A Meditation on Human Rights: Responding to Sexual Abuse Within the Catholic Church
Gerard is a Counselling and Forensic Psychologist who has worked with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse for thirty years. Over the last two decades, he has worked with many survivors of clergy abuse and with priests and religious who have sexually abused. Throughout this time, Gerard has lectured in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, has published articles, practice guidelines and training packages in the fields of child protection, abuse prevention, developmental psychology and human rights. Gerard is a court expert in the Criminal, Family, and Children's Court jurisdictions and he is an Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. He is in his final year of training in the Doctor of Psychoanalysis programme and is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles (USA).
Before commencing, I would like to pay respect to the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, to their elders past and present. I want to express my gratitude to the Aquinas Academy and Catalyst for Renewal for inviting me to present information on Sexual Abuse within the Church Context, adding to the previous three conversations held here on the theme: "The Church Re-Imagined".
I would also like to pay respect to the many people in this audience who have experienced sexual abuse directly or as a family member or friend of a survivor. Given that conservatively one in four women and one in six men have been sexually abused in their childhood or adolescence, it is unlikely that anyone in this room has escaped some personal exposure to this most serious crime. Most of our collective experience of sexual abuse is likely to have taken place in our own home, perpetrated by a family member or friend.
Today I will be focussing on how a human rights approach may guide the Church in responding to victims of past abuse and preventing further abuse of children. As a starting point, I would like us to reflect on the Crucifixion. In a moment, I am going to read the crucifixion account from Luke Ch.23. I will then ask you to reflect with me on the light this throws upon the sexual abuse crisis that seems to have been building over recent decades, but certainly over the centuries. I hope that this will guide us on how we might best respond to the human rights violation of child abuse through the lens of the human rights approach. I look forward to our conversation at the end of this presentation – in about 30 minutes.
Although this is a public forum, I feel it is still important to point out that the discussion of this topic is bound to be deeply upsetting to people whose trauma remains raw. It is therefore important for you to think carefully about whether you are in a strong enough emotional state to be able to hear about things that you may be very upsetting or not yet be able to think about. If you feel that you are in this particularly vulnerable state at present, I would like to suggest that you take care of yourself in the best way possible which may mean leaving the room at any time. I would also urge you to immediately contact your counsellor or contact Lifeline if you need to debrief as a result of the material I am about to present.
Sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon to the Catholic Church (Geary, 2011a). As early as c.40-60 CE, the early Church defined itself in opposition to Greek sexual practices in relation to boys from age 12 years. The Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) warned against "corrupting boys" as the first example of a Church law against child abuse. St Benedict (c. 500) expressed concern about the sexual behaviour between younger monks as well as their vulnerability to older monks – resulting in rules for sleeping "clothed and girded with cinctures or cords". The Penitential of St Bede (c. 700) declared that anyone who committed sodomy with a child would be punished with excommunication. An additional punishment of fasting was imposed: (1) a layman had to fast for 3 years; (2) deacons had to fast for 7 years; (3) priests had to fast for 10 years; and (4) bishops had to fast for 12 years.
In the Middle Ages, St Peter Damian in the Book of Gomorrah (1051) condemned homosexual activity – particularly with boys. He argued that there was no justification for such actions and that offenders should not be ordained or, if already ordained, should be dismissed. In 1051, Pope Leo asserted his support for this view (Nos humanius agentes) but went on to adopt a softer approach – declaring that clerics who had offended only occasionally should not be defrocked if they repented. Reforming popes sought to impose order on the Church during the 12th Century. Church law was codified and the inquisition was introduced as a means of inquiring into crimes and sins, deciding on guilt and punishment. The Decretum Gratiani (1140) recommended the death penalty for both clerical and laymen who violated boys.
A historical investigation on Church responses to child sexual abuse conducted by Doyle, Sipe and Ward (2006) found that the dynamics of abuse have not changed throughout history. Vulnerable children such as orphans and those entrusted to the care of a monastery, seminary or religious institution, appear to have been most at risk. Their analysis concluded that there appears to have been more male than female victims of priests throughout history. They found evidence of grooming, rituals, swearing victims to secrecy, the use of faith to facilitate abuse (such as the Bible, crucifix, and reputation as a cleric) along with minimisation and denial of the offence by abusers across the history of the Church.
