The Culture of the Catholic Church & the Abuse of the Young

(This presentation was offered by Archbishop Mark Coleridge in 2018. While dated it offers some significant points for reflection for us in our ongoing formation as clergy, as a religious congregation, and for the Church. Let us continue deepening our commitment to the protection of minors.) [ed.]

Anglophone Safeguarding Conference 2018, Day 3, Keynote Speaker

Archbishop Mark Coleridge

In what I offer here, I speak not as one who has the vast clinical experience of others who have spoken but as a pastor who has been grappling with some of these questions – especially the question of culture and abuse in the Church – for at least twenty-five years.  So let me begin in autobiographical mode. 

I first heard of the sexual abuse of children by clergy sometime in the 1970s.  My initial reaction was incredulity: how could it possibly be that an ordained man could abuse a child in that way?  The perpetrator, now deceased, was an exceedingly odd man, so I thought his behavior was some form of madness.  However, in subsequent decades more and more cases of abuse emerged, and the perpetrators weren’t odd, let alone mad; sometimes they were known to be good pastors.  Again, my reaction was an incredulity tied to the sense that these priests were rotten apples whose behaviour was in no way related to the culture of the Catholic clergy or the Catholic Church.  By the mid-90s, I was serving as spokesman for the Archdiocese of Melbourne where many cases were emerging.  Time and again in interview, I insisted that culpability in these cases was strictly personal, clinging to a sense of rotten apples.  I denied, quite vigorously, that we were dealing with a culpability which was communal or cultural. 

However, I then began to see patterns of behaviour as more facts came to light.  One striking thing was how similar the patterns of abusive behaviour were; after a while you could almost write the script.  Another was that bishops in Australia and elsewhere made exactly the same mistakes in dealing with the abuse without any reference to each other.  They certainly weren’t comparing notes or discussing with each other how best to deal with the abuse.  Most of them were also good, decent and compassionate pastors, albeit with quite different styles and personalities.  Yet they made the same mistakes and had the same blind-spots from north to south, from east to west. Once I began noticing this, I started to think that we were dealing with something more than personal – that we were perhaps dealing with cultural elements underlying the abuse and its gross mishandling.  I came to think that rotten apples simply didn’t explain the facts as they were emerging.  

This led me eventually to write a pastoral letter in 2010 when I was Archbishop of Canberra.  The letter was an attempt to gather together and focus what I had learnt in about twenty-five years of grappling with abuse and its mishandling.  I tried to identify what I’d come to think were the cultural elements underlying the crisis.  I said in the letter that “there is no one factor that makes abuse of the young by Catholic clergy in some sense cultural”.  It is rather “a combination of factors”; and I tried to identify those factors, the combination of which had created the perfect storm.

One factor was a poor understanding and communication of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, shown particularly in a rigorist attitude to the body and sexuality.  This was mediated in part through the formative influence of Irish Catholicism in the life of the Church in Australia.  We owe the Irish an immense debt of gratitude for what they have given us, but for complex historical reasons the Church in Ireland was prey to the rigorist influence that passed from the Continent to Ireland – often under the name of Jansenism – and found fertile soil there. It then passed into the Irish diaspora of which Australia was part.  This rigorist influence led to an implicit denial of the Incarnation, which had people thinking they had to deny their humanity to find their way to the divinity.  The irony of this is that the Incarnation stands at the very heart of the Catholic sense of a sacramental universe.  Jansenism grew from Catholic soil, though it was tinged with Calvinism too.  But there was nothing incarnational about Jansenism, and the Catholic Church rejected it, even if its influence has been hard to erase, with traces remaining still. Catholic teaching on sexuality offers deep insights and rich resources which we will need to explore in new ways as we seek to deal with the current crisis.

