Whose fault is child abuse? A Catholic theologian responds to the Royal Commission


I have just sat through the third day of evidence from Cardinal Pell to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As a Catholic theologian who has lived with and published on the area of clergy sexual abuse for over 20 years, I still get bewildered at the depth of depravity of some priests and the duplicity of church officials in handling complaints when they arise. Prescinding from all questions as to the quality of Cardinal Pell’s memory and the veracity of his denials, it is clear that a number of significant persons, including at least one future bishop, knew of abuse occurring and did nothing to protect the children being abused.

We all want to think that our churches are safe places, safe for our children, safe for our spouses, free from molestation and unwanted sexual advances. We want to think that when those we love are placed into the pastoral care of our churches, our ministers will operate for their betterment, not their harm. But we know from the whole process of the Royal Commission that this is simply not true. While some of the most egregious cases have been found in the Catholic Church, similar stories have emerged from other church communities, particularly in situations where those churches have run institutions for young people.

In all our church communities not only are there ministers who have and will abuse the position of trust that they have, there is a probability that when their actions are revealed, those higher up in the church structures will act to protect the institution from scandal that would damage the church’s reputation. We don’t want this to be the case, but on past history, we might well be disappointed.

…just because someone calls themselves Christian or a priest or pastor, we cannot expect them to act accordingly.

We all believe in the transformative power of God’s grace and we’ve all seen its impact on people’s lives. We’ve seen God take out the heart of stone and put in the heart of flesh. How can it be that people who have dedicated their lives to the service of the church can be so blind and locked into their sin as to perpetrate the evil we witness on display in the Commission? It is a powerful reminder of the ability of the sinner to resist God’s gracious offer of transformation. And a powerful reminder, that just because someone calls themselves Christian or a priest or pastor, that we cannot expect them to act accordingly.

Nonetheless we deserve to have safe church communities. And there are many things churches can do to shift the probabilities towards making themselves safer:

  • Ensure our church communities and groups have effective protocols for dealing with complaints of sexual abuse and misconduct;
  • Ensure that those protocols are actually followed when cases arise (if necessary demand an audit);
  • Ensure our ministers are properly trained in what constitutes inappropriate behaviour and in proper self-care;
  • Have appropriate psychological screening in place to help identify problems that might arise in the future with those in training (it’s not enough to depend on the power of prayer);
  • Require ministers to have proper professional supervision on a regular basis (not just spiritual guidance but a real scrutiny of their pastoral actions and personal boundaries);
  • Have in place a one-strike policy. This may seem harsh, but there is no excuse for reinstating a person in ministry who has violated its most basic trust.

There are many lessons we can draw from the Royal Commission. It’s sometimes said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” This is one lesson from the Commission. We need to be constantly vigilant in relation to the problem of sexual abuse in our churches. There is no once and for all solution. There is a powerful moment in the film Spotlight, the searing expose of the sexual abuse crisis that engulfed the Catholic Church in Boston that has just won the Oscar for Best Film in 2015: a lawyer for one of the victims says, “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child too.” The responsibility to make our churches safe rests with us all.

Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.