- The role of culture and the present crisis in the Catholic Church: a reflection
- It seems that almost every day now the Catholic Church, in Ireland and world-wide, is in the headlines, and for all the wrong reasons. The drip-feed of revelations about clerical child sexual abuse and its mis- handling by Church authorities leave so many people feeling dis-heartened, angry and let-down. It may be useful to reflect on an underlying issue which has a bearing on how we plot a way forward, both in the short and long term. I refer in particular to the question I had raised in a previous article about how to assess the powerful influence of a dominant culture on human freedom, and its implications for the notion of collective responsibility.
- The Influence of Culture
- ‘However, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture’ – from the resignation statement of Bishop Jim Moriarty, December 23rd, 2009.
- A friend of mine was telling me recently about her mother’s outlook on life in the 50s in Ireland. She was a great woman, who was also an Irish Catholic of her time (the Church Militant and Triumphant). Her pantheon of greats included Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Franco and Salazar; and, in the typically non-ecumenical approach of her time, she spoke of Protestants becoming Catholics as ‘converts’, and Catholic becoming Protestants as ‘perverts’.
- Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan would not have been shocked at this evidence of human harshness. Lonergan argued that while, as human beings, we are all endowed with the pure desire to know, and are capable of striving for truth and goodness, we are also shot through with bias. He speaks in terms of personal, group and social, cultural or common sense bias. It is as a consequence of common sense bias in particular that we suffer, in Lonergan’s term, from scotosis, from blind-spots, at any particular phase of our cultural development.
- This is of particular interest in our present context. We depend a lot on common sense – we would waste a lot of time trying to work out every different situation from first principles – and, for the most part, it serves us well. But of course if we trusted it always then there would be no airplanes, women would have no rights to a public life, and slavery would still be an institution afforded legal protection. We need, then, despite its handiness, to keep on questioning the common sense of our own culture, to keep on trying to discern between the truth and the bias that common sense can offer us.
- This discernment is easier with respect to the past than it is about the present. Breda O’Brien quotes Milan Kundera, in Testament Betrayed, in this context – in the present we are not in the dark, even if we are in a fog, but if a man ‘ … looks back to judge the people of the past, he sees no fog on their path…their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog’. How could the treatment of women as second-class citizens ever been tolerated, how could we have justified slavery, have denied civil rights to black people in the USA, have failed so abjectly to respond properly to the terrible crime of child sexual abuse?
- It seems unimaginable of course. And yet it is simple truth, I believe, that most, if not all, senior Church people back in the 70s (one thinks of Cardinal Brady’s admitted inadequacies in this respect), and indeed right up to the mid 90s would not have spontaneously considered that they should report incidences (they did not call them crimes) of child sexual abuse to the police. What was the reason for this bias?
- The Past Culture around Clerical Child Sexual Abuse
- Ultimately we will need the skill of cultural and social historians, perhaps of novelists and playwrights, to help us recreate the common sense of that time. This, in turn, will complement the invaluable work of the Ryan and Murphy Reports in ways that can provide deeper understanding and so result in even better safeguards for child protection. As one who lived through that time, shared the bias and has learned to look at things differently, I want to communicate some of my own perceptions, which may be of help to the more expert analysis that we await.
- It seems to me that a whole complex of causes came together to supply the toxic bias that resulted in the shameful non-hearing of survivors and victims. I list them under two headings, in no particular order of priority.
- There was, first, the elevated status of clergy in the Church and civil society, and the relatively passive role ascribed to children (and, of particular relevance to the Ryan Report perhaps, children who were poor -‘seen and not heard’ – even if, of course, this was already beginning to change in the late 60s). The combination was lethal. Even parents, not to mention other public authorities, did not welcome complaints by children against a priest, and few wanted to believe that these complaints might be true. In part, of course, this was also due to the natural, if misguided, inclination not to ‘shop’ a friend or family member. It is still, even today, difficult for a family to report a fellow family member to the police for crimes of child sexual abuse, and in a certain sense Bishops and religious leaders felt themselves to be almost in loco parentis to their priests, hoping against hope that what they were hearing was not true and too easily reassured by promises of repentance. There was, in addition, precisely because of the exaggerated status of clergy – given the operative identification of clergy with Church even after, theoretically, Vatican II had proposed a different model – the accompanying concern for the reputation of the Church, which reinforced the desire to handle cases ‘in-house’ rather than exposing them to the glare of public scrutiny. This particular cluster of causes has changed considerably of course: the status of clergy has drastically diminished, while that of children, hopefully (but look at the recent record of public health authorities) has substantially changed for the better.