Clerical celibacy was not in itself a factor, but it has its perils.  When clerical celibacy works well, it’s a unique source of spiritual and pastoral fruitfulness in the Church; when it works badly it can be very damaging all round.  It becomes especially risky when sundered from the ascetical and mystical life which it presumes: this is a large challenge, especially perhaps for secular clergy in the bustle of their daily lives.  The discipline of celibacy may also have been attractive to men in whom there were pedophile tendencies which may not have been explicitly recognised by the men themselves when they entered the seminary.

A further factor was certain forms of seminary training which failed to take proper account of human formation and promoted therefore a kind of institutionalised immaturity.  Seminaries were not always seen as schools of discipleship, since faith was taken for granted in a way that looks seriously questionable now.  Seminary formation was not tied to a vision of life-long formation, so that a man once ordained was thought to have completed all the formation he would need for his priestly ministry through life.  This was fateful, given that pedophile tendencies, usually latent at the time of seminary training, often emerged only after ordination.

Clericalism, understood as a hierarchy of power, not service, was also a factor.  It was a fruit of seminary training that was inadequate at certain points, and it’s almost inevitable once the priesthood and preparation for it are not deeply grounded in the life of faith and discipleship.  Clergy could be isolated in ways that were bound to turn destructive.  The authority proper to the ordained could become authoritarian, and the hunger for intimacy proper to human beings could become predatory.  It’s hard to believe that the Church’s response would have been so poor had lay people been involved from the start in shaping a response.  In more recent years, lay men and women – not all of them Catholic – have been much involved in shaping the Church’s response, and that’s one reason why we’re now doing better.  The task belongs not just to the bishops and priests but to the whole Church, with all working together in this fraught situation.

A certain triumphalism in the Catholic Church, a kind of institutional pride, was a further factor.  There is much in the Catholic Church, its culture and tradition, about which one can be justifiably proud, as one can be of its achievements in Australia; and Easter is always a motive for triumph of the right kind.  But there can be a dark side to this which leads to a determination to protect the reputation of the Church at all costs.  Through the radical social and cultural changes of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was seen to have risen above the maelstrom of history and not to be afflicted in the way other Churches and Christian communities were.  At least in Australia, our institutions in areas such as education, health and welfare were mighty contributions to society as a whole; and this gave the impression that we were a Church that went from strength to strength. Others may suffer decline, but we did not.  What mattered was to present well in public in order to affirm to ourselves and to others that we were “the great Church”.  Such hubris will always have its consequences.

Another factor was the Catholic Church’s culture of forgiveness which tends to view things in terms of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment.  But in the case of clerical abuse of the young, we are dealing with crime, and the Church has struggled to find the point of convergence between sin and forgiveness on the one hand and crime and punishment on the other.  True, sin must be forgiven, but so too must crime be punished.  Both mercy and justice must run their course and do so in ways that converge.  This relates to larger questions of how the Church sees her relationship with society more generally.  We are “in the world but not of it”: but what precisely does that mean in the here and now?  There’s also the large question of the relationship between divine and human judgement.  The Church insists that it is to God, not to human beings, that final judgement belongs.  Yet how does that fit in with the need for human judgement when we move within the logic of crime and punishment?  We’ve been slow and clumsy, even at times culpable, in shaping our answer to such questions.

Playing its part too was the way in which the culture of the Catholic Church favours a certain discretion, which in the case of the Sacrament of Penance becomes an absolute confidentiality.  The Church has long spoken of the sins of calumny and detraction.  The first refers to the spreading of false allegations against others; the second refers to the spreading of allegations which are true but defamatory.  Both are sinful.  There are many things known to us about others – certainly known to clergy – but which charity forbids us to spread abroad.  This is not always a matter of protecting the reputation of the Church but of protecting the dignity of others in a way that charity commands.  Yet this culture of discretion turned dark when it was used to conceal crime and to protect the reputation of the Church or the image of the priesthood in a country that has never known the virulent anti-clericalism of elsewhere.

