The Prevention of Clerical Sexual Abuse

By Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

The Prevention of Clerical Sexual Abuse
12 Elements in Institutional Culture that Contribute to Abuse
Australasian Clergy Abuse Preparation & Prevention Conference
Sydney, 12 November 2010

I want to speak today about prevention. When you look at sexual abuse, there are certain causes which are common among all abuses. There are others which are individual to each offender. In between in an organisation such as a church, there is what you call a culture. There can be unhealthy elements in that culture which either contribute to the abuse or else contribute to the poor response to abuse. What I want to do is tell you about 12 elements of the Catholic Church which I belong. That fall into that category. Contributing factors which contribute to the abuse or to the response to the abuse.

1. Angry God

In any religion everything without exception depends on the kind of God that is being worshiped. It is the single most important factor about any religious system. Throughout the history of the Catholic church there has been far too much of the “angry God”. The Inquisition was only the worst example, but far from the only one. It created a practise was based on fear rather than love. Spirituality was often seen in the negative of self-denial, self-abasement, and rejection of the world. And a Christian was often seen as right behaviour before a judgemental God. A conscripting guilt played too much part in that life. These are unhealthy ideas They contributed to unhealthy actions of all kinds.

2. Male Church

Sexual abuse is overwhelmingly a male problem. Yes there have been female offenders. But they have been a very small percentage. 2% perhaps.

In relation to the response to the abuse. The temptation to subject all other matters to the overriding importance to one’s own good name and honour is again an overwhelming male issue. Women are capable of this. There is a long history behind this in honour shame societies.

If women had been given a far greater importance and a much stronger voice in the church, the (Catholic) church would not have seen the same level of abuse and the church would have responded far better.

3. The Culture of celibacy

This means the culture in the (Catholic) church, has not just been male, but celibate male, because all power has been in the hands of celibate males. This compounded the problem of male dominance. I am not suggesting that celibacy is the sole cause of abuse. If it were, there would have been no abuse in say the Anglican Church.

I believe that celibacy has made a significant contribution. Both directly and indirectly. It has certainly been a major contributor to that other massive problem the church has not even begun to face. That Margaret Kennedy spoke about. The sexual abuse of adult females.

Celibacy itself is not the problem, but obligatory celibacy. A celibacy which is freely embraced out of a passionate love for God and people is not unhealthy. The celibacy of Saint Francis of Assisi of Mother Teresa. People like that.

But a celibacy that sometime after Ordination or Profession becomes unwanted, unaccepted and unassimilated. Is both unhealthy and dangerous.

The preparation for a life of celibacy was negative Don’t do this. Avoid that. There was little assistance in building healthy relationships. There was in that an under valuing of the importance of love and friendship. That contains serious dangers.

There was little assistance in building healthy relationships. There was in that an under valuing in human love and friendship. That contain dangers. Given sufficient motivation some young people may be prepared to embrace a life without genital sex. But no young person in their right mind would ever consider embrace a life without love.

Sadly, many priests and religious are living their lives without an adequate sense of loving and being loved. This leads I believe, not only to abuse, but to other such things as alcoholism, misogyny (dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women), and the seeking of power.

Properly understood, celibacy is a gift. Therefore, it must be seriously questioned, where you can take a gift and institutionalise it through a law. If obligatory celibacy is to continue, it is essential that authorities at the very least, no far more about the lived reality of celibacy in the lives of priests and religious.

4. Moral immaturity

Before a judgemental God, the all-important consideration, is that we avoid wrong actions. But, if human beings are to grow, two things are necessary. Yes, performing right actions, but also taking responsibility for one’s actions. A one-sided insistence in doing the right thing and obeying the church and deciding what is the right thing to do to the detriment of thinking for oneself and taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions, produces immature human beings. It too is based on fear, rather than on love. Moral maturity of that kind does not prepare people to cope with the many and varied temptations which will come to them over the course of a lifetime. It must be added to the factors contributing to the unhealthy culture.

5. Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

“Orthodoxy” is right beliefs. “Orthopraxy” is right actions. The Catholic Church has given more emphasis to “Orthodoxy” that it has to “Orthopraxy”. You can do what you right because that is easily forgiven which includes sexual abuse. But you get out of line in what you believe (the church) will come down on you like a tonne of tricks (a harsh response). If a priest is loyal to all papal teachings, his moral mistakes can easily be forgiven. But, if he is not loyal to one teaching, no amount of good actions will redeem him.

6. Sex and the Angry God

For centuries the church taught and still teaches that every sexual sin is a “mortal sin”. There are no so-called venial sins in the field of sex. All sexual sins are mortal (the most severe). According to that teaching, even deriving the thought of thinking about sex, no matter how briefly a mortal sin is. The teaching may not be proclaimed as often today, but has never been retracked. It is still there. It has affected countless people. That teaching fosters belief in an incredibly angry God. Who would send a person to an eternity in hell for thinking about sex once? It is an unbelievably angry God which has been talked about.

