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Paul Vallely: Church protects itself, not the victims

08 October 2021

Tackling abuse requires more than procedural reform, argues Paul Vallely


The chair of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, Jean-Marc Sauvé, at the launch of the report in Paris, on Tuesday

The chair of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, Jean-Marc Sauvé, at the launch of the report in Paris, on Tuesday

THE sheer number of victims of sex abuse by clergy in France is shocking. A report this week estimates that more than 200,000 children were abused inside the Roman Catholic Church there over the past half-century. But, if that figure dwarfs those reported in other countries, the nature of the problem is horribly familiar to anyone who has studied the various clerical-abuse reports from England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Chile, Argentina, Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Why is the Church particularly susceptible to this cancer? The days are long gone when sex abuse in churches could be dismissed by apologists as merely the fault of a few “bad apples”. The French report describes abuse as “systemic”. But where in the system does it lie?

A Royal Commission in Australia pointed the finger of blame at celibacy and the secrecy of the confessional. In Germany, in the aftermath of the 2018 abuse inquiry there, the Catholic bishops upset Rome by signalling a willingness to re-examine traditional stances on priestly celibacy and sexuality.

Celibacy may well be an aggravating factor, but it cannot be said to be causative. If four per cent of Catholic priests are abusers, that leaves 96 per cent of celibates who are not. The Iwerne-network scandal shows that abuse is perfectly possible without celibacy (Books, 1 October). Yet celibacy is part of a complex culture of clericalism which is intertwined with issues of authority and power.

The head of the commission that compiled this week’s report, Jean-Marc Sauvé, suggests that Catholic teaching on sexuality, obedience, and the sanctity of the priesthood helped to create blind spots that allowed abuse to happen. Others have blamed seminary training, which focuses too much on doctrine and not enough on human formation.

Pope Francis has, in the past, gone further, describing clericalism as a “disease”. By this he means the fostering of a secretive culture that privileges concerns for priests over lay people. As Iwerne shows, power and privilege can be arrogated by elites in the Church without the necessity of clerical status. That same dynamic is at work where the abuser is a pop star, politician, disc jockey, teacher, or music tutor — all of whom have exploited positions of power and trust to gain access to children. All use variations on the same techniques of conversion, conditioning, and coercion.

But, because the Church presents itself as a moral authority, the display of corrupt power-play is doubly damaging. It is an essential part of clericalism that it seeks to protect the institution that embodies the privilege of the powerful. That is why abusers are only ever a small part of the problem. Far more corrupting is the behaviour of those in positions of authority who seek to protect their institution at the expense of what M. Sauvé’s report calls the “deep, total and even cruel indifference” with which the French Catholic Church protected itself rather than the victims of its predatory paedophiles.

Such patterns of behaviour have been repeated in churches around the world to such a degree that it is hard to see how peripheral attempts at reforms of protocols and procedures can ever repair the grievous damage done.

Leader comment: Clerical abuse: the French Church disgraced

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