These were cultural factors which I identified in the letter.  They emerged from reflection upon the Australian situation, but I don’t doubt that they had and have their application far beyond Australia.  Mutatis mutandis, they seem to me factors found in the Catholic Church throughout the world.  But that was back in 2010, and much has happened since then, most notably in Australia the five year long Royal Commission into child abuse in institutions, in which the Catholic Church was front and centre.  Through that time and under the pressure of the Royal Commission, my thoughts on the cultural factors at work in the crisis have continued to develop.  I’ve come to think now that one of the most puzzling things was that it was precisely our strengths which became our weaknesses.

I’ve already mentioned a culture of mercy and discretion – undoubtedly a strength seen from one angle, but which can and did become a weakness as it fostered in bishops an indulgence which colluded with the tendency of perpetrators to minimalise what they had done.  The bishops were too quick to overlook and forgive, believing too readily protestations of perpetrators that they would never again offend and failing to understand the nature of the pathology, seeing prayer and penance as adequate remedies when something much more was required. 

So too I’ve touched upon seminary formation which was much criticized in the Royal Commission.  What was not always recognized in the criticism was that the Tridentine seminary was one of the most effective reforms of the Council of Trent, given that hopeless formation of the clergy was one of the many reasons for the Reformation.  The Tridentine seminary had produced hosts of great priests, some of them undoubtedly saints; but in its later form particularly it could also produce a seminary which was dangerously weak in what we now call human formation, and that sowed the seeds of disaster.

One of the great strengths of the priesthood in Australia was what has been called “pastoral intimacy”.  This was the answer given to me by a long-serving and now deceased Auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane shortly after I arrived as Archbishop.  I asked what he thought was distinctive about the Archdiocese, and he replied, “Pastoral intimacy”.  But it wasn’t just in Brisbane.  Priests throughout Australia were close to families, visiting them in their homes and spending time with them, becoming almost part of the family.  This bore great fruit, but it also enabled much of the abuse that occurred, so trusted was the priest and such access did he have to the children. 

Another strength was the familial bond between the bishops and their clergy.  Often if not always, the bishop regarded the priests as sons, and they regarded the bishop as a father.  Whatever went wrong – even sexual abuse – was kept “in the family”; and there was no more prospect of a bishop reporting abusive behavior of clergy to police than there was a parent doing the same of a child of theirs.  Again, this bore fruit, but it also led to the pattern of cover-up and a failure to recognise that they were dealing not just with sin but with crime.  Some bishops even seemed to think that a priest would be incapable of crime, just as some parents saw and see their children in the same light. 

Episcopal authority has usually been regarded as a strength of the Catholic Church, part of what Christ willed for his Church and part of the reason for the Church’s institutional stability and cohesiveness.  Yet it too could turn dark when bishops kept all matters of abuse to themselves, often failing to inform or consult even their closest collaborators.  Commentators say at times that others close to the bishop must have known.  But given the pathological secrecy of most abuse and the common tendency of bishops to reserve such matters to themselves, it’s no surprise – at least to me – that others, whom you might suppose must have known, in fact knew nothing or next to nothing. 

          A further strength was the high, sacramental understanding of the priesthood which prevailed in the Catholic Church.  The notion of an ontological change in the ordained was questioned, even ridiculed in the Royal Commission.  Yet it takes its place – by the theological lights of another time perhaps – in an understanding of the priesthood as far more than functional.  Sacramentally ordained, the priest lived in his person and in his day-to-day ministry the sacrament of orders.  This found voice in the fine old prayer of the priest, “Lord Jesus, when people come looking for me may they find you, when they come looking for you may they find me”.  The priesthood isn’t just a job; it’s like a job and a marriage rolled into one, with some supernatural value-add to boot.  Yet this high, sacramental sense of the priest could turn dark when it led to a clericalism where the ordained, with their sacred powers, were unquestioned and unaccountable, and where the exorbitant demands of that sense of the priesthood could easily lead to failure of one kind or another and the living of a double life.  Celibacy accentuated the otherness of the priest, which could be both good and bad; and the high respect paid to the priest, flowing from an exalted sense of the office, could also be both good and bad.

