A man poses in front of St Peter Cathedral carrying a banner 'Vatican silences sex abuses' Rome February 23rd 2019. insidefoto srl / Alamy

Church abuse record ‘makes a mockery’ of moral leadership

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

February 17, 2022

By Sarah Mac Donald

[Photo above: A man poses in front of St Peter Cathedral carrying a banner ‘Vatican silences sex abuses’ Rome February 23rd 2019. insidefoto srl / Alamy]

The cover up culture in the Church on child sexual abuse had had “an insidious effect”.

The former chief executive of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council which oversaw the Church’s response to Australia’s Royal Commission into child sexual abuse has criticised the Church’s intractability towards amending protocols on confession.

In his address, “Challenging the cover-up culture in Catholic Church sex abuse cases”, to a webinar organised by Root and Branch Reform and the Scottish Laity Network, Francis Sullivan castigated the Church hierarchy for its “intransigence and relegation of the welfare of the child to the interests of the institution” saying it makes “a mockery of the rhetoric Church leaders mouth in front of TV cameras and in public inquiries”.

Referring to the scenario where a child tells a priest in the sacrament of confession that they have been abused, Sullivan underlined that the child is not confessing their sin.

“Yet the Roman Curia insists that this information cannot be shared by the priest under the threat of breaking the seal of confession, even though the seal does not apply to a child sharing information about a sin perpetrated on them.”

According to the safeguarding expert, “If they genuinely wanted to respect the dignity and worth of the child, they would find a way through the dilemma.” But instead, he said, Church leaders dismiss the proposal outright and play the culture wars card on the need for religious freedom.

Sullivan spent five years leading the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council which was tasked with developing new policies and procedures to protect children and coordinate the Church’s response. It concluded its work in April 2018.

The cover up culture in the Church on child sexual abuse had had “an insidious effect”, he commented.

“Without doubt, far less children would have been the subject of sexual abuse if accountability, transparency, lawfulness and honesty were features of the institution’s response to abuse allegations.”

He warned that the cover up culture must be named for what it is, and the underlying myths and beliefs that fuel dysfunction must be displaced.

Referring to the work of cultural anthropologists, particularly Fr Gerald Arbuckle, he said, “Coming to terms with the culture is the Rubicon that must be crossed if we want to learn the lessons of the abuse scandal.”

Arguing that the Church must not investigate itself he noted that Arbuckle, along with others, had described the culture that gave rise to and concealed child sexual abuse as being both “corrupt and systemic”.

This collective mindset that facilitated the cover ups and concealments was the same mindset that sought to excuse bishops and leaders whilst being careful not to excuse the perpetrators. It is the mindset that tried to spin that the issue was about a few bad apples in the bunch, he said.

“It was a mindset that refused to accept that it was about a culture and the abuse of power.” This mindset is “determined to safeguard the institution and stave off necessary reform.

“As such, those responsible for the scandal are those who oversaw the system and its processes. That is why the Church must not be able to investigate itself nor keep any of its internal processes of complaint-handling at a distance from the law.”

However, Sullivan did acknowledge that there were, and still are, individuals in the Church with their own moral compass. “The records show that clergy and religious did speak out on occasions and did object to the treatment of victims. Often they left in protest.”

He said child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had corroded episcopal power, made a mockery of the institution’s moral leadership, and scandalised ordinary Catholics worldwide.

Wherever there have been public inquiries into the Church’s response to child sexual abuse, there have been findings that the church officials placed the interests of the institution, its assets and reputation before the welfare of children and the obligations of the law.

“The crimes of abuse and cover up have laid bare the craven self-interest of the institution, the arrogance of its leadership, and the blatant disregard for the laws of the land.”

He criticised how often victims were “disbelieved and intimidated” while Church officials “obfuscated, even lied, to protect priests and religious”.

Financial reparations were modest at best, and inconsistently applied and often subject to confidentiality clauses.

“An atmosphere of secrecy dominated the management of abuse cases. Allegations of childhood sexual assault were generally not reported to police and public authorities. Known perpetrators were shifted to new posts where unsuspecting parishioners and students became their prey.”

He called for diocesan cultural audits with specific terms of engagement that examine the everyday workings of the Church in all its manifestations. The results of these audits, he stressed, need to be made public and be open for public discussion. “It is a starting point and not an end in itself,” he underlined.

Church leaders, he warned, were incapable of addressing the cultural questions alone and only a collective effort, between laity and clergy, who were signed up to a process of reform, would have any chance of remediating the defects of the culture. 

“With the loss of trust in bishops and the clergy, it is now left to the laity to drive the change. Insist on co-responsible governance of dioceses,” Sullivan urged.

“This paradigm shift in governance will be resisted, if for no other reason than bishops fear that sharing governance responsibilities is somehow to lose authority. That fear is based on the assumptions that underpin any hierarchical structure. That is, those at the top have the authority, regardless of competency or capability.

“We need to embark on the slow arduous task of cultural reform. The scandal has broken the heart of the Church. Catholics intuitively know that the Church has not acted in a way consistent with the Gospel.”

He warned the laity and clergy that, “to be blindly loyal to the hierarchical, patriarchal institution, as if it is God’s will for the Church, is a modern-day heresy”.