- However, there are real concerns about how well equipped the current Code of Canon Law is to deal with this evolving situation: it continues to privilege the role of the cleric and to give questionable prominence to the notion of scandal in ways which, arguably, lead to a bias towards institutional self-preservation. In this context also, despite the well-known findings of the SAVI report which indicated that the vast majority of child sexual abuse was of non-clerical origin, there remains the question of whether the condition of mandatory clerical celibacy in the Latin Church does not entail, even unconsciously, the prospect of a more attractive state of life for pedophiles.
- I would note, secondly, the lack of awareness in both civil and ecclesial circles about the nature and effects of paedophilia. All of us now, but parents in particular, are shocked that the sexual abuse of children could have been treated so inadequately and all attempts to sketch out a context which might mitigate the responsibility of bishops and religious leaders are, understandably, met with incredulity and questions like: ‘You mean they couldn’t see that the rape of a child was wrong?!’.
- It is entirely positive and welcome that we now view such crimes with such outspokenness and such horror. But, back then, it was not so clear-cut. It was the late 70s and early 80s before paedophilia and child sexual abuse became serious objects of concern in relevant fields such as psychology and sociology. Psychologist Tony Bates notes that ‘in our course textbook in undergraduate psychology (1979 edition), child sexual abuse was not mentioned’, while he remembers listening to an eminent consultant psychiatrist in 1992 as he complained angrily about the ‘obsession with sexual abuse’ that seemed to have taken hold of the country, and said that ‘in 30 years of clinical practice with psychiatric patients he had ‘never once’ come across someone who had been sexually abuse’.
- In the same vein, the calm and all the more devastating public letter of a social worker, Moira Higgins, qualified to practice in both Ireland and Britain, testifies eloquently to our state of ignorance at the time (she speaks of 1975, the year the then Fr Sean Brady conducted his investigation on behalf of the Bishop of Kilmore), and it is worth quoting her at some length:
- ‘… child protection was one of our concerns, but I can honestly say that at no time during the course was child sexual abuse ever mentioned…even as a fully qualified social worker I hardly knew that child sexual abuse existed, never mind knowing how to deal with it. There were no guidelines and no protocols, not even for professionals working for the health boards. If I had to deal with a case, which mercifully I did not, it would not have occurred to me to go to the Garda Siochana – and I was the health board representative. I suspect that psychologists and psychiatrists did not go to the Gardai either. We were profoundly ignorant of the nature and extent of child sexual abuse and paedophilia. It was not talked about; it was not written about; victims did not speak out; they were not interviewed on radio. Thirty-five years on, knowing what we know now, that seems incredible, but it was true for me and I suspect it was true for most of my professional colleagues whose job it was to know these things. We were all truly ignorant and with what we know now were terrible consequences. It puts Fr Sean Brady’s response into context’.
- I would have to say that, in my experience of what in other respects I would have judged a thorough philosophical and theological training, I recall absolutely no mention of the issue of child sexual abuse and can resonate completely with what Moira Higgins says. People argue that there are references to the matter historically in the church and that the Code of Canon Law also refers to abuse of minors by clerics (Canon 1395, par 2), but all I can say is that, operatively, I do not believe that this was alive in the memory of the church.
- In summary, I would say that over that period we did not yet have the language to speak of such matters as we do to-day ( in this respect it is interesting to recall that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, a national organization, was not founded until 1979). I think that perhaps a part of us was always uneasy about this, but we somehow rationalized the heinous crime of child sexual abuse in terms of something that was always there, always went on, and involved something fumbling and furtive (we would not, I think have spoken clearly in terms of ‘rape’, in cases where that would have been the appropriate term). It was easier, in this context, to stay in the denial that was always a tempting reaction to such an awful situation.