The analysis of Doyle, Sipe and Ward concluded that: (1) victims have never been treated in a compassionate way given the damage that has been done to them; (2) Church leaders have known about this kind of behaviour throughout the Church's history; (3) Church leaders have abused their power to protect clergy offenders and stop the crimes being made public; and (4) the penalties imposed have generally been lenient, and the Church often only acted when it had to.
From my experience of working with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse within the Church context for almost 30 years, I expect that the current Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will reach the same conclusions. Given the Commission's capacity to require information from the Church and its generous resources to critically examine Church practices in responding to child sexual abuse, we will soon be given a very clear, evidenced-based picture of the nature and extent of the phenomenon in Australia.
Over the last half a century, tremendous gains have been made in the area of child protection and abuse prevention in Australia and throughout the world. Largely as a result of the courage of women in the 1960s 70s and 80s, the vulnerability of children to child sexual abuse has become a well-known fact. An enormous amount of research has now been achieved examining the effects of child sexual abuse on victims in the short and long term. Some survivors have suffered severe psychological disorders that have crippled their personal and professional lives; others have fared better and are doing remarkably well under the circumstances. In contrast, a concerted effort on researching issues to do with sexual offending began in earnest only two decades ago and our understanding of sexual offending remains in its infancy. Solid research into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is extremely limited, although there have recently been many publications considering the topic from a theoretical perspective.
I will now briefly go through what we know about the perpetration of sexual abuse in the community at large and within the Catholic Church. The following statistics apply to society as a whole. 80% of all sexual abuse of children occurs within families. Heterosexual married men are the most common perpetrators. Common estimates of 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before 18 years (Finkelhor, 1986, 1990, 2003; Finkelhor & Korbin, 1988). 90-95% of the sexual abuse of girls and 80-90% of the sexual abuse of boys is perpetrated by a male. 5-10% of the sexual abuse of girls and 10-20% of the sexual abuse of boys is perpetrated by a female. (Finkelhor, 1982, 1983).
Australian statistics estimate that 4-8% of the male population have been subjected to penetrative sexual abuse during childhood and a further 12-16% have been subjected to non-penetrative sexual abuse. In contrast, 7-12% of females have been subjected to penetrative abuse and 23-36% to non-penetrative abuse (Price-Robertson, Bromfield, & Vassallo, 2010).
Statistics of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church are extremely difficult to ascertain (McGlone, 2011). The most extensive retrospective study to date conducted by John Jay College, New York (2004) analysed data on the incidence of abuse occurring within the Church between 1950 and 2002. This 50 year retrospective study drew data from 98% of the dioceses and 78% of all religious orders. The study found a rise in prevalence of abuse between 1950 and 1990 with a peak in the 1970s. Most abuse took place in parish residences, church buildings or on vacation homes of the clerics or in parish church sponsored schools. Only 13% occurred in the child's own home. Victims tended to report abuses approximately 25 to 30 years after the event.
The study estimated that the abuse of minors was perpetrated by 4.5% of Catholic clergy. Diocesan clergy were almost twice as likely as priests and brothers in religious orders to sexually abuse. 80% of these offenders had acted out with adolescent males (a much higher proportion of males than is estimated across society as indicated in the statistics above). 88% of the sexual offenders did not fit any DSM categories (suggesting that most clergy who abuse do not stand out as mentally unwell or unstable). Interestingly, 56% of sexual abusers had just one victim but only 3% had large numbers of victims (of 10 or more). This smaller group are understood to have abused 27% of the total victims and 75% of these more serious offenders were diocesan priests.
While there is serious cause to question the statistics produced by John Jay Study due to methodological limitations, the findings as they stand indicate significant differences between priests and religious who abuse from non-clerical abusers. Clerical abusers tend to start abusing children and adolescents later (often between 35 and 37 years of age). They have a lower rate of re-offence than the typical offender. Their duration of offending of clerical offenders is shorter than for typical offenders. They are more likely to have a sexual abuse history themselves – and this is especially the case for those clerics who abused a child on more than one occasion. Given the methodological limitations, reliance upon these statistics is not recommended until the findings of other studies corroborate the findings. At best, they give a suggestion that significant differences may occur.
What I am about to say may be misunderstood as being 'soft' on offenders. I can tell you that after 30 years of working with victims and survivors of sexual abuse, I have no desire to understate the damage that offenders cause, or the need for us as a society to take decisive action. I stand with the most ardent supporters that each person identified as a sexual abuser (provided that the victim is so willing) should be brought to justice and assisted in every way possible to never harm another child.
