Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse

So, after years of discussion we are to have not merely a Royal Commission into the Catholic Church's response to sexual abuse in its ranks, but into abuse in all institutions.  Poor Nicola Roxon gets the unenviable task of designing a set of terms of reference for this behemoth. An Irish judicial inquiry into the same issue took 9 years.  We can expect a lot more on this story before it is over and a lot more people will end up with red faces.

I don't envy Roxon her task.  Our society includes a lot of institutions.  The Catholic Church has been in the news a lot recently and there are many harrowing tales of abuse by priests.  Still the government is right, this is not only a Catholic problem.  Only a few years ago, claims of abuse in the Anglican church in Brisbane revealed similar horror stories, and similar lack of comprehension by senior church leaders.  Former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth lost his job as Governor-General as a result of his astonishingly insensitive public comments on the subject. 

Nor should we forget the risks in non-religious institutions.  In 2000 Queensland Labor MP Bill Darcy was convicted of child sexual assaults committed while he was a teacher in a rural state school.  And in 1993 former Queensland opposition leader Keith Wright was jailed for child sex offences committed while he was in parliament.  I'm assuming that parliaments will also be among the list of institutions to be examined, especially since the recent James Ashby/Peter Slipper debacle (albeit Ashby is not a child) shows that our politicians, like our church leaders, are just as likely to turn on the victims as the perpetrators when one of their own is threatened.  However, it might be too much of a stretch to include our families among the list of institutions, despite the fact that this is where some 90% of child sexual abuse takes place.

Which brings me to what I think is at the heart of the problem.  Child sexual abuse is the clearest example we could possibly have of the powerful exploiting the powerless.  Whether it is parents exploiting their children, teachers exploiting their students, priests exploiting their parishioners, or parliamentarians exploiting their constituents or staff, it involves a person with authority harming those they should be suporting and protecting.  Such abuse is a breach of trust on a grand scale.  And sexual abuse is just one example of this type of misuse of power.

Why, then, are abusers so routinely protected by their institutions?  Why are the heads of these institutions so prone to blaming the victims and accusing them of lying or of somehow sharing responsibility for the abuse?  It is because the abusers are able to exert their power to protect themselves, while the victims are powerless and don't assert their need for protection.  They often don't even know they can.  By the time they are old enough to do so, the opportunity has passed and their veracity is questioned.  The impact of the abuse on their mental health is used against them and they are painted as unreliable witnesses.  They find themselves snookered at every turn.  Many say it is like being abused all over again.

Because the perpetrators are able to speak the language and use the processes of their institutions, they are able to convince even leaders who would have no truck with abuse themselves.  And these leaders want to be convinced, because the exposure of its powerful members - priests, teachers, parliamentarians - brings the institution itself into question.  The abusers are often their friends and almost always their colleagues.  It feels disloyal to accept accusations against them.  It is as if the leaders themselves are being accused.

For me as a Christian the repeated failure of the churches cuts the most deeply.  This is not only because it is "my" institution, although it is partly that.  It is because it should be different.  Jesus' willingness to be crucified is as strong an identification with the victims, and against those with power, as could be imagined.  If we take his name with any sort of seriousness we should be prepared to do the same - even if it brings about the death of our institution.  After all, what use is the church if it switches sides and no longer follows Jesus?

This is why Cardinal George Pell's response is so gut-wrenchingly awful.  His graceless acceptance of the Royal Commission, couched as it is in his expectation that it will show the claims are exaggerated and his suggestion that the church is being victimised, shows how fearful he is for his own institution and how little he empathises with the victims.  Not to mention how little he learned from the downfall of his former Anglican colleague. 

Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose daughters were abused by a Catholic priest, say in their interview with the ABC that their approach to the church once their daughters disclosed the abuse was frustrating and disheartening, with Cardinal Pell saying that "it's all just gossip until it's proved in court".  Pell's public view that the problem is exaggerated, and that the church is doing a good job of dealing with the issue, must be further disheartening.

What can we do?  Well, I hope the Royal Commission will give us some guidance, but in the meantime I have a suggestion.  We should repent.  Not just say "we're sorry" and then go on as before.  Not find a way to make it go away.  Really repent.  Acknowledge, in sackcloth and ashes if necessary, that our institutions are fundamentally flawed and need to change.  Acknowledge that our addiction to power and our appeasement of the powerful is itself abusive and that abuse (not only sexual, but physical, psychological, financial and social) is the inevitable result of these powers, not just occasional incidents of their misuse.  Place our insititutions in the hands of the victims and invite them to do as they will.

Of course this means it will not be enough to just repent once.  We will need to do so constantly, because our fallen state ensures the problem will not go away.  We will need to learn to conduct ourselves with humility and put the powerless first at every turn.  We will fail again and again, but sometimes we will also succeed, and if we don't eliminate abuse we will at least reduce it.

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