Blogs > Church should ask forgiveness for sex abuse scandal in Year of Mercy

14 March 2016 | by Clifford Longley

Church should ask forgiveness for sex abuse scandal in Year of Mercy

We are being urged on all sides, in the context of Pope Francis's Year of Mercy, to approach the Church for the forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I wonder how many Catholics have asked themselves in response: isn't it rather for the Church to be asking us for forgiveness, instead of the other way round?

I'm referring of course to the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the widespread evasion of responsibility by those in charge of such priests. There have been many debates about why so many cases have come to light in so many places in the world, with suggested culprits ranging from priestly celibacy to homosexuality among the clergy, to the climate of sexual permissiveness in the West that came into fashion 50 years ago - a favourite among those who disapprove of it.

Whatever the truth of these theories, the common thread linking all such cases has been the desire of those in charge to protect the Church's good name and avoid scandal. They appeared far more worried about the state of the offending priest's soul than about damage to the minds and bodies of his young victims. The culture which they inhabited saw the priesthood as a cosy all-male elitist brotherhood in which it was natural for them to watch each other's backs, and turn a blind eye to any priestly wrong-doing.

The real culprit is clericalism, the cult of the clergy as a cut above the common herd. And it is serious problem in the Catholic Church precisely because it is so closely linked to the Church's basic structure, which is hierarchical. Prima facie at least, hierarchy leads to clericalism. Dig deeper still, and it seems hierarchy may be inseparable from episcopacy. And that, in turn, looks like a God-given structure we are not at liberty to change. But that cannot be the end of it, cannot be what God wants. There are checks and balances that could be put in place that would prevent absolute power, to borrow from Lord Acton, from corrupting absolutely. And these are becoming imperative.

Vatican Cardinals Müller and Pell have both recently pressed the point that clerical child abuse is essentially a sin of the priests concerned, not a sin of the Church per se. Cardinal Pell used the analogy of truck driver who committed rape - saying one could not blame the owner of the freight company the driver worked for. But that breaks down if, for instance, the hypothetical owner tolerated a culture of crude misogyny, with pictures of naked women all over the canteen walls, say, lewd remarks widely tolerated, and the drivers being given a general impression that the boss didn't care what his drivers were up to and would bail them out of they got into trouble.

That is what could be called a "structure of sin", which made the actual sin of rape more likely. By analogy, if priests with a sexual interest in children felt that their fellow clergy and their bishop would stand by them, the police would not be involved and any complaining child would be disbelieved or told to remain silent, some moral responsibility for that priest's behaviour would pass to the wider Church community. It would have become a structure of sin.

A hierarchical church is one with a steep authority gradient. The pyramid of clerical power descends through Pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, deacon, and then down to laity (which might be further subdivided into men, women and children). The distance down the authority slope between a cardinal, say, and a child, is vast.

The authority gradient concept comes from psychological research in the aviation industry, where it was seen that certain horrendous air crashes, including the worst ever in Tenerife in 1977 which killed 583 people, resulted not just from one fatal pilot error but also from the failure of the co-pilot to intervene when he saw the mistake.

It was observed that the obstacles to effective intervention by the co-pilot were psychological and cultural. Pilots in command, captains of their aircraft, were generally senior in rank, and older and far more experienced than a typical co-pilot. With that seniority went an assumption of respect. Junior pilots did not correct their seniors; they deferred to them. The eventual solution was to equalise the two roles in the cockpit, to designate them according to function and not to seniority.

At various stages in the flight either captain or co-pilot would take control of the aircraft, and the job of the other one was to watch the first. So regardless of seniority, whoever had control was designated Pilot Flying (PF) and whoever wasn't actually flying was designed Pilot Monitoring (PM). The PM's role was to cross-check the actions of the PF and to speak up if he or she saw anything out of place. Thus the authority gradient on the flight deck was made flat.

Aviation safety experts have been called in to advise in other spheres where an authority gradient was seen to operate potentially harmfully, most obviously in hospital operating theatres. There is no easy PF/PM solution in such cases, but it has been made clear to all theatre personnel that even the most junior person present has a bounden duty to speak up if they see something going amiss. And they would not be censored for it, even if the surgeon in charge is the most eminent man in his field.