I am a firm believer in human rights and, most of all, I believe in each child's right to protection. I note, however, that since each person in our society has the right to be treated with dignity, respect and to have his or her worth recognised, I do not believe that sexual abusers are exceptions. In fact, I have argued throughout my career that a human rights approach to responding to people who have sexually abused not only supports the right of children and young people to protection, but maximises the likelihood that more children will be saved from the peril of child sexual abuse. Conversely, failing to treat men (and in some cases women) who sexually abuse with dignity and respect raises the likelihood of more children and young people being abused – thereby potentially being subjected to a lifelong struggle about their relationship to themselves, with others, and (in the case of abuse within the Church context) with God and Church communities.
The human rights approach I am about to discuss is fundamentally relational and person centred. The approach is founded on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The opening words of the Declaration of Human Rights recognises "the inherent dignity" and "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family (as) the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".
Article 1 states that all human beings should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
For child sexual abuse victims, Article 25.2 states that all children are entitled to special care, assistance, and social protection.
Article 11.1 addresses the rights of those accused of committing criminal offences, including the sexual abuse of children – including the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
Of course, child sexual abuse is a gross violation of the child's right to be treated with dignity. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) reasserts each child's right to protection from abuse. Article 3.2 asserts the right "protection and care as is necessary" for the child's well-being.
The human rights approach is consistent with the social doctrine of the Church, that recognises the mystery, uniqueness and dignity of the human person who is "capable of self-understanding, self-possession and self-determination" (Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace, 2004, p. 66). The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council asserts that it is necessary "to consider every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity" ("Gaudium et Spes," 1966).
I now invite you to join me in a meditation on the crucifixion.
Luke 23:20-43 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (2005)
We start with the crowd shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!"and Pilot's submission to their demands despite finding "no ground for the sentence of death". Jesus was led him away with two criminals to be put to death.
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals... 34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him...39 One of the criminals who were hanged there said "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Let's consider the scene on Golgotha.
Look first at Jesus, having been tortured, imprisoned, ridiculed, crucified and finally lanced after his death – the innocent victim of gross and multiple abuses.
Look down from the cross and see Mary weeping – the mother who was rendered powerless to protect her child from the abuse, unable to prevent his death.
Look across to the soldiers, still jeering at him, dividing up his clothes, and celebrating their ability to dominate and oppress others.
Look at the crowds of bystanders. Some weeping. Some sneering. Some there for the spectacle.
Look to the apostles who are present. Look particularly to Peter, the future leader of the Church, who only the night before had denied his association with Christ.
And now look to the left and to the right of Jesus. Two men – both of whom had committed serious criminal offences, were justly tried, found guilty and were facing their punishment according to law.
Finally, look to the crowd and find the parents and family members of the criminals who are also sobbing in their shame and for their loss.
Various accounts of the crucifixion have Jesus talking throughout the crucifixion scene. He speaks of relationship between his mother and John the Beloved – He said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home." (John 18: 26-27) He makes a bond of love with a convicted criminal – He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43).
I would like to suggest to you that the crucifixion scene draws our attention to the key people we need to consider and guides our approach as we reflect on the sexual abuse crisis that has now come to a head in the Church.
Look to the image of Christ. Here, we may recognise the innocent children who have been abused by clergy who hold great power;
Look the figure of Mary, where we may recognise the parents who now share their child's pain and anger, and who often suffer guilt because they failed to see the risk and protect their children from harm;
Look to the image of Peter. Here, we may consider Church leaders whose fallibility has become very clear to all;
Look to the image of the repentant criminal, where we may consider those members of the Church (be they priest, religious, or laypersons) who have had motive, access and opportunity to sexually abuse other, more vulnerable members of the Church community; and
Look to the image of the families of criminals. Here, we may consider those members of the Church community who are the parents, family members, and friends of offenders – Church members who are shamed by the actions of their loved one in the abuse of children.
To me, Christ's message is clearly one of inclusiveness rather than exclusion, of love rather than hate, of justice rather than injustice. But most of all, I see in the Crucifixion as what contemporary psychoanalyst Joseph Lichtenberg (2002; 2011) refers to as a 'model scene' – where we, who want to live in a humane society, are called to privilege 'relationship' with others over our more base instincts and reactions to harm being done to the innocent.
