Friday, 2 April 2010

Abusive priests

While I'm writing about controversial issues, I may as well jump in with both feet (in my mouth, probably) and talk about sexual abuse in the church. The Catholics are in the spotlight at the moment so us protestants can take a breather, but we shouldn't be too compacent. Remember it was only a couple of years ago that the Anglican Church here in Queensland was under scrutiny and our former Archbishop had to resign his plum job as Governor-General after defending an abusive priest on national television with the idea that the underage girl initiated the relationship.

However, the story at the time that made me most angry was the one about the school counsellor at a prestigious Anglican school, who over a number of decades had used his position to abuse vulnerable young boys. Finally one of them went to the police, they started to investigate, and the man committed suicide. That was bad enough, but what really made me feel sick was that after his suicide, and knowing full well the circumstances behind it, the school decided to hold a memorial service for him. So here were the students, including many other victims of this man's abuse, forced to sit in the school assembly hall and listen to what a great man he was, how he had given his life to helping troubled young students, blah, blah, blah.

Now whenever these stories get air time in the Catholic church, there is always someone out there saying that the problem is that the church insists on its priests being celibate. If they were just allowed to marry, the argument goes, then the problem would be, if not solved, at least greatly reduced.

If they just looked over the fence at the protestant side, they would see the fallacy of this. Anglican priests are allowed to marry. Most do. In fact in a lot of Anglican circles its encouraged and single priests are seen as a little suspect. Yet married priests also commit abuse.

Years ago I read Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, a classic 1970s feminist analysis of rape, and I still think she's right. Rape, she says, is not about sex, it's about power. There are plenty of non-coercive ways to have sex, even for a priest. Men go for coercion because they can, because it demonstrates that they are in charge, that they have the power. How much more so when they are part of a church which protects them, excuses them, pressures their victims to keep quiet, and hires lawyers to ensure that its property is not threatened by lawsuits.

So allowing priests to marry won't solve the problem. In fact, nothing will solve it completely. But holding people to account will help. Changing the culture of the church so priests and other authority figures aren't seen as mini gods but as ordinary people who need accountability and oversight just like the rest of us will help. Developing a culture of humility, where as an institution the church readily owns up to its mistakes instead of covering them up will help. And finally, putting people before property and doctrine will help too. If we have to sell the cathedral to compensate victims of abuse, lets do it. We can meet in some of those new school halls Mr Rudd has so generously funded. Some of the victims of abuse may even rejoin us, if they can finally see we're serious.

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