Breda O’Brien: Church must embrace accountability on sex abuse

Church and aid bodies wield corruptible power over vulnerable adults and youth

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said that he expects Pope Francis will address "various forms of abuse" on his forthcoming visit to Ireland and that "it would be great if he met some of the victims." Video: Enda O'Dowd


The UK House of Commons International Development Committee published an important and troubling report this week, Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in the Aid Sector. The evil that humans are capable of inflicting on the most vulnerable is truly sickening.

Although this investigation was prompted by revelations about Oxfam personnel exploiting vulnerable people in Haiti, it is clear this was a problem for decades in many aid organisations in all areas of the world.

As well as the abuse of aid beneficiaries, including children, it also details the emergence of evidence of sexual exploitation of aid workers, especially women. It is more proof that the #MeToo movement was long overdue.

The committee’s findings are drearily familiar and dispiriting. For example, Oxfam’s first director of safeguarding, William Anderson, appointed in 2011, said that when he talked about risk, he meant protecting the vulnerable, whereas the organisation primarily evaluated risk in terms of managing its reputation and avoiding damage to the Oxfam brand.

The management appeared to believe that a moral, principled organisation like Oxfam was very unlikely to have a problem with sexual exploitation and abuse. Instead, as Anderson says, it should have been recognised that this is exactly the kind of organisation in which such problems will fester.

The report also looked at the UN. When combined with a Channel Four Dispatches programme broadcast last Wednesday, an equally depressing picture emerges of cynical exploitation, especially of children.

Dispatches tracked down a UN employee who admitted to sexually exploiting 20-25 young girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one only 12. One survivor, Valerie, spoke of her horror at having sex at the age of 14 with a man the same age as her father.

The report says there were 165 allegations against UN personnel of sexual abuse and exploitation in 2016 and 138 allegations in 2017.

Lack of transparency

Like some of the management of aid organisations, there is a failure by the UN to place the needs of the victim at the centre, a lack of transparency and a lack of commitment to real change.

As well as the appalling damage to victims, this also damages all the thousands of aid workers and UN workers who operate to the highest standards.

This is all painfully familiar to Catholics who are also watching in horrified disbelief the scandal engulfing Theodore McCarrick, a prominent US archbishop emeritus who has just resigned from the College of Cardinals.

Many prominent Catholic writers have admitted there were rumours for decades about McCarrick harassing seminarians and young priests, inviting them to share his bed, massaging them, all while asking them to call him Uncle Ted.

There were persistent problems with getting people to go on the record until two men came forward. The Washington Post also admitted that some allegations were initially dismissed as conservatives trying to undermine a known liberal. But these issues are too important to descend into partisan point-scoring. A 60-year-old man, James, has also now claimed he was systematically abused from the age of 11 to 31. Some commentators, while horrified at the allegations regarding minors, have blamed the church’s allegedly outdated attitudes to sexuality, particularly to gay sexuality, for McCarrick’s offences against adults.

However, if McCarrick were a Hollywood film producer who pressurised vulnerable young people into unwanted sexual activity, the abusive power dynamic would be seen for what it is. Abuse flourishes in certain conditions: an abuser in a position of power and influence, unclear reporting structures, a lack of protection for whistleblowers and no defined sanctions. Tragically, it is still true that a priest or layperson reporting abuse or inaction by a bishop has no guarantee that the report will be acted upon.


Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of Chilean bishops accused of covering up sexual abuse but much more is needed. As Marie Collins, the brave Irish survivor of clerical abuse tweeted, it would have meant so much more if McCarrick had been removed rather than allowed to resign.

That would only be a start. An independent lay-led investigation with the power to impose serious sanctions on any bishops who knew of McCarrick’s predations but did nothing, might restore some credibility. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors must be given real power and the kind of regular access to Pope Francis that is vital to ensuring zero tolerance for sexual abuse.

Great progress has been made in current church child-safeguarding practices (particularly in Ireland). So much remains to be done, including regarding the abuse of adults. For example, there have been allegations of abuse of nuns by priests, including a complaint by a religious sister against an Indian bishop, which the bishop denies.

Until the institutional church manages to show that it is finally choosing transparency and accountability in all areas of sexual abuse by church personnel, it will be behaving not as a light to the nations, but like just another corrupt NGO.

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