In his final moments, Christ demonstrated what being fully human in the face of injustice looks like. His final moments privileged 'relationship' from a state of 'surrender' – relationships with (1) those who were most close to him (his own mother and his closest companion); (2) with a convicted offender who had committed a hennas act; and (3) with God, His father.
Over the last two decades, the contemporary theories of Relational Psychoanalysis have come to the same conclusions: That in order to be fully human, to be fully actualised (Maslow, 1943; Ringstrom, in press) we need to be in an authentic thinking-feeling relationship with others. Instead of being embedded (Wallin, 2007) in a painful and frightening experience, we are called to surrender (Ghent, 1990) to our 'not knowing' (Anderson & Goolishian, 1995) and 'not controlling' when potentially overwhelming things occur. Once we recognise that we have fallen into a primitive state of simplistic binary thinking (which offers a false promise of clarity and certainty about the most complex of human experiences), we are called to reflect upon the complexity of the issues we face [(referred to in psychoanalytic theory as mentalisation (Fonagy, 2004)] in a state of mutual recognition (Benjamin, 2003).
It is from a position of relationally engaged reflectiveness – a reflectiveness that is in touch with the complex experience and with the human element – we are best placed to find a better way forward. This state mind is what I call 'intersubjective engagement' and it is this state that predicates the recognition of human dignity of 'the other' (as well as oneself) and directs one's intentions and actions in accordance with the rights of the human person. Intersubjective engagement is contrasted with 'embeddedness' that is characterised by a breakdown into a delusional state of omnipotence, omniscience and of complementarity in interpersonal relating.
Those who have unresolved histories of sexual abuse are prone to lapse into states embeddedness – over-reacting to things that are difficult from their perspective. This is particularly likely when they are triggered by an experience that reminds them of the trauma. In this mental state, they are not able to see things from multiple perspectives and this impedes their capacity to see 'the other' in all of their complexity (mutual recognition). In this state, they run the risk of becoming "the doers" rather than "the done to" (Benjamin, 2003).
Rather than experiencing disempowerment reminiscent of the sexual abuse trauma, in a state of embeddedness, survivors may turn the tables to take the power position. The sexual abuse of children can also be understood in these terms. Some people (mostly men) who have been harmed as children (most commonly through exposure to severe physical or emotional abuse, or domestic violence) self-servingly turn the tables so that it is the 'other' (a child) who becomes the vulnerable person controlled and exploited – no longer themselves.
The Church and society as a whole run the risk of becoming embedded in its en masse reaction to the abhorrence of child sexual abuse. Having been exposed as failing or powerless to protect children from harm, groups as large as the Church or reactionary (often traumatised) groups within society can easily be seduced into turning the tables on those who have been 'the doers' of sexual abuse and making them the 'done to' – thereby perpetuating the cycle of aggression and ignoring the dignity and rights of each person. We are, instead, called to engagement with the issues and the people implicated in child sexual abuse. It is only through a process of recognising and reflecting upon the complexity of issues from multiple perspectives and in a manner that recognises and respects the dignity and worth of all persons that we will be able to find effective and humane responses.
Recognise, Reflect & Respond
The Human Rights Approach to child abuse and abuse prevention that I have promoted in my career (Butcher & Webster, 2006; Webster, 2009; Webster & Butcher, 2012; Webster & Coorey, 2004) is based on the 3R's: Recognise, Reflect, and Respond. This approach applies as much to the Catholic Church as it does to the society as a whole.
The 3R's is an extension of the model articulated by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn – See, Judge, Act (Cardijn, 1964). Cardinal Cardijn's model of social justice promotes seeing injustice in our communities, making judgements about the best course of action in response, and embarking on the course of action decided upon.
I have argued that we need to recognise the issues we as individuals and as a community face. To do this, we need to be alert to our tendency to deny and minimise the existence and significance of the problem. We need to be able to reflect upon and stay with the extent and complexity of the problem until a number of possible understandings and ways forward become apparent. And finally, we (as a community and as individuals) need to be sure to respond in a manner that serves to best address the complexity. All of this needs to be done relationally – where the uniqueness and worth of each individual is respected and valued enough to include them, their insights, and needs in the process. In other words, we are called to a mental state of intersubjective engagement as we engage with the sexual abuse crisis.