- This common sense bias within the Church, this blind-spot, was surely widely shared: think of gardai, doctors, health officials, legal personnel, ordinary family members, journalists, many ordinary citizens – could we honestly say that we knew nothing at all, or would it not be more accurate to say that we sensed something, but didn’t have the stomach to enquire any further? For a lot of that period there was a curious analogy with the secrecy and ‘looking away’ so reminiscent of relations between the two warring communities in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles (itself a euphemism) and summed up in Heaney’s well-known line : ‘whatever you say, say nothing’. This, in the terms used by the Murphy Report, is the culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. And so bishops, for example, did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was.
- In this context Bishops (who, of course, as a group, were powerful, although not exclusive, shapers of this culture) might think in terms of a moral lapse and be reassured by promises of repentance, even in the face of recidivist behaviour: the true horror of the effects of all this on children and the psychological roots of pedophilia only came more gradually to public consciousness. And, sadly, sometimes because of genuine soul-searching about how the values of reputation and confidentiality (also esteemed by professionals such as lawyers, doctors, journalists) could be reconciled with disclosure and reporting, but mostly because of the clericalist culture outlined above and its excessive focus on good name and reputation to the detriment of other values, the Church has been slow to adjust to our new state of awareness about these matters.
- This clericalist culture, despite the now diminished status of clergy, remains a serious concern, since it still remains as the operative, default culture within the Catholic Church. We still think too readily in terms of a hierarchical model in which the notion of collective responsibility, even between bishops and their auxiliaries, is far from a reality. Instead there is a kind of infantilizing passivity, a premium on loyalty and obedience which does scant justice to Vatican II’s teaching on the Church as People of God, bound together by communio, by a collegiality which is at the service of the faithful and in which they have a real say. Do we really imagine that had more laity, parents, women been better represented at decision-making levels in a Church with a culture of more adult accountability that this situation would have been allowed to develop to the stage that it has? In this context the words of distinguished canonist Ladislas Orsy are apt: ‘The numerous cases of abuse of minors have revealed an organization that lacks a rigorous “immune system” for self-protection; an infection can spread in the body before it is noticed and remedial action can be taken’.
- I am trying to understand how a truth that seems so blindingly obvious now was, at another but quite recent period, so opaque. My hypothesis has been that too many of us were in the fog of that kind of common sense, cultural blind spot that occurs in different forms at all periods of human history. This kind of common sense bias is relatively impervious to formal education and professional qualification: the whole point of it is that it is shared by more or less all people, much as educated people of different eras shared an attitude to women, slavery and a whole host of other things (like, for example, the common sense of quite recent times which talked up the benefits of exposure to sunlight, now understood of course as a cause of skin cancer, not to mention the common sense creed of the particular kind of free market capitalism which succeeded in branding itself as dogma and which caused our global recession) that we today would find quite unacceptable. It is quite a reductionist and indeed dangerous view to imagine that because of education one is, or should always be, immune from such bias. One can hope, of course, that by dint of hard questioning, by the example of prophetic people of wisdom, that these biases become more evident – but one is in a poor position to tackle them if one simply assumes that because of education one has no bias. In our case the bias was to mis-understand and so to mis-handle the reality of child sexual abuse in general, and clerical child sexual abuse in particular. And we do well to acknowledge the ever-present possibility of ongoing bias as we seek remedies for our future situation.
- So what?
- Even if there is some truth in what I have said here about the dominant, prevailing culture, the question arises as to what difference does it make? Is this an attempt to justify horrific crimes, or to indulge in some kind of ‘revisionism’ that calls into question the cultural transformation in this area that has occurred over the last decades?
- I want to propose that far from nullifying the progress made, a more considered view of the process involved may in fact lead us more surely to better outcomes in the future. Not to do so is to encourage by default a context of hysteria and scapegoating, and the one thing one can be sure about such a context is that it will not protect children better. It can sometimes seem that Church authorities, in their zeal to conform to what is now expected of them, are in fact simply replicating the old fault of institutional self-preservation, but now with new victims. A more complete analysis of the past may help us to become aware of the social and cultural biases operative today, which impact so grievously on the powerless in our society in this and many other areas of concern.
