Child sexual abuse is abhorrent. The truth of this simple statement is obvious to almost everyone who comes into contact with it. The sexual abuse of a child is an egregious act that cannot be easily thought of by most people without them experiencing a deep sense of revulsion and disgust. We would prefer not to experience these emotions and so we tend to avoid all situations where we are likely to have to face them. If we accept that this is generally the case, why then have so many in leadership roles in the Catholic Church found it so difficult to react to and deal with clerical abuse when it has emerged. Is this failure to act simply aimed at the avoidance of negative emotions, or is it something else? This paper seeks to explore this question and makes the case for emphasising the importance of feeling a deep sense of abhorrence about the existence of clerical abuse, and of the role played by those who knew it existed but did not address it.
When, as a young man, I was faced with the task of having to decide how I wanted to spend my working life. I initially had allowed myself to be steered towards a career in business. My original choice of a university course reflected this. It was not until I had graduated and begun to study for a professional accountancy qualification that I realised that this was not what I wanted to do with my life at all. What I felt drawn to was something entirely different. I wanted to become a child protection social worker. This realisation was a massive shock to me and also to my family when I shared it with them. My parents were mystified as to why I would want to follow such a career path, and I remember them saying to me that I would never make any money from it. However, I knew that at a fundamental level I wanted to spend my life working in this field, child protection social work.
Most people who choose social work as a career are drawn to other areas of practice such as adoption, fostering, or working with the elderly or disabled. As a consequence, I never had any difficulty in getting a job or a placement working in a child protection team. No one else wanted them as it was generally recognised that they were the most demanding positions you could get. Despite this, I felt drawn more and more to this work.
The motivation to engage in child protection social work was a strong and sustained emotional reaction to the phenomenon of child abuse in society. It was as simple as that. I was and remain abhorred by it. The realisation that child sexual abuse is preventable was a powerful corollary. Also, the fact that most offenders in this area of crime do not come before the Courts and are not punished by society, caused me great concern. It still does.
Children do not have to experience abuse and it can be prevented but for that to happen people, and particularly people in authority, have to want it to stop. Crimes against children in our society still have a woefully low level of convictions. Why is this still the case? Does this reflect the priority that we place on protecting children?
I share this brief summary of my working life by way of background and also explanation with regard to my frustration and surprise at the response that has been made to eliminating the horror of clerical abuse within the Catholic Church on this island.
In my view, what is essential to successfully completing this task is a deep sense of abhorrence, particularly so for those who are in authority, at the fact that it has existed in the Church. I would further add that in my view no one who fails to share this sense of abhorrence should be considered suitable for any leadership role in the Church. What has gone before must never be allowed to happen again. But if that statement is to be accepted we should look for the evidence that would lead us to that conclusion.
At a human level, there should be no difficulty in recognising that clerical abuse is abhorrent and totally contrary to God’s teaching. And yet, it would appear that this was not the reaction that many felt. They were able to divorce the suffering of the child from the situation that they encountered and focus on the offender with particular emphasis on their role. They were a priest first and a sex offender second. Indeed, such stark language appeared to jar with many and softer terms were introduced like” a moral lapse”, or “support for a fallen brother”, or “abuse at the lower end of the scale” etc. For someone who has spent their entire working life seeking to protect children and prevent abuse occurring it is very hard to appreciate how reactions of this nature can be deemed acceptable by those in authority. What appears to be missing are the strong and irresistible emotions that lead you to be repulsed by what has been experienced by the child. This is genuinely mystifying to me and also disturbing.
It is an undeniable truth that if you protect children within the Church, you will also protect the Church itself. Safeguard vulnerable children and you safeguard the Church. Reverse the order and you have a major problem. This seems so obvious to me I am amazed that anyone would doubt it. Yet if we accept that this is the case, then we must also accept that the only way forward for the Church is complete transparency with regard to what is known to have occurred. Those who are responsible both for the abusive acts and also those who have failed to respond to them in an appropriate way must be held accountable for their actions. If this does not happen then real progress will not occur.
Great store has been placed on the fact that policies and procedures that relate to the safeguarding of children are now comprehensively in place across the Church. This is undeniably progress and is to be applauded. It is not in itself a guarantee of real change. Policies can be ignored and procedures not followed. What also has to be in place is the absolute commitment to creating and maintaining a safe and nurturing environment for the vulnerable within the Church. Young people are protected by our sense of revulsion at them being harmed and our anger at those who have harmed them or allowed it to occur. Any reticence or reluctance to do all that can be done to protect and safeguard children must be challenged and addressed.
None of this should be considered controversial. It is certainly true in my experience that the lay faithful in the Church would accept what has been stated here. It is not the case that all others would support such an approach. The view that it is better to leave what is past in the past still holds sway in some places. This is an attractive proposition but it is one that denies what has previously been stated. Transparency about the past is critical to creating credibility with regard to how the present and the future will be handled. Mistakes made in the past can only be truly learnt from if they are admitted to and applied to the present. Apologies are important but the detail of what you are apologising for is also important. Trust once broken can be regained but this will not occur unless there is accountability.
The importance of being abhorred by the phenomenon of child abuse is at the very root of the problem of clerical abuse. We should be abhorred by it and motivated as a consequence to do everything that can be done to eliminate it. Those who hold positions of authority carry a responsibility for leadership in this vital area. A priest who has harmed a child should be viewed as a sex offender and should be held accountable for their actions. Those who have known about it and not dealt with it appropriately must also be held accountable. There can be no confusion over the relative positions of the Church’s legal system and that of the State. Neither is necessary for us at a human level to understand that child abuse is abhorrent and should not be allowed to continue. The challenge for the Church is to act in accordance with its foundational beliefs and for those who are led to require it of those who are leading.