The Systemic Nature of Abuse

109px-Saint_Patrick's_Cathedral_front_viewRecently there has been a great deal of attention in the media about issues of sexual abuse. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has certainly raised social awareness and maybe even increased a sense of social conscience about these issues.

On Friday Cardinal George Pell suggeted that the Catholic Church was not responsible for the actions of individual priests involved in sexually abusing children and he loosely equated this to the liability of trucking companies for their drivers’ actions. There has been outrage from many different parts of the community, including many Catholics and other Christians who have felt saddened by these comments. I will leave the specific comments about Cardinal Pell’s behaviour to others because I believe that these comments also raise some very important questions about the systemic nature of abuse in the church – and the complex issue about who, other than the specific perpetrators, might be in some way responsible for the occurence of these acts. While it is important to ensure that any discussion about the church occurs with respect to all who are involved, it is also important that these issues are discussed.

There is no question that individual responsibility is key to any crime or injustice that has been committed regardless of the institution or organisation that the individual is a part of. However I believe that if we are serious about change then we must also look to the deeper systemic issues that may provide fertile ground in which abuse can thrive. In this sense, I believe that larger institutions and organisations have a signifcant degree of responsibility and that it is therefore appropriate to call them to account when abuse occurs, particularly if it appears endemic as it does in the church.

It could well be argued that many of the characteristics of religious institutions are conducive to misuse of power in some form. The culture of many formal institutions is often elitist, patriarchal and to some extent misogynist, while also lacking in transparency and accountability. At times the church can encourage feelings of inadequacy and shame amongst their members while also being critcial and judgemental about individual differences and life choices. When these factors are combined together, institutional cultures such as this can often attract those who have a desire to misuse their power with a reasonable expectation that they will not be called to account.

While it is never necessary nor desirable for organisations to take full responsibility for an individual’s actions, it is however, important that they explore their own culture and the ways that this culture may have made it possible for these acts to occur and for these injustices to continue over time.

There is no doubt that church provides an important place of connection for many people and that many of these people also feel strongly about the inappropriateness of these comments. There is also no doubt that it is time to address some of these deeper issues that are inherent in the culture of the church. It is a fact that these institutions have become the focus of a great deal of attention because of the abuses committed within them. It is also a fact that many people who had placed their trust in these institutions have felt irrepairably damaged by the abuses committed against them. Therefore it is timely to discuss these issues, as respectfully and sensitivelty as possible, in the hope that lasting changes can be made.

One of the most common emotions experienced by those who have been sexually abused is shame. And yet the real shame here rests with those who have manipulated children and adults for their own gain – and that does not just include individual priests – it includes those actual institutions who have, over many generations, encouraged a systemic culture that allows and even at times, encourages, misuse of power and abuse in so many forms.