- And so, even given the powerful cultural influence described, it remains true that clerical sexual abuse involves ‘sinful and criminal acts’ of the utmost gravity, and that the way Church authorities dealt with the matter – not only by not reporting to civil authorities, but also by transferring offenders from place to place without safeguards - was utterly inadequate. This was an evil culture which we must absolutely repudiate. The main findings of Murphy, then, stand and have correctly been accepted by the Church, the stories and voices of brave survivors and victims have been vindicated, and our media in particular deserve praise and gratitude for the service they have done us all. In this context the response of shame is entirely right, and the demands of justice on the Church entail full confession, appropriate compensation (including access to counseling), the committed enforcement of the 2009 updated version of Safeguarding Children - Standards and Guidance Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland, and whatever other requirements are necessary to satisfy due process. Ultimately it will be the responsibility of the State to ensure that it is satisfied that this full confession has been made, and it too must decide on the appropriate mechanism to achieve this. It is also, of course, incumbent on the State itself, as indeed on all other sectors of Irish society, to ensure that they also have appropriate safeguards in place and that they are properly enforced.
- However, this analysis also shows how insidiously a prevailing culture, based on a cluster of commonsense biases, can influence even very good people, how a deficient moral sensibility can play such an important role in shaping the default ( in this instance, grievously inadequate) response to a situation of grave abuse. Arising from this analysis there is, then, the more complex matter of apportioning individual or indeed communal responsibility and blame – and I am speaking here not of the offenders themselves, but of the Church authorities and their inadequacies. It seems to me that, given the cultural influences that I have outlined, moral responsibility is at least mitigated. In this context Bishop Jim Moriarty’s admirable admission that he ‘should have challenged the prevailing culture’ sets the bar very high indeed. Bishop Moriarty placed his admission in a certain context: ‘It does not serve the truth to overstate my responsibility and authority within the archdiocese. Nor does it serve the truth to overlook the fact that the system of management and communications was seriously flawed’ (Dec 23, 2009 statement). We know that in reality there was little sense of collective responsibility or management at that time in the Dublin Archdiocese. But we should also know too that right through the Catholic Church, as I noted in my remarks above on clericalism, this lack of collegiality is endemic. The ‘prevailing culture’ then goes way beyond the necessary reporting of criminal acts by clergy to the civil authorities: the logic of Bishop Moriarty’s statement, as we can now see, leads us to contemplate the requirements of a much more radical conversion, of a change of Church structures along the lines envisaged by Vatican II.
- Should all bishops and religious leaders of this period, then, resign? Is there room for leaders who are ‘wounded healers’, or is it better that ‘lame duck leaders’ go? This is an agonizing question for all concerned: for survivors and victims, who often feel that justice is not done if these leaders stay in place; for the leaders themselves who are conscious of having failed, but who are good people, with valuable experience, who have learned a lot from mistakes and remain ready to serve; for the rest of us who try to put all the factors in the balance, not least the reality of a leadership which is tainted alongside the mercy that ought to accompany Christian judgment and the very practical consideration that many of the present leaders may be precisely in the best position to both further the cause of child protection and challenge the prevailing clericalist culture in the Church.
- It remains the case that resignations and financial compensations, as well as whatever pastoral help it can provide to those who want it, are the principal ways by which an organization like the Church can discharge its obligations in justice. If, because of the analysis outlined, I lean towards a less than complete sweep of resignations, then it also seems to me to be imperative that those who remain in leadership be required to take a hard look, not just at their responses to clerical child sexual abuse, but also at the more widespread culture of clericalism within the Church. The Ryan Report was critical of the culture of deference shown by State to Church: within the Church there is a culture of deference which needs urgent attention and perhaps, ironically, it will be the ‘wounded healers’ in leadership who can best facilitate this process.