Indeed, it is the teaching on sexual morality more than anything else that has kept the idea of the angry God alive. And kept it strong within the church. The teaching of an angry God, specifically about sex, has made a significant contribution to an unhealthy culture I am seeking to describe. Furthermore, this teaching placed the emphasis, on the sexual sin against God. That was the mortal sin. Rather than, the offence against the abused minor. Hence it was an affair, not what it should have been called “a crime”. This is the first thing to say about it “this is a crime”.

Also, it was the reasoning behind transferring a priest from once church to another. Because he committed a sexual sin. What is the remedy? He goes to confession, he repents, he is forgiven and then he is put in another church again. If you look only at the sexual sin, that is what you are going to end up doing. You stop doing that only when you call it what it is. First of all “a crime”.

Furthermore, there is a need for a change in the entire understanding of sexual morality within the church. Sorry this would take me hours and hours to go into. There is a need for a profound change of all sexual morality within the church.

7. The Mystique of the priesthood

The Mystique of the priesthood is based in large part to the letter to the Hebrews Chapter 5 verse 1 – “Every high priest chosen among human beings is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf”. The original text was in Greek. The Greek text said only “one human being exactly like all the others is chosen for the task of priesthood”. If you have 100 people here. You choose 1 to be a schoolteacher. You choose another to be a doctor. You choose another to drive buses. You choose another to be a priest. That is all that is said. It just means (to be) “taken” nothing more. But the Latin translation by St Gerome 16 centuries, translated the word “Lambano” or “Taken” as “assumptus” or “Taken Up”. Now it became, every high priest taken up from human beings. He is no longer down with the other 99. He is up here (in heaven). Above them. This is the “mystique” I am talking about.

That was certainly present when I was studying in the priesthood (seminary). I could never claim that this is not used today. I am sure it is today.

Countless Catholic people have experienced this attitude in their priests. That they consider themselves somehow above, taken up. I see a couple of Catholics nodding as I said that. This is exactly the kind of unhealthy idea that can contribute to abuse. Sexuality is just one of the ways which can make priests and religious think “they are special”. Unlike other human beings. Not subject to the restrictions and even the moral laws that apply to other people.

Furthermore, the privileges of this Mystique will always be attractive to any inadequate personalities. It also gives priests and religious, privileged access to minors. That other people do not have. It gives them a powerful spiritual authority over them making it easier to abuse. This has to change, but it won’t be easy. It is difficult to change an ethos and mystique.

This must change because it denies the essential humanity of the priest or religious. It establishes a whole series of false relationships at the heart of the community. Priests and religious are ordinary human beings. Now that ought to be the most obvious statement in the world. But authorities in the church, priests, religious, and catholic people, have much work to do in this field. Because wherever I find there are priests trying to climb down off the pedestal, there can be catholic lay people insisting they get right back up again. I have seen this myself. When playing Golf and my gaming partner said to me “good shot my Lord”. Excuse me my name is “Geoff” when we play. Response “Yes my Lord”. Get back on your pedestal.

There can be a dangerous insistence that priests and religious must be perfect. Or if they cannot be perfect that must appear to be perfect. An extraordinary number of people believe the naive idea that priests and religious are celibate, so they can’t really have sexual desires and feelings the way the rest of us do. This mystique has to go. But this means change in the hierarchy and change in the priests. But, also, it means change in Catholic people.

8. Professionalism

Over several decades now, there has been a strong move to greater professionalism in most fields of human activity. But priests and religious have lived along way behind. There attitude and idea of being above other human beings and so not needing the systems and controls that others do. One area of need is a better selection process of candidates with a wider selection panel than just clerics (priests), and with full use of psychological assessment. A training which places as much emphasis on human development as it does on priestly or religious development.

You simply cannot have a good priest who is not first a good human being. It is just not possible. A proper professional appraisal every 5 years. With the community participating. Through the process making comments, making signs for any harmful or dangerous activity.

A supervisor so that priests can discuss their work and how they have dealt with any problematic situations.

Obligatory Inservice training.

A code of conduct.

A form of dress which identifies the priest or religious, but, does not serve to stress their otherness from ordinary people.

An attention to living conditions so that a healthier emotional life is facilitated.

9. A pope who can’t admit mistakes

I am now in the field of not just the causes of abuse, but the response to abuse. The ones already talked about have effected that as well. Infallibility in practise extends way beyond the formal infallible. It is a phenomenon within the church as “creeping Infallibility”. Where, infallibility creeps down and down and applies to more and more things.

