Opinion

Des Cahill
Trials and great tribulation

Commitment to the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic Church has shaped my life. The reality of the insidious abuse taking place within, revealed to me over time, has been a phenomenon that absorbed my professional attention. In 1960, in my Melbourne Catholic Scout troop, the Scout master, a former St John of God brother, was immediately dismissed when the assistant priest found out he was sexually abusing the younger scouts. In 1967, when I was studying in Rome, I made a pastoral visit to a Catholic home for mentally disabled children and was mystified by their behaviour – only later did I understand they had been sexualised. Back in Melbourne as a priest, in the western suburbs, in three of the six contiguous parishes there were priest perpetrators, completely unbeknown to me at the time and for many years later, until after I had resigned from the Catholic priesthood in 1976.

In 2015, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse approached me and a research colleague, Dr Peter Wilkinson, to review all of the literature on child sexual abuse in religious settings – as well as the 27 reports, both Australian and international, about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. As a trained psychologist, I came to understand the global nature of this issue and the psychosexual dimensions of the offending, as well as the very complex constellation of factors that have brought about this Catholic catastrophe.

This week’s news of George Pell’s December conviction was a historic, terrible day for Australian Catholicism. His imprisonment continues to reverberate, given his standing as a postgraduate of the Pontifical Urban, Oxford and Monash universities, the only archbishop ever of both Melbourne and Sydney and, more recently, the Holy See’s prefect for the secretariat for the economy.

The timing was striking – it came in the wake of the unprecedented Vatican summit, convened by Pope Francis to seriously address clerical sexual abuse. The Vatican’s acknowledgment of Australia as a global epicentre for abuse of children and its full understanding came with the choice of Archbishop Mark Coleridge to give the sermon at the summit’s final mass. This was not because Australia’s offending rate is any higher than in comparable countries. Australia, through its royal commission, has produced the most thorough, the most credible and the best-researched public inquiry report on religious institutional abuse. Its report has helped the church understand itself and its gross failings.

Throughout church history, the dangerous cocktail of psychosexually immature, maldeveloped and sexually deprived celibate priests and monks with easy access to children has been a problem. And not only in the Catholic Church, but also in Buddhist temples and Hindu ashrams. The danger has increased exponentially over the past two centuries with the massification of schooling, the growth of youth associations and the rise of religious teaching orders of nuns and brothers.

In our RMIT University study for the royal commission, we found the chances of a Catholic child being sexually abused was between 1:200 to 1:400. Chances increased if the child was male, especially if an altar boy or choirboy. They were exponentially increased if a child was confined to an orphanage or residential care facility run by religious brothers. The Catholic Church still operates some 9500 orphanages worldwide, many in the poorest areas of India and Italy, a fact not once mentioned during the Vatican summit.

Child sexual abuse, whether in institutions or families, is insidious because it is so hidden. Perpetrators use carefully devised neutralising techniques to silence the child. They are also skilled and persistent deniers when confronted with their behaviour, as many bishops have found to their cost. But the world’s Catholic bishops in a remarkably uniform pattern engaged in a psychological process called “special moral disengagement” in which they laid aside their moral compasses, seeing the abuse as a sin and not a crime, and not prioritising the rights of the child over the priest perpetrator, who was recycled to yet another parish or another diocese or even overseas.

Whatever the outcome of the appeal process, the passing into history of George Pell and his fellow restorational traditionalists will go unlamented. They have argued for a model Tridentine church that never really existed and they are imbued with a narrow and skewed view of church history. They have no appreciation that Christian theology evolves from generation to generation.

To his credit, Pope Francis has grasped the nettle of clerical sexual abuse, in contrast with his two predecessors, St John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a man defeated by the enormity of the task confronting him. But Francis is being undermined and opposed by a conservative episcopal cabal, partly led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St Louis, who believe the Pope is leading the Catholic Church astray.

The conservatives’ solution is to rid the priesthood and the seminaries of all gay men. This despite the fact, carefully insisted by the report of the royal commission, that homosexuality is not the cause of clerical sexual abuse.

Can the Catholic Church survive Pell’s conviction, and the unambiguous reality that within its ranks abuse was perpetrated and covered up for decades? In truth, George Pell is merely one manifestation of a culture that has thrived within the church for far too long, and a deeply knotted set of issues that continue to plague the Catholic faith.

Central to these is governance, especially diocesan autonomy, where the bishop is the king of his own castle. A situation where bishops responding inappropriately to abuse allegations or performing incompetently are judged by fellow bishops, rather than by some special tribunal incorporating laypersons of both genders, cannot continue. In the coming months, the Holy See will issue several documents and guidelines drafted during the Vatican summit. It remains to be seen whether they will be less disappointing than the summit itself.

The question of the role of women in the church remains a vexed topic. For decades, there has been much papal talk and little action. Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, recently described the Catholic Church as a primary carrier of the virus of misogyny. At present, there is on the Pope’s desk a report on the ordination of female deacons. This may be a first step. For 1000 years, there were female deacons, especially in the Eastern churches. Of the nine speakers at the summit, three were women. Women are not deceived by such tokenism, though, and the Pope has to tread carefully. Female ordination would likely split the global church.

In moving forward, the Catholic Church needs to revision its theology of gender and sexuality around relationality, mutuality and reciprocity, not gender complementarity. Most Catholic thinking on sexuality took place in monasteries and universities, resulting in the focus on penetration and procreation – sexual acts rather than sexual relationships – and the exaltation of virginity.

One powerful symbol of this holy purity approach is Saint Maria Goretti, the 11-year-old daughter of poor Italian farmers who was stabbed to death by a neighbour who attempted to rape her. Goretti’s murder, in 1902 at Nettuno, outside Rome, ought to have been framed in terms of power and powerlessness, male sexual violence and machismo. Instead, she was canonised as a symbol of purity and virginity. She is the patron saint of chastity, teenage girls and forgiveness.

The royal commission was especially critical of clericalism and the unregulated power given to priests, fed by a sacramental belief that they are “ontologically changed”, leading to unregulated power. The commission clearly saw a linchpin connectedness between celibacy and clericalism, though it rejected the notion that celibacy was a causative factor in clerical sexual abuse of children. In the Eastern Catholic churches, where there is a tradition of married clergy, the commission noted child sexual offending levels were virtually zero.

There is still purpose for the church. It is the country’s second-largest private employer. In Australia, its jewels remain its fully professionalised schools, hospitals, healthcare and welfare agencies and its advocacy organisations. And its nuns and laymen and laywomen. To heal the church will require a new system, a nationally co-ordinated healing strategy and a fully renewed pastoral vision for a digital world. For this, imagination and leadership are required – sadly, both are severely lacking within the church.

A new Christian narrative needs to be developed for young Catholic schoolchildren, young Catholic couples and young Catholic parents sending their children to Catholic schools. It can teach that there is a God-given purpose in living life, that the natural world of the expanding universe cannot have happened by chance and that evil can be conquered. Evil pharisees have always existed in the church. And always will. Such is the mystery of evil.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Trials and great tribulation". Subscribe here.

Des Cahill
is a former priest and now an emeritus professor of intercultural studies at RMIT University. He was a senior consultant to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.