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Clerical Abuse: A Problem of Power

News reports today tell us that Pope Benedict has summoned all Irish bishops to Rome for “discussions” on the scandal of Clerical child abuse which has rocked the Irish church over the past year.  The meeting will include “consultation” on the pastoral letter which has been promised and which is due to be read to Irish Catholics on Ash Wednesday. There will also be meetings with Vatican officials responsible for “doctrine”.  This meeting prompts me to share with you my views on a problem that is far wider than only a matter of child sex abuse, and affects many more countries than just Ireland.

When I first started writing at “Queering the Church“, for a long time I avoided even referring to the stories I was reading about the problems of priestly sexual abuse.  This was not because I was not interested:  quite the contrary.  My own experience of receiving some (moderate) abuse left me with an acute interest, but also with a sense that the topic was far more complex and further reaching than the picture the press reports were presenting. However, the publication of the Irish Ryan report pushed just too many personal buttons, and I felt compelled to start to address the topic. In doing so, I quickly found my early reservations were confirmed – the topic proved far bigger than I was able to contain in just a few posts, and became in the end quite an extended series, reaching into several secondary explorations along the way.

Now, after completing the full series, in the light of the Murphy report and its consequences, I am more convinced than ever that the entire saga is of fundamental importance.  The problem goes far further than just the sexual abuse of children, covering also abuse of adults and emotional abuse of us all; the causal factors go far further than just a simple matter of poor governance, still less of “gay priests”, to deeply embedded features of the Church’s own structure and institutions; and cover a far wider geographic region than just Ireland, with problems reported across most regions of the world.  Following through the implications of what I was finding, I was forcibly reminded of a conclusion I had reached while following the progress back in South Africa in the 1990’s, of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission,  ably led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as it attempted to deal with the horrors of its own past. The thought struck me then, as it did concerning the Church’s problem of clerical abuse, that at some level, we are all victims; we are all part of the problem; and (potentially) we are all part of the solution. This is an ambitious assertion to make without any substantiation, but I make it anyway – and will substantiate and illustrate the reasoning that led me to that conclusion, with a series of posts at this site, summarising the main points of my earlier series.

I begin the series, as a prelude, with some reflections I posted before the main series, on the important book by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”.

Australian Bishop Emeritus, Geoffrey Robinson

“Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

Even in his introduction, he wastes no time in setting out immediately his key thesis, that there are three interlinked causal factors which can lead to sexually abusive behaviour:  an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sexuality, and an unhealthy environment or community.  In its institutional structures, argues Robinson, too easily and too often reinforces or even creates conditions that reinforce these unhealthy conditions.  It is easy enough to see the broad argument as it applies to sexual abuse, about which many others have written, and which I do not intend to elaborate.  But it is the central section of the book where he spells out the nature and expansion of church institutional power, that fascinated me.

In a very brief summary of the history of the papacy, he shows how an institution which began as just one Bishop of a single diocese, albeit a most important one, moved from a position of ‘first among equals’ to one of dominance.  Even then, for most of two millenia, the role of the Pope was one of guidance and co-ordination, not one of control.  Not until Pius X and the First Vatican Council, with its promulgation of the doctrine of infallibility, did ‘the doctrine of universal jurisdiction of of the Pope over every aspect of the Church’ become established.    It is against this longer term view of Church history that we need to evaluate Vatican II, which is now attracting so much welcome attention.  Quite contrary to the view of the Lefevbrists and other conservatives in the church,  Vatican II was significant not for overturning tradition, but for seeking to re-establish it.  (This same point was made last week on Bilgrimage, where  William D Lindsay wrote his own helpful piece on the meaning of Church and tradition in the context of the two Vatican Councils.  It is unfortunate that most of us are so conscious of Vatican II and its upheavals, that we lose sight of Vatican I and the many councils before it.)  Helpfully for Pius X and his successors, his attempts to establish universal control were greatly enhanced by the advances in communication technology, enabling him to be quickly informed of events in far flung parts of the world – and to communicate his response, desires and commands as quickly.

