An attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely. It’s time for the Church to consider doing away with the clerical collar, which is a powerful symbol of priestly power and privilege.
About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church’s online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.
It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest’s clerical collar.
I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.
The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed ‘cease and desist’ order that gave us no choice.
There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight – as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up – it seems prescient.
I say this after seeing this week’s issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: ‘Australian bishop urges end to clericalism’.
The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.
‘In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model…which promotes the superiority of the ordained. … Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.’
It is often possible to know a priest’s views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.
I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.
In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.
Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.
I think it’s now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long’s suggestion that ‘we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture … of power and control that has been our cultural captivity’.