The authority gradient in the Catholic Church is just as dangerous. But if the bishop is the PF, who is the PM? Traditionally the only monitoring of the exercise of episcopal authority comes from Rome's occasional and long-distance supervision. Here, the authority gradient flows upwards. But it doesn't work very well, as recent events have shown; a lot of the time it doesn't work at all and bishops are in effect answerable to nobody. The same authority gradient occurs in every parish, where monitoring the conduct of the average parish clergy - however holy and well-meaning he may be - is extremely difficult if not impossible. In theory, like his bishop, he is answerable to those above him. In effect, hardly at all. These are in effect potential structures of sin - social systems without an inbuilt capacity to correct abuse and even likely to encourage it, which would therefore share moral responsibility if the abuse occurred.

There is no easy way of flattening the clericalist authority gradient in the Catholic Church in a manner similar to the aviation cockpit or surgical operating theatre solutions. A more radical idea is needed. It probably requires making all those who exercise authority in the church answerable to those directly affected - answerability downwards. A bishop has to be held responsible by his diocese for his administration thereof. And those to whom they become answerable have to be empowered, like Pilots Monitoring, to challenge any mistakes they see without fear or favour. That may take a whole change of style, to dismantle all the trappings of aristocracy which still surround bishops and puts them on a pedestal, but also puts them out of reach of honest criticism.

If the present structure is a structure of sin, sin committed not by individuals in the Church but by the Church as a whole, then as a condition of forgiveness there has to be repentance and a firm purpose of amendment, by the Church as a whole. Many will find it hard to swallow: the exercise of power is too enjoyable to share. The habit that sees the laity as essentially there to pray, pay and obey has not gone away. But if the Church is not yet ready to be forgiven its trespasses, that is because it has not yet realised the extent to which it has trespassed.



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Comment by: Colm
Posted: 27/03/2016 18:06:51
Excellent article by Clifford Longley! Pope Francis wants an inverted Pyramid structure. So we should move to the traditional election of bishops by their diocese. And we need an elected board to which our bishop should report.
Comment by: spotlight
Posted: 18/03/2016 16:54:01
I disagree 100% with Brooke's comments. I deny any complicity in acquiescing in the power structure of the Church, just as I deny any complicity in the crimes of abusive priests. Brooke's warm and fuzzy theory does not fit the facts--- we have plenty of lay PMs in the victim advocacy groups like SNAP and Bishop Accountability, and it still does not change a damn thing! Unlike pilots, the Bishop and I are not equals-- he does not ask me how to run his diocese and I don't ask him to repair my car. In the event of a miraculous reversal of roles, I would fire all the bishops and flatten the hierarchy, and he would have to take public transportation.
Comment by: Denis
Posted: 15/03/2016 16:52:31
This reads too much like the secular media's craving for apologies. If Clifford Longley is talking of forgiveness in a religious sense, then shouldn't the emphasis be firstly on seeking God's forgiveness through the means of confession. After all isn't that what the Pope has been asking us all to make an effort to do.
Comment by: Richard Brooke
Posted: 14/03/2016 20:59:57
...our share, however limited, in perpetuating the flawed power structure of the church can we - whatever our p[lace in the church - become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem, and authentically act, in Longley's terms, as PMs to the bishops' PFs. (apologies that my comment comes in two posts).
Comment by: Richard Brooke
Posted: 14/03/2016 17:00:32
I agree wholeheartedly with most of what Clifford Longley has to say, but I think his notion of "the Church" needs filling out. Since we all - laity, religious, and clergy - are constituent members of Christ's body, the Church, I don't think the distinction in his first paragraph between "the Church" and "us" works. Using "the Church" as shorthand for the hierarchy, which seems to be what Longley is doing, misses an important point: we laity (or more generally any of us who feel ourselves relatively powerless in the Church) cannot entirely distance ourselves from the evils of sexual abuse which have been perpetrated, because we are complicit in acquiescing in the power structure to which Longley rightly objects. Only if we acknowledge

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