What Robinson recommends is not the abolition or destruction of Papal power – he notes that the Protestant faiths which have eliminated central authority have seen endless continuing fission within themselves – but a restoration of balance.  A partnership between Pope, the college of Bishops, and laity not only reflects the (unfilled) promise of Vatican II, it also restores the earliest traditions of the Church, reflects established  constitutional principles in secular democracies of a balance of power. The challenge in achieving this restoration in balance is that the excessive power structures that have been built up are not simply the work of mischievous individual Popes and scheming officials. Rather, they have become institutionaliZed, built right into the system of Church governance, so that it is unremarkable that the autocratic structures began to re-establish themselves after the immediate enthusiasm following Vatican II.

Since writing this,this, I have learned that Bishop Robinson’s conclusions pretty well match those of many other independent observers (Richard Sipe, for one).  Yet I have seen no indication of plans for the forthcoming Rome meeting with Irish bishops to include any discussion of what Bishop Robinson and the others have repeatedly identified as the institutional characteristics  of the Church which have contributed the creation of an enabling environment for the problem.

Until the Church abandons its obsession with power and control, removes its insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests and dramatically improves its procedures of selection and training of candidates for the priesthood, this problem is simply not going to go away.

(To be continued).


4 Responses

  1. Great posting. I bought Bishop Robinson’s book from the Australian publisher once I learned of it from the VOTF website (I live in the US.) It is well worth reading.

  2. What facilitated the growth of papal power was the absense of other apostolic bishoprics in the Western Roman Empire. The Six Sees of the East which claimed authoritative dominance in their respective areas were eventually overrum by expansionist Islam and fell into internal squabbling. The Bishop of Rome had to intervene to restore the rightful claimant to the See of Constantinople in the 9th century during the Photian Schism. The rest of the apostolic sees became irrelevant and out of touch with the universal church. Only Rome remained safe and so assumed what previously had been conciliar prerogatives. The experience coupled with the realization that the monarchical bishops had most effectively weathered the persecutions by the Empire made it seem like centralization of power was inevitable. It was easy to move from Patriarch of the West to Universal Pastor. The split in 1054 between Rome and Constantiople and the 16th century Protestant revolt occurred as the monarchical movement in the secular world was taking hold. The Papacy did what other powers were doing even though it was not the original tradition. “You know how those who exercise authority among the Gentiles like to make their power felt. It cannot be like that among you” Jesus had warned. Time to revisit that again I think.

    • Jack, this is an important observation on the growth of papal power as the other apostolic sees dissolved under Islam, and as secular powers in the West were consolidating as larger, stronger political units under powerful monarchs. In this regard, papal monarchism did no more than mirror what was happening in the secular world. However, as the Europe began to move to democracy during the nineteenth century, and much of the rest of the world followed later, the church did not follow the example, but instead strengthened its despotism in fearful reaction, terrified of the dangers (to those in power) of this loss of control.

      We see the consequences of this today.

  3. Speaking of clerical power —-

    “Would you be free from the need to lead?
    There’s power in control, power in control;
    Would you o’er pastoring a victory succeed?
    There’s wonderful power in control.


    There is power, power, self-stroking power
    In control of the lambs;
    There is power, power, self-stroking power
    In total control of the Lambs.

    Would you enjoy your passion and pride?
    There’s power in control, power in control;
    All those pretty gowns that come with the ride;
    There’s wonderful power in control.


    Would you be brighter, much brighter than snow?
    There’s power in control, power in control;
    Guilt stains are lost no matter where you go.
    There’s wonderful power in control.


    Would you avoid service to the flock that you lead?
    There’s power in control, power in control;
    Would you have them daily your praises to sing?
    There’s wonderful power in control.”

    (With apologies to “There Is Power in the Blood” by Lewis E. Jones)

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