Omerta around clerical abuse an example of dangers of deference
Healthy scepticism required to counterbalance our desire to put people on pedestals
Tony Walsh could only have got away with abusing children for so long because of a deferential attitude in society. File photograph: Collins Courts
Eighty years ago the psychologist Henry Murray included deference in his list of instinctive human needs. That drive to find someone to look up to seems at least as strong as the need to dominate and I guess you can’t have one without the other.
But it can also be toxic – when we treat a class of people with complete deference we give them a free pass when it comes to their moral behaviour because we assume they can do no wrong.
What goes on behind that veil of deference can, when the veil is pulled aside, leave us shocked and wondering how we failed to see the truth.
I was reminded of this, not only by the recent Vatican conference on the protection of minors but by reports of physical and sexual abuse of women by an important Buddhist leader, Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
For him the veil was ripped aside in 2016 when he punched a Buddhist nun in the stomach in front of 1,000 people. According to a lengthy report by David Leser in the Sydney Morning Herald, one witness suggested he may have lashed out because his footstool was incorrectly placed.
He had weathered previous allegations and suspicions of abuse and continued to find many, many deferential followers but this very public act was the end. He announced he would go on a three-year retreat. His friend, the Dalai Lama, described him as “disgraced” and urged that misbehaviour should not be hidden.
But the Dalai Lama also warned about the dangers of giving blind obedience to anyone. In other words he warned against the excessive deference shown to Buddhist leaders including, I presume, himself.
The case of Rinpoche is by no means the only one of bad behaviour by Buddhist leaders and, of course, there is the awful example of intolerance towards religious minorities in Myanmar, a Buddhist country.
In Ireland, we know all about deference and its pitfalls in relation to clerical abuse.
I believe the overwhelming majority of clergy didn't abuse anyone, but the veil of deference provided the perfect cover for the minority.
At the time of the Vatican conference, The Irish Times religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry described the activities of Tony Walsh who was one of the most prolific clerical abusers in the Catholic Church in Ireland and perhaps in the world. He probably could only have got away with that behaviour for so long because of a deferential attitude in society based on the assumption that a priest could do no wrong.
He was also facilitated by a hierarchical church which, McGarry writes, “did not report child sexual abuse allegations against Walsh to the Garda for 17 years after it first received such complaints about him”.
I worked on the Walsh story for The Irish Times a good many years ago and I still recall the frustration and anger of people in Ballyfermot who felt themselves stonewalled by the church.
But deference, I think, is what really opened the door for people such as Walsh.
This tendency to elevate people almost to the level of saints isn’t just about organised religion. How often have we heard that somebody who abused his children or beat up his wife was, while this was going on, looked up to as a pillar of the community?
In the West we live (still) in a democratic age and part of that, I think, should be a requirement to bring a healthy scepticism to those who would have us see them as 100 per cent good. I’m not suggesting that we should never trust anyone again or go around enveloped in bitterness. It’s more a matter of holding on to our common sense and of being aware of the dangers, especially to the weak and vulnerable, of putting people on pedestals.
- Pádraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).