Jesus, the Catholic Church is having a rough time recently. You know you’re having a rough time of it when the press run the headline “Vatican police raid drug-fueled gay orgy at top priest’s apartment” and everyone’s first reaction is ‘Were there any children involved?’, followed by genuine surprise that there weren’t.
The Catholic Church’s ongoing public arse-kicking for their woeful and outright criminal handling of sexual abuse by clergy, took a sharp turn for the worse in Australia last week – the Vatican’s #3 man, Cardinal George Pell, long accused of protecting paedophile priests and covering up abuses, has himself been charged with sex offenses by the Victorian police. The fact that Pell took off to the Vatican a while ago when things started getting tricky for him back here, and has since been ‘too unwell to travel’ does not shine brightly on this situation, despite his protests to the contrary.
But this week I want to look beyond the paedophile priests themselves, since when you get down to it, that’s a pretty simple situation; powerful individuals taking advantage of that power to abuse the powerless, supercharged by that group’s enforced celibacy which, seriously, who the hell thought that was a good idea?
The sheer balls necessary for this group to oppose homosexuality is breathtaking
No, the bigger and more interesting question this whole ‘scandal’ raises is not how it happened, but rather why the Church has reacted the way it has – specifically, by circling the wagons, denying abuses occurred for as long as possible, paying off victims to keep quiet, and then defending the accused priests with the fullness of their resources, up to and including hiding them from arresting police.
I mean certainly you can understand a group seeking to support its members when they are accused of wrongdoing, and demanding that those charges be proven in a court of law before allowing judgement to be passed. But the Church has gone far, FAR beyond that, actively and wilfully protecting paedophiles even when they are certain abuses have occurred, deliberately hindering police investigations and continuing to deny a serious problem exists within their ranks, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In Australia alone a recent Royal Commission released a report revealing 7% of Australian priests between 1950 and 2009 were accused of abusing children, with 4,444 sex abuse incidents recorded, and with some Catholic orders having up to 40.4% of their priests with allegations against them. Even ignoring the reality that most sexual abuses go unreported, we have a problem of catastrophic scale here.
So what gives?! I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that this is an institution formed specifically around spreading god’s message of peace and love to the world. You’d think if there was a group that would take the harming of children seriously, it’d be these guys, right? But not only did they fail to deal with the problem effectively, they sought to cover it up in such a way that actually made it worse. Instead of protecting the victims of these crimes, they did something many of us would celebrate in other circumstance: they protected their own.
Everyone has a group they belong to, some serious, some casual, some by choice, some by consequence. But when you have a group that you strongly align with, that represents a significant part of who you are as a person and what you believe in, then any threat to that group is more than an abstract idea – it’s a direct threat to your identity. So when a threat or accusation is levelled at your group, you react the same way humans always react when their sense of self is threatened: we go on