Financial report has lessons for clerical abuse


SECOND OPINION:Behaviour by banks mirrors church attitude to sex crimes

SEX CRIMES committed by clergy against children are in the news again. Last week’s Prime Time programme, A Mission to Prey, described the molestation of African children by Catholic missionaries.

As in Ireland and other parts of the world, the African sex crimes were denied and covered up by the church, priests were sent for treatment and the children were either not believed or blamed for what happened to them.

We have also recently witnessed the fastest beatification ever of a man who protected rapists instead of children, and the annual report from the National Board for Safeguarding Children describes the obstacles encountered when they tried to undertake a review of church child protection procedures.

In Galway, following allegations of a sex crime committed against a child, a priest called for prayers for the alleged abuser and for those who had taken away his peace. These latest news stories confirm that the Catholic hierarchy still does not get it and the systemic failures highlighted in the Ryan and Murphy reports have not been addressed.

The recent Vatican letter on the sexual abuse of minors does not give us hope that things will improve anytime soon. Throughout the letter, canon law comes first and civil law second. Sexual crimes against children are framed in the context of sinning against the 6th commandment. The letter recommends educating priests about the protection of minors and the damage done to victims. Why? These are not stupid people and must surely know that molesting and raping children is a crime.

Bishops are advised to ensure that their priests appreciate “chastity” and “celibacy” as if these are somehow relevant when they are not. Like all other sex crimes, child molestation is about the abuse of power.

Bishops are advised that responsibility for dealing with sex crimes against children lies first with them and they must put systems in place that are good for the accused priest, good for the church and good for children.

At the heart of all systems is a world view which determines what kind of system is needed. The world view of the Catholic hierarchy is that child molestation is a sin whereas civil law regards it as a crime. One can only speculate as to how the Catholic hierarchy would approach murder or thievery, if the clergy also had a propensity to commit these crimes. Civil law must come first in any system and, unfortunately, the Catholic hierarchy don’t get this simple fact.

The Nyberg report into the banking collapse, Misjudging Risk, helps to explain how the system of dealing with child molestation went so wrong and why the system is still not working.

Nyberg argues that a systemic failure requires “a great number of institutions . . . and individuals to simultaneously follow unsound policies or practices”. The report describes banking behaviours such as “herding” and “groupthink”, which also apply to the way the Catholic hierarchy handles crimes against children. Herding is about following the crowd without question and assuming your superiors know what they are doing. This practice is reinforced by a widespread groupthink belief system, such as framing child molestation as a sin.

Nyberg names other practices in the banking system, all of which apply to the way sex crimes against children have been handled:

* Contagion: seeing others get away with it.

* Consensus: contrarian views being unacceptable and unhealthy to present to superiors.

* Silent observers: people who did nothing.

* Enablers: authorities who saw the risks but did not use their powers to act or show leadership.

Nyberg points out that the real problem was not a lack of power but a lack of scepticism and civil authorities allowing themselves to be fobbed off.

A common argument used by the Catholic hierarchy is, “We didn’t fully understand child sex abuse” or “We were acting on legal advice”. Nyberg is very clear on where the blame lies and says accepting one’s own ignorance does not shift the blame to others. “People in a position to make decisions are . . . responsible for them regardless of what advice they have received.”

Parents and guardians must bypass the Catholic hierarchy if they suspect their child is in danger. Mandatory reporting is the only way to ensure children’s safety where those who don’t immediately report suspected child molestation are prosecuted. It is hard to believe Ireland has still not enacted this legislation.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former regional manager of health promotion with the HSE