“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Matthew 10, 26-28) Courageous proclamation of the “good news” of God’s love for us is the heart of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus is unwavering in acknowledging the truth of this mission, even at great personal cost. And he is relentless in denouncing denial of the truth of God’s love.
The infection of Silence and Secrecy
Silence, secrecy and denial have been evident at every level of the clergy sexual abuse crisis – from the abuse of individuals to leadership’s response to victims’ stories and its minimisation of the harm done, as well as its pursuit of gag orders, non-disclosure agreements and active cover-up.
Persistent focus on individual offenders; blaming the sexual revolution of the 1970’s in the West; and slow acceptance of empirical research on the dynamics and magnitude of the harm have contributed to inadequate leadership response to victims and failure to address underlying systemic and cultural beliefs which fostered the abuse.
Breaking the silence did not come from examining communal conscience in light of medical and psychological research on the profound damage of sexual abuse of minors. Public revelations of this longstanding scandal resulted from external forces of civil legal proceedings, separate from canon law, and investigative journalism.
A Church culture of silence and secrecy – from the “pontifical secret” applied to abuse and the “seal of confession”, to the strategy of avoidance of scandal, in order to protect image and reputation and special status – made admission of wrongdoing difficult.
Silence and denial in the abuse crisis have been diagnosed as a life-threatening infection of the Body of Christ.
Since its emergence in December 2019 the devastating COVID-19 virus has dominated the media globally. It has forced the still festering clergy sexual abuse crisis from the headlines, but provides many lessons on infections.
Lessons from the pandemic
A new respect for science in a world of celebrities, personalities and blogs emerged because of the urgent need to understand populations at risk and how the virus was spread, as well as the need to develop new anti-viral treatments and vaccines.
We learned much about how viral infections invade and infect living cells in the body. We were constantly warned to disinfect objects, wash our hands (for those with soap and water), and shelter at home (for those with safe homes) in the effort to prevent spreading the disease.
History revealed that leaders were in denial about the significance of the new virus as it emerged in rural China. There was early minimisation of the magnitude of the harm and scope of infection.
We have seen leaders blaming others, such as the World Health Organization, or referring to the disease as “the Chinese virus” and “Kungflu”, while being inattentive to the underlying causes of risk to the most vulnerable.
We are witnessing competing political interests using fear and uncertainty for their advantage and polarising economic agendas particularly in debates about opening up the economy.
Even as the evidence demonstrates widespread disease and death, there has been breathtaking denial of personal risk and the responsibility to protect others, most egregiously demonstrated by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Culturing truth and courage
Cultures of silence, secrecy and denial require assistance from the outside in order to recognise their pathology. Psychology identifies denial as a powerful defence mechanism for coping with fear, guilt and a wide range of frightening realities in personal, social and political life.
Sociology studies the cultural conditioning that teaches the bounds of acceptable discourse and the rules of denial. Political psychology helps understand how deeply held beliefs can strengthen resistance to new information from science and cultural change.
Leaders are critical in creating the culture of an organisation because they have power related to authority, position and prestige. However, the influence of power and self-focus can create overconfidence and failure to appreciate criticism from others.
Organisational structures, policies and practices that centralise decision-making or reject negative feedback, and limit members’ opportunities for collective sense-making when they experience crisis and contradiction, re-enforce silence.
Painful accounts of the cost to whistle blowers in all organisations are well known.
The long-term outcome of organisational moral crises is determined by how leaders understand the moral and ethical challenges; provide truthful and accurate information; and promote meaningful dialogue and debate about truthful and courageous responses.
Dialogue as disinfectant
This pandemic has shown there are significant challenges to truthful and courageous responses to common risks and the protection of the most vulnerable among us. The Church should be a clear witness to and powerful force for this response. Sadly, its own history in the clergy sexual abuse crisis teaches more about what should not to be done, rather than providing a moral model.
Breaking the pathological silence and denial requires more than headlines.
Pope Francis has said:
“We are all living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.” (Evangelii gaudium, 64)
Prayerful discernment of false news is crucial. Dialogue and synodality refer to a dynamic communication with all participants involved in both active listening and courageous speech.
Meaningful dialogue between disciples of Jesus who is “the Truth” requires respect for the gifts of all the baptised and an approach that finds its inspiration in the life of the Trinity, which brings demands for conversion from the dialogue itself.
We live in hope that lessons learned from the power of silence and denial in the face of pandemic infection can present new insights into the urgency of disinfecting silence and denial in the Church and possibilities for conversion to the mind of Christ.
“The truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a pediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying (2017). She is co-authorof Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2019).
Dr Nuala Kenny’s article appears in La Croix International, June 29, 2020.