved legitimated sadistic bashings and abusive punishments which in turn probably fostered paedophilia.

The complexity of this issue is highlighted, however, by the fact that the harsh discipline was equally a perverse product of modernity. It was when the modern liberal confidence that human nature could be changed was overlaid on to the idea that the child was inherently a sinful being that attempts to “improve” the child really took off.

The older understanding of original sin did proclaim human frailty, but it also taught that there was very little that could be done about it. Salvation from human nature could be achieved in the next life but not in this. There was wisdom in this acceptance of human limitation and weakness, as some progressive clerics have recently pointed out.

But until the Church fully faces how its view of the child came to be so perverted and wholly reforms its institutional structures and culture, its priests should not be surprised if the Commission and the community see every reference to original sin as just another theological excuse for cruelty and crime.


James Boyce is the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, published by Black Inc.

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