Based on the principle that child protection is the responsibility of the whole community, each one of us is called to recognise the existence and significance of child sexual abuse, particularly to victims and survivors. A human rights approach calls us to recognise the dynamics that enable such abuses to occur and to go unattended to, let alone unpunished. In addition to listening to the stories of survivors of abuse, a human rights approach calls us to identify the research evidence that applies to child sexual abuse both inside and outside the Church context and to rely on this to make prudent decisions, after sincere and thorough reflection, to embark upon effective, protective and remedial responses.
Hopefully, the Royal Commission will help us recognise the extent and multiple impacts of child sexual abuse in the Church by listening to the voices of the abused and their families and by requiring information that has thus far been kept from the public. Hopefully, after what is likely to be a lengthy process of reflection, the Royal Commission's insights will be revealed and become a vital and inspiring source of independent thought that can and should be incorporated into the Church's own reflective process.
It is important to recognise that the Church must do more than submit to the Royal Commission and 'cop on the chin' any criticisms that follow. The Church, like Christ, needs to surrender to the process. Being in a state of surrender does not carry the connotation of defeat, subjugation or resignation but rather "transcendence and acceptance" (Mitchell & Aron, 1999).
It is not just the Magisterium that is called to surrender to a different way of recognising, reflecting upon, and responding to what has become the sexual abuse crisis. It is for every diocese, religious institute, Parrish community and individual to engage in conversation with those who are hurting. The Crucifixion scene suggests that we should be surrendering our preconceived biases, our pride, our fears and our confusion about engaging with this challenge. Instead, the Crucifixion scene (and the human rights approach) calls us to engage with all effected people in recognition of their dignity and worth. From an interpersonal stance of engagement, we will be able to expand our horizons of understanding (Gadamer, 1997) and compassion and thereby be better prepared to respond in the best interests of children and other vulnerable members of the community.
In terms of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, we are called to recognise its existence as an international, national, and local phenomenon. While not every parish has been the location of sexual abuse by priests and religious, it is likely that there a number of people in the Church or local community have been victimised and continue to suffer the long-term effects of that physical, psychological, and spiritual trauma.
Victims will teach us about suffering – how their world view and capacity to trust has been subjected to an "attack of the unimaginable" (Ringstrom, in press). Those who have been able to surrender to the process of recovery, who step away from binary thinking and "doer-or-done-to" relating, are able to teach us about their personal experience of psychological and spiritual resurrection.
The parents and family members of survivors will teach us about their suffering. For some, they will teach us not only about the sorrow that comes witnessing their loved one in the grip of trauma, but also about the healing power of their empathic attunement to (and their intersubjective engagement with) the victim. This will be hard for some Parish communities to hear as they may have previously turned against the families of victims for speaking out about abuse by a local and loved member of the clergy.
Bishops and religious leaders can teach us about the complexity of responding to an allegation of sexual abuse, how they have learned by their successes as well as their gross failures. Priests and religious can tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of living alone in isolated presbyteries or in religious communities that are as lonely or as complex as any other social group.
Those priests and religious who have sexually abused can also teach us invaluable lessons – especially those who have ceased denying and minimizing their abuse and its impact on others. Those who have been engaging in the process of recognizing, reflecting upon, and effectively responding to the risk they continue to pose can teach us about why and how sexual abuse takes place and what the community can do to help them stop reoffending.
The Crucifixion, as a model scene, also suggests that in recognizing the person (and, therefore, their complexity and vulnerability to reoffend), we are faced with the responsibility of recognizing, reflecting upon and responding to the dynamic/variable risk each person poses. The Crucifixion scene is a very powerful symbol for not washing one's hands to the horror and ongoing potential for abuse. It is important to remember that only one of the criminals was repentant. The other "scoffed", thereby remaining contemptuous of the innocent Christ figure. In the same way, a number of perpetrators (not all) maintain their contempt for the dignity and worth of their victims as well as others.
An unknown proportion of perpetrators of child sexual abuse have no intention of surrendering their distorted beliefs, deviant arousal and/or abusive activities. They remain at high risk of finding ways to manipulate parents and the community into allowing access to children so they can gain the opportunity to reoffend. However, such people should not be confused with those who have reflected upon their ongoing risk of reoffending and responded to that risk by dedicating themselves to a child-safe lifestyle that prioritises each child's right to protection over and above any desire of their own.
