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Spotlighting the reasons for abuse

By Peter West - posted Monday, 7 March 2016

The movie Spotlight makes hard viewing. Essentially, it's about the abuse of children in the Catholic church in Boston, USA. The abuse went on, and priests who abused children were moved time and again, without anything being done except to protect the organisation. Little was done to protect children. Abuse was not the odd case here and there; it was widespread. The effects on children growing up are just suggested: trauma, grief, upset, self-harm, alcohol and drug addiction; and suicide. Police were involved only to a small extent, though the question is raised as to why abusers were not publicly exposed sooner, or indeed why they were not prosecuted and jailed.

Cardinal Pell's meeting in Rome this week with abuse survivors who were crowd-funded has been reported in many parts of the world. It's been a milestone in opening up the church to what happened to too many children. In protecting priests and not being more mindful of children, Cardinal Pell said "the church has made huge mistakes". This admission is certainly welcome.

And it's evident from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse that abuse has gone on for many years in many organisations. These include churches of all kinds; military organisations; places that were supposed to protect children; and so on - and on. In a short piece there will be room only to make a few quick points.


1. Organisations are hierarchical and demand obedience. In any organisation there seems to be basically a triangular-shaped hierarchy. There's a board of some kind and a person with authority to make daily decisions. Organisations make sure that they survive, and leaders are looked after. The people at the bottom tend to be neglected. Clearly an army must have a commander-in-chief and then generals and so on, down to privates. An army must be based on obedience and discipline: do it this way, advance here, don't be afraid of being killed. But the army model seems unsuitable for religious organisations: who is to tell me what I must believe? Surely this is a matter between me and God. And yet many religious organisations function as a hierarchy with commands: "you must …you must not…" "If you do this, terrible things will happen…" And these rules apply to many things from circumcision, to what food is permissible, what is forbidden, right down to how to relate in intimate situations with other beings.

The movie Spotlight shows us clearly that churches operate as a hierarchy. Power comes from above and then runs through a world leader down to a regional leader. If these leaders decide something should be done- it is done. That's great, if they really have the interests of less powerful people at heart. And if they don't?

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the privates (soldiers) or the people (the faithful). They are expected to obey. But as case after case shows us- hierarchies lack human feeling. Where is the compassion, where is the human sympathy, in hierarchical organisations that time and again have been shown to be mainly about self-preservation and keeping up the public face of the thing?

2. The person who blows the whistle is a pest. This is to put it bluntly. But nobody likes someone who points to a problem. There is rarely a response like "Oh, so why do you feel this way? How could we change things to fix this problem? Could you tell us some more? Does anyone else seem to agree with this?"

Instead we get " How dare you question the representatives of …[. God, the church, the navy, the whatever)]. You are disloyal. You're selfish. You only want attention" and so on. World War I seems to have happened because not enough people said loudly enough that the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, while tragic, was not sufficient reason for creating a European war- and one that went on for four years. Hitler's Germany seems to have survived as long as it did because not enough people said "Hold on. What will be the long-term consequences if we dominate a continent, invade all our neighbours and send millions to their death?" And far too many intelligent, humane people obeyed orders and did as they were expected by some deluded ex-corporal. We need more protection for whistle-blowers and more patience with problems that might annoy hierarchies.

3. Organisations like yes-men. Yes men and yes women, probably. The Leader (whoever he/ she) is wants to do this. And we must say yes. Yes, Minister showed us mercilessly how this works in the public service. Time and again good ideas are defeated by those who decide that they will help the organisation survive by agreeing to requests from powerful people. The large questions rarely get addressed. People who say "yes, but.." are a nuisance. We would have done better to have more of them in the organisations under scrutiny today.


4. Culture matters. In the case of Spotlight, the Irish culture in Boston was deep. The Irish were oppressed for centuries by the English. In one century after another, the Irish were not allowed freedom of belief or of property. The horrors committed by Cromwell were massive. Thousands were slaughtered, thousands dispossessed of belongings and thousands sold into slavery. The Irish fell back on the church as one of their only emotional respites. And there was too much trust put in the church by the faithful. In Ireland, and in the places where Irish clergy went: Boston. Sydney. Ballarat especially, to judge from recent discussions with Australia's Cardinal Pell. And we hear of groups of people who molested children, again and again. These thoughts were never spoken, I suppose, but went very deep in the collective conscience of Catholics: "Father knows best. Don't argue with the church". Many of us have our own experience of religious Brothers who would come into a room and cane ten or twelve boys at random. Complaints to our parents were pointless. Most of us escaped just with sore hands. But why was this power to hurt and wound by capricious and unstable people almost never questioned? It's horrible when our stories aren't even listened to by parents and guardians.

We look at the Germany of 1914 or of 1933-45 and we wonder, "what was wrong with them? Why did they say yes, again and again and again? Is it because the Germans love authority?" But we could find many similar examples in many other countries in earlier times or today. Books have been written on the subject, and the answers are tentative. But yes, culture does matter. And the English culture of the Reformation , the Jonathan Swifts and Daniel Defoes, and even the Puritans who sailed to New England, all were people who said "no". We need more of them.

5. The abuse of boys. Why so often have boys been the subject of abuse? Why is it that time and again, religious have abused boys? I know there have been many cases of girls, too, and I don't wish to make light of that. But I want to focus on boys.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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