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Still Waiting For The Church Mea Culpa

May 15, 2002 | The Age Sorry is not the hardest word. It can be uttered, and leave much still unsaid. The expression that goes all the way is "my fault". It accepts responsibility as well as guilt, has a moral and legal dimension, and - by the way - is a measure of maturity. By acknowledging fault and frailty, it describes the human condition.

All of which, you might think, would make it appealing to the Catholic Church, which, after all, has its roots in courageous confession. But just as government ministers and corporations now routinely refuse to utter the magic words - mea culpa - the church hierarchy in Australia is denying responsibility for its sex abuse scandal.

We have had expressions of sympathy from prelates, but no admissions of fault. The church is clearly concerned about revelations its clergy sexually abused children, often over a long period. But it insists the blame lies with flawed individuals, not a flawed system. The strategy is to talk of a "few bad apples" and portray abuse as an artefact of a past, less open and informed, era.

While it is true only a minority of priests and brothers are sexual abusers, it is not true - at least in some orders - that this minority is tiny, or limited in impact. In some orders, such as the St John of God Brothers, abuse appears to have been common almost from their arrival in Australia. After legal action, 16 victims of the order are expected to get payouts, but not a public admission of betrayal from the church which took them into orphanages as intellectually disabled boys.

The St John of God case, and those of other orders and parishes, raises questions not just about deviant individuals, but the system that sponsors, supports and, in some cases, hid their criminal behaviour. The Melbourne archdiocese, like others around Australia and overseas, knew of priests who were paedophiles, yet kept them on - where they continued to abuse.

This is explained by claiming ignorance or memory loss. Melbourne's former archbishop, Sir Frank Little, says he has no memory of being told Father Billy Baker was abusing a schoolboy in 1978. Baker was shifted not sacked after Little was warned about him. The priest went on to assault at least one other boy before being jailed in 1999.

This and other similar cases suggest institutional as well as individual fault. Is there something in the system that allows paedophiles to persist, or protects them when they are identified? The church's claim that abuse is a thing of the past, and arose out of a time when we knew less about paedophilia, does not face the fact that sex with children has always been a criminal offence, as well as, obviously, off-limits for celibate clergy.

How could a Christian leader fail to confront illegality, let alone assaults which defiled the essence of his faith?

Two possibilities come to mind. A church leader may cover up for a paedophile priest because he wants to protect the institution, or because he sees sex abuse as marginal and opts to "forgive" the perpetrator. Either way, systematic failure is implied. The church certainly seemed to think, at least in the past, that prayer was a way to erase paedophilia, which it is not.

In his defence of the church ("Is anti-Catholicism the new anti-Semitism?", on this page last Thursday), Father Ephraem Chifley claims the hierarchy has, for the most part, dealt with sex abuse, and is learning from its mistakes. "All Australian dioceses now have protocols for dealing with incidents as they arise," he writes.

This overlooks two points. First, more than compensation, which is essentially what the protocols offer, victims want bishops to take responsibility for knowingly betraying them. "Damien", 42, one of the many victims of the late Father Kevin O'Donnell, pleaded for an apology from the man in charge at time of his abuse, Little, but heard nothing.

Second, the protocols are as much about shielding the church from court action as they are about the plight of victims. Melbourne's so-called Pell Process has capped compensation at $55,000, which is much less than would be obtained in a civil case. It is also below the up-to-$300,000 paid to victims outside the Melbourne archdiocese. By the time the 120 victims so far acknowledged by the archdiocese pay lawyers, they are left with little from the average $28,000 payout, and are constrained to remain silent by a gag clause in the agreement.

Chifley, a Catholic priest in Adelaide, blames blind prejudice for the focus on the church, citing "predictable cheap shots about frocks and altar boys". In Melbourne, these are real and serious. Former Melbourne archbishop Pell had around him at St Patricks a group of clergy known as the ''Spice Girls" for their love of dressing up and incense. Separately, many paedophile priests targeted altar boys and regularly sexually abused them in sacred church sites. The sacrilege of such acts seems to be part of the paedophilia, which involves a perverse form of sexual gratification. The condition has its origins in childhood, so Chifley and the church are right to claim celibacy does not create paedophiles. But it may attract them. Some psychologists believe paedophiles are drawn to celibacy as a misguided way to control their urges.

The wish to be celibate may be a defence against perversion. If it is, it does not work. Paedophilia does not appear to be reversible, nor does celibacy appear to be practical. US expert Richard Sipe estimates about 2 per cent of those vowed to celibacy (which also prohibits masturbation) achieve it. The practice, imposed, at least in part, to protect church property, is honoured, it would seem, more in the breach than in the observance.

But to admit this would imply a bigger mea culpa than the church has so far been able to contemplate.

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