The difficulty, of course, is knowing (1) how much to entrust individual offenders with the responsibility to manage their risk; and (2) which individual offender needs to rely more heavily on the prudence and protective actions of others to ensure children remain safe. Apart from hoping for better psychological assessment strategies in the future, perhaps the best way for Church and community members to discern the difference between a repentant and non-repentant criminal is to engage with them both, to maintain close ties, to be there with them in times of need (when the risk of reoffending is greatest), and prepare to act decisively (prioritising the best interests of the child) when necessary. It is important that the freedoms given to offenders are earned – being based on their demonstrated capacity to prioritise protective values and actions in relation to victims and other vulnerable members of the community.
Urie Bronfenbrenner's Ecological System's Theory (1989; 1998) can help us examine the multiple levels of the Catholic ecosystem in such a way that can focus our thinking about how the Church community (not just the Magisterium of the Church) can begin to respond in a way that is transformative, humane and therefore in keeping with the teachings of Christ. Bronfenbrenner's model draws attention to cultural beliefs and practices (the macrosystem), institutions/organisations (the exosystem) and the people involved (the microsystem) that suggest the foundations of social problems like child abuse and therefore point to domains that need to be addressed.
What I have just been talking about in terms of the call to relational engagement across the Church community relates to Bronfenbrenner's Microsystem. I will complete this presentation with a quick review of the macrosystemic and exosystemic issues relating to sexual abuse within the Church. We can then move on to our conversation.
At the Macrosystem/culture level, the Church culture of domination and submission support the dynamics of child abuse need to be recognised, reflected upon, and responded to. Geary (2011b) identifies multiple dimensions of Catholic culture that support child sexual abuse. These include clericalism, conformity (group think), and fear of speaking out. Yet, Catholicism also embraces human rights and social justice as a direct response to the gospel. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who addressed this group last month, has called for cultural change in his recent publication (Robinson, 2013). In her elaboration of Fowler's Stages of Faith Development (Fowler, 1981), Sr. Patty Fawkner s.g.s. (2013) recently argued for cultural change by building an "adult church" that promotes lay leadership and responsibility.
There are many learned and passionate people in this room who have much to teach us about the cultural and structural changes that would result in a safer Church for children. As part of your engagement with the problem of child abuse, I hope you are able to give voice to your wisdom also.
At the Exosystem/organisational level, the Church's past chronic failure to anticipate risk and put strategies in place to ameliorate it, has placed children and adolescents at a heightened risk of harm. While offenders are responsible for their actions, they very much need the support of the community to stay true to their goal of being safe in their relationships with children. It has only been recently that changes have been made to the policies and practices of organisations charged with the care and wellbeing of children. The fact that a Royal Commission is deemed necessary to audit the protective strategies and risk factors in organisations throughout Australia, strongly suggests that poor insight and responses by organisations are anticipated across the nation.
Over the last two decades, the Church has begun to implement abuse prevention and response strategies. Treatment for victims and offenders is one of the more important responses. When someone comes to treatment, they hope that they will be able to heal the wounds that they have not been able to heal alone. Sexual abuse takes place in the context of an exploitative and manipulative relationship or a relationship that becomes such. Survivors require healthy relationships with others so they can overcome the harmful effects of sexual abuse. In some cases, a psychotherapeutic relationship with an appropriately trained professional is necessary to gain leverage over more deep-seated psychological issues. The same is true for sexual offenders.
Some of the Church's most impressive interventions with clergy offenders has been in creating a 'holding environment' for offenders upon their return to the community. Religious Orders, in particular, have offered offenders an ongoing place and connection within the community, meaningful work, and a range of other resources that increase the protective factors that reduce the risk of reoffending. It is most important that offenders be given access to evidence-based treatment and subsequently be supported and supervised in the community. The human rights centred approach outlined previously also calls for these strategies to be entered into from the perspective of intersubjective engagement – particularly from the point of view of the service providers and community support persons.
Other strategies that assist those harmed by sexual abuse within the Church and that build protective factors include support for families of victims and offenders, support for parish communities directly affected by abuse, changes to Cannon Law, improved selection procedures for seminarians and postulants (including psychological assessment), more comprehensive formation processes (including personal psychotherapy where indicated), and broader psycho-education for priests and religious (particularly when entering more challenging ministries). Ongoing supervision and support for priests and religious upon entry into active ministry will also provide opportunities for clergy as they face and are affected by the challenges of their work.
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