          A final strength I mention here is the willingness of the Catholic Church to take responsibility for so many institutions which were important for the building of society as a whole and, in the case of Australia, building a young nation.  Schools, hospitals, orphanages and the like were taken on by the Church and were run by Religious who were often heroic in their service.  Yet for all the generosity of this service by the Church, it was these institutions which became the arena of much of the abuse that happened.  The Royal Commission claimed that there was a higher level of abuse in the Catholic Church than in any other comparable institution.  If that is true, one of the reasons would surely be that we had so many more of the institutions where abuse was likely to happen. 

Given all this and given especially the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the Church – at least in Australia – faces the need for cultural change, which also implies a change in governance, since the two are closely linked.  The Royal Commission has called for a review of Church governance nationwide, and we are currently considering how best this might be done.  At the same time, the Royal Commission’s sense of governance seemed at times strongly corporate, which is ironic given the horrors of corporate culture and governance that have emerged in the Royal Commission into banking which is now running in Australia. Still there is a widespread feeling that the right kind of review, based upon a proper understanding of the Catholic Church, would be timely and helpful.    

In the area of governance, the words heard these days as a kind of mantra are transparency, accountability and inclusivity; and a review of Church governance will have to ask how the Catholic Church can become more transparent, more accountable and more inclusive in its governance.  A failure to be such was surely one of the reasons why abuse happened and why it was handled so badly. The review would have to be done not only by Church insiders but also by others who have some understanding of the way the Church works but who can bring a fresh and independent eye to the task, drawing upon what is best in the world outside the Church, the secular world from which we can learn.  It would also have to be done by people who know how difficult it is to change culture anywhere, but especially in a large and complex institution like the Catholic Church.  As one expert witness said during the Royal Commission, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”; and if we change strategy without changing culture, the likelihood is that it will be a matter of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (The more things change, the more they stay the same), which will leave us with the fearful prospect that abuse will keep happening because we’ve treated the symptoms but not tackled the cause.   

But there’s another word to be added to the magical triad of transparency, accountability and inclusivity – and that is humility.  We’ve been humiliated through the process of the Royal Commission, and that humiliation is far from over.  But the hope is that humiliation will give birth to humility.  As Pope Francis said in Gaudete et Exsultate, “Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations.  Without them, there is no humility or holiness. […] The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son”.  The humiliation inflicted on Jesus was wholly undeserved: he was the innocent one.  But the same can’t be said of the Church: the humiliation inflicted on us is largely our own fault.  Yet still we look to the Cross to see how humiliation can give birth to humility.  In any review of culture and governance, therefore, a key question will have to be, what does it mean for us to be a humble Church?  And a key to answering the question will be the Cross: nothing corporate about that.

All of this takes its place within a particular context within the Church in Australia.  In 2016 the bishops – after a process of discussion and discernment that lasted more than ten years – decided to move towards a Plenary Council in 2020.  The decision implied a recognition that we couldn’t at this time – especially after the Royal Commission – simply put up a sign saying, Business as usual.  We needed to examine as honestly as we could all our structures and strategies – even our culture – to see if these were what the proclamation of the Gospel now required.  The decision to move towards the Plenary Council wasn’t simply a response to the Royal Commission, because its roots reach back much further.  But there’s no doubt that the Royal Commission was a mighty catalyst in moving the bishops towards the decision; and it’s clear that many of the deeper issues of culture identified by the Royal Commission will have to be addressed in some way by the Plenary Council, as we seek to plan the future under the influence of the Holy Spirit. 

Without the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead the Church is a corpse, and all our talk of culture and governance, structure and strategy is just whistling in the dark.  But the Holy Spirit can make us the Body of Christ, radiant with the life bigger than death; and that’s the hope that gives us courage to look the horrors in the face and to know that there’s much more of the story to be told.  That’s the hope that allows us not to whistle in the dark but to sing the song of Easter – because if our strength became our weakness, so too our weakness can become our strength.