Whether it be a solemn dogma or an ordinary teaching, or merely an ancient law or practise, it would be extraordinarily difficult for a pope of today to stand up and say “all my predecessors of the last 2000 years have been wrong and I am alone am right”. That applies to matters not just where there is formal infallibility. But, also applies, yes there has been a teaching for 2000 years, the argument, it can’t be wrong. Or where a great deal of papal prestige has been invested in a particular teaching. This goes way beyond teachings. For example, celibacy is a law. That is all it is and everybody knows that.

But it would take a very courageous pope to say, “they might all have been wrong, and I am going to put it on the table for discussion”. That would take enormous courage.

10. Loyalty to a silent pope

if you are going to blame one person, it is unfair to blame one person, but if you did, it would be Pope John Paul II. He was pope for 26 years. For much of the story of abuse coming to light.

Imagine this, way back in 1988, John Paull II came to microphone in St Peter’s Square and said “I have just been presented with a report detailing all these acts of sexual abuse (on children) by priests I have never read anything more horrifying in my entire life. And I am going to fight this with every power I have. I call on every bishop in the world to support me. We are going to reach out to victims. We will not worry about the name of the Church”.

If he said all that back in 1988, how different things might have been.

Bishops take an oath of loyalty to the pope. Not God. Not the church. The pope. They are very loyal to that. I am not saying that every bishop would listen to the pope and done what he is asked to do. I do believe it would have made a profound difference. Like this, loyalty to the pope would have made a profound difference as it would work in favour of victims.

Whereas in fact, it (loyalty to the pope) worked against them, because that pope was silent. He was not just silent, he did not handle the two cases which were absolutely on his desk. The cardinal archbishop of Venna of the time and the leader of the Legionaries of Christ the Marcial Maciel Degollado.

With authority goes responsibility. Many times he claimed the power and authority, but, he has to admit the responsibility.

11. A culture of secrecy

Within Italy, there is a powerful culture of what is called “bella figura” literally it means beautiful figure, but it really means you should always put forward good appearances.

I always remember as a student I was there (Rome) when the Olympic games was held in 1960. And a month before they were woefully unprepared. All sorts of things were not ready. So they sent out an army of people with big buckets of white paint and brushes. And they painted everything. As long as the athletes did not jump to high on top of it, it all looked good. That was “bella figura” at work.

“bella figura” effects far beyond the church, but all of Italian society. And, it goes back to Roman times. It is very entrenched in culture within Italy, but also very entrenched in culture within the Vatican. Bishops around the world have been affected by it. To act in that way (“bella figura”) particularly when it comes talking about the pope.

For many centuries then, secrecy has been an important part of the Vatican. Wrong actions can easily be pardoned. The unpardonable sin is making those actions public. Do you see how this has affected abuse? I know this one from very personal experience. I made one publicly know and I was not very popular because of it.

This has been a powerful factor in the miss handling of abuse.

So that it is a sad fact that if the entire church is slow to respond properly. The slowest part of all has been its central bureaucracy.

There has been some change here in Australia. But, when it blew up in continental Europe, I saw that as a good thing, because firstly victims in those countries were coming forward, they could get some response and some assistance. More importantly, the people in the Vatican would only pay attention when it got to continental Europe, to Europe, and Rome itself. Before that, it was all dismissed as an Anglo-Saxon problem. I met that attitude many many times. “Those dreadful Anglo Saxons they are all immersed in sexual immorality. These terrible things have happened there. It would never happen among us”.

It was good that it got to Continental Europe.

Out came a whole host of responses. Defence of blaming the media, regarding the fairness of the way the church has been treated as the central issue. Protesting that the church is better than other organisations who have got off lightly. Defending the pope at all costs. Disassociating the church from wrong doers within it. Various members of the central bureaucracy have shown that they have missed what truly matters.

12. The sense of the Faithful (Sensus Fidelium)

The Second Vatican Council (1960s) spoke of the “Sensus Fidelium”. That instinctive sensitivity and power of discernment. That the members (all including the majority the laity) of the church collectively possess in matters of faith and morals. A truly simple fact that the people of God as a whole would never have got us into the mess we are now in. For their understanding of the faith, for a far more rigorous, and dear I say, far more Christian response. It is their children who have been abused. It is they who have had their faith destroyed. They even in one way or another have had to pay for the mess. The pope and the bishops have lost credibility. It is only the people of God who can restore this to them.

If the church is to move forwards, these painful lessons must be learned.

I have spoken about 12 factors I have seen in the Catholic Church. I believe however, every institution, certainly ever church, needs to look at itself. What are the factors within their own culture?

There have been failures in every aspect within the church. But, I will know when the Catholic Church has finally beginning to get this (and take the sexual abuse seriously) when it publicly, I insist publicly, talks about matters such as the 12 I have raised. Until they do, we are getting nowhere.

Thank you.

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Grace Tame A sexual abuse survivor and Australian of the Year 2021. The 26-year-old who helped lead the fight to overturn a law preventing sexual assault survivors from speaking out has been named Australian of the Year for 2021.

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