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Power and the problem of abuse

The Church's abuse scandals point to a more systemic global issue and challenge

  • Fr Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • February 10, 2012
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Japan led the way in Asia by developing procedures for handling claims of sexual abuse by Church professionals – lay and clerical.

Now India and the Philippines are playing catch-up on something that has been the biggest scandal the Catholic Church worldwide has faced in living memory.

Now the Church in Indonesia appears to have reached agreement with the national government to cooperate in the development of a reporting network for sex abuse.

That’s about as far as the formal tools to handle the matter reach in Asia. But the lag won’t last as long as it did in some countries like the United States in getting around to addressing the issue.

North American bishops were warned of a looming problem in the 1970s by a report they commissioned themselves. They did nothing. They were presented with explicit evidence in the mid 1980s and they came up with a suggested, non-binding protocol by the early 1990s.

The US bishops took until the early part of last decade – after a cardinal and other bishops had been shamed from office – to commit to a set of procedures binding all dioceses and Catholic institutions for the care of victims, dealing with perpetrators and transparency about procedures.

I believe the lag won’t be as long in Asia as it has been elsewhere because now the global challenge of the issue to the Church is being addressed at a global level. This past week’s conference in Rome has set the terms and reach of a response.

It was an initiative of the Jesuits’ Gregorian University that initially met with resistance in the Vatican which then saw a turnaround to its being called by some a “Vatican-sponsored” event.

It wasn’t, though eventually it drew the participation of Vatican officials and received Papal blessing.

Codes of conduct, procedures for addressing claims, responses and practical help to victims, cooperation with police and prosecutors in investigating criminal allegations: these are all necessary and recognized as essential by any national Church that takes its duty of care seriously.

For 20 years and more in some countries, these structures, policies and approaches have been in place. A recognized leader in the field is Australia. The Towards Healing protocols and related legal and financial procedures began to develop in the 1980s.

By the mid 1990s, Australia’s framework and procedures were recognized as the world’s best practice in contrast to other countries such as the US where tardiness in addressing the issue led to an even greater crisis because of perceived and actual cover-ups.

The bishop responsible for these developments on Australia was Geoffrey Robinson. He took on resistance and mistrust in many circles, including among his fellow bishops, to see the reforms and changes effected.

But when he launched the Australian package of responses in 1996, he made a telling remark whose significance has still to be fully registered.

Robinson said we can fix the procedures, care for the victims and prosecute the offenders. But that won’t fix the causes because they reach far wider than the identifiable cases of misbehavior.

They go, said Robinson, to the culture of the Church – the attitudes and practices displayed in the way people treat each other and even the attitudes to sex and the body that pass for Catholic doctrine. Sexual abuse, he said, is part of something larger: the abuse of power.

Robinson is not naïve. He knows all institutions need power structures to exist, operate and provide the benefits they do. But the exercise of power requires eternal vigilance to see that it is checked and its excesses remedied.

The Catholic Church is full of statuses, roles, prerogatives and authorities. And much of the operation of these is unsupervised. Accountability is one of the weakest points in the Church’s operations, as was implicitly acknowledged at the conference in Rome.

Clericalism, the culture in the Church rightly condemned for the way it has allowed a closing of ranks and a suppression of information “for the good of the Church” has in fact done the faith community no end of harm.

What harm? Abuse of power in this way hurts the Church at its deepest level – its credibility.

That damage is why many have seen the abuse crisis that has dominated news about the Church, certainly in the West but also in Asia, as the biggest challenge the Catholic Church has had to face since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
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