Lord Acton said that ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ It was in correspondence about the then pope’s proposed new doctrine of papal infallibility. It is often overlooked that he added, ‘Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.’
When I was a child, the greatest misuse of priestly power imputed to the ‘RCs’ was the sometimes brutal violence used in the ‘care’ of disobedient pupils, unmarried mothers, illegitimate and ‘removed’ children and orphans in institutions run by nuns, brothers and priests.
Thanks to brave individuals and independent journalists, the sexual abuse permitted and distributed by some of these hands has been revealed in Australian parliamentary inquiries and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
It is unfair to profile the one, Catholic Church for the sins of so many more whose patriarchal culture and authoritarian practices are shared by those who professed to ‘suffer the little children to come unto me … for of such are the kingdom of heaven’.
Yet former bishops and archbishops have told the Commission that, yes, the Church failed its duty, protecting its reputation, wealth and ordained at the cost of children and complainants. Fairfax claimed the Melbourne Response saved the Church at least $62 million, by capping the amount payable to a fraction of what complainants would have been awarded had they not been dissuaded from suing.
It is increasingly apparent that the Church’s moral failure to address the worm in its heart has poisoned the vine. By their fruits you shall know them.
I am a laywoman, and in the Catholic Church could never be ordained.
Like many women, I am active, as a spiritual director and retreat leader. As well, over the last decade I was briefly responsible for receiving complaints about professional standards in the Anglican diocese of Melbourne, and am currently a member of a professional standards committee for one of the Catholic orders. The majority of its members are women. They are laity, busy, unpaid, and without power.
And thereby is some hope. Since Vatican II, successive popes have pledged a greater role for the laity to work with those who are ordained, and Pope Francis has emphasised respect for women religious, and some hope for long-squelched leadership roles for women.
The Vatican bureaucracy is not pleased with this, or with women’s views on small matters such as admitting the divorced to the Eucharist.
There is a traditional culture of brotherhood in the upper echelons of the Church at every level. There is also a natural urge to homosocial reproduction in its instrumentalities.
If I have learned anything from my work with companies and organisations on cultural change, it is that these comfortable cultures need to be broken up, because they are, as Lord Acton said, so readily corrupted. Narrowly defined, corruption means people use their position and authority for personal rather than the church’s benefit (that is, the whole church, not just its office holders).
More broadly, it refers to any violation of ethical and legal rules even when there is no personal gain, as in perjury, turning a blind eye, bending the rules, using violence to silence nay-sayers, wildcards and whistleblowers, or covering up physical and sexual misconduct, theft, and discrimination.
The Royal Commission has revealed a corruption of compassion within the culture of Christian institutions, which strikes at the heart of their mission and spirituality. There is also, within most churches I believe, a culture of acceptance of ‘noble-cause corruption’; that is, illegal actions undertaken to achieve laudable ends, in this case, protection of the institution itself.
This is one of the ills already addressed in the US. In 2014 the Australian Jesuit Province arranged a vist from Kathleen McChesney (pictured with Truth, Justice and Healing Council CEO Francis Sullivan), a former executive assistant director for the FBI, who had been employed by the American Bishops Conference to establish a system to deal effectively with preventing, and protecting children from, sexual and other abuse.
It is evident over ten years that there has been genuine progress in easing out corrupt, incompetent or cowardly church officials there. Even within a clerical culture of loyalty towards brothers and fathers in a hierarchical organisation, it was possible to create a structural and procedural framework which had reduced the actual incidence of offending.
Women do most of the hard work in parishes and form the majority of active parishioners. They know they have no authority. They are outsiders. Some are choosing to ignore what priests say and judge them by what they do.
The best way to change such a culture is therefore to start giving women positions of real influence and respect — outsiders see what insiders cannot, causing interruptions to the easy transitions of assumed and unquestioned authority, and groupthink.
Including women and thusly diversity at every level breaks up consensus and challenges noble corruption-fostering cultures. These challenges will be unwelcome but they are necessary if churches are to embody a gospel of love and protection of the marginalised and undervalued.
Moira Rayner is a barrister and writer. This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 13 December 2015.