- In this context also it may well be in the gift of the Irish Church to help Rome itself in its handling of the present controversy concerning Vatican handling of clerical child sexual abuse. Archbishop Martin has spoken with reserve several times about his sense that the Vatican has been slow to respond to the crisis. Bishop Kirby, in his report on the Irish Bishops’ visit to Rome in February, noted that ‘…there was recognition that some of the Roman Congregations were not helpful in the past…Canon Law is to be updated…the obligation to report crimes to the secular state was recognized and will be encouraged’.From the abundant evidence concerning Vatican mis-handling of cases (one thinks of Cardinal Groer and Fr Marcial Maciel, to name just a couple) and ambivalence about guidelines, it is clear, unsurprisingly, that the Vatican too shared this cultural bias about clerical child sexual abuse. The similarity in dynamics to the Irish situation are striking – defensiveness, blame of media, internal management problems and divisions, and poor communications strategy. Would it not be better for the Vatican to admit that until quite recently it too was part of a mistaken culture of secrecy, that is was less than pro-active in its attention to these issues, that it too suffered from the bias of common sense that I have analysed above? Once that has been established, whether in Ireland or more universally, then Catholics do not need to continue to duck and weave in denial of what was a common sense, if grievously mistaken, response to grave crimes. The whole truth needs to come out for the sake of the abused, but the faithful already know that the handling of cases at least up until the mid-90s (and sometimes beyond) was gravely deficient and they need not be surprised, even if rightly they continue to be shocked, by more revelations along these lines, whether in Ireland, Rome or elsewhere in the world.
- In this context it is worth considering seriously the proposal for an independent review of the Vatican’s own handling of these issues. Such a proposal would be a good way to reassure all that the Vatican too had learned lessons and was accountable – there is, after all, wisdom to Juvenal’s warning: ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who will guard the guards themselves?)’ . In that new context the Vatican itself would go a long way towards reclaiming its own moral authority, and, if the Church in Ireland can shed itself of its clericalist and overly deferential culture, then an Apostolic Visitation would become an adult exercise in accountability that would be a lot more acceptable and fruitful than otherwise.
- Some of the dynamics identified above were particularly toxic in the Irish context due to the historically close relationship between Church and State over the last century or so in Ireland. However, it is uncanny how many of the factors involved seem to be present globally. In this respect I would argue that the cultural, common sense bias analysis, far from being a kind of Nurnberg self-defence ploy, is in fact a necessary part of a deeper reflection, an exercise in moral imagination, which allows us to tackle roots of this problem which will otherwise go unnoticed. Without this additional analysis Irish society will too easily satisfy itself that in tackling the Catholic Church – no matter how deserving it is of scapegoat treatment – it has solved its problem of child protection. It will fail to understand that in so many other issues also (think, for example, of our economic crisis) it is not enough to identify managerial solutions to problems that involve underlying, almost unconsciously but deeply-held attitudes and values that are enormously influential. And similarly, without some such analysis, the universal and Irish Catholic Church will too easily rest satisfied with these managerial and communications solutions, which, however necessary in themselves, are inadequate to tackle the cultural and common sense dysfunctionality at the heart of our Church which has negative consequences much more pervasive than the awful, and now, thank God, visible issue of clerical child sexual abuse and its mishandling by Church authorities.
- These are such difficult days. The immediate cause is, of course, the terrible reality of clerical child sexual abuse and the inadequate handling of it by Church authorities. We need to be sensitive to the awful pain of survivors and victims, as well as to the terrible burden experienced by Church leaders and ordinary faithful, not to mention all citizens of Ireland. I have argued, however, that the fault lines go wider and deeper, and this crisis will mean a shifting of tectonic plates demanding a radical response analogous to what went on in the 16th century around the time of the Reformation.
- Thankfully we have some kind of blue-print to enable us to negotiate the long and difficult journey that lies ahead. In a recent interview since-retired Bishop Joseph Duffy spoke of his ‘big regret’ that the Church here ‘has not embraced the great reform that was brought about by Vatican II’ Bishop Duffy might have gone further: the Church Universal has been slow to embrace these reforms, and it may be scant but nonetheless some consolation to those who have been abused to know that they may become the impetus towards such a global ecclesial reform. It is only such a reform that can tackle the roots of a culture which mistakenly focuses on institutional self-defense rather than trusting in an honesty and appropriate transparency, nourished by open debate. This radical cultural change can be only be developed and nurtured by church structures which are more participative and collaborative, more, in short, in line with the vision of the Second Vatican Council.
- Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J., staff member of Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute.
The role of culture
mjmull Apr 22nd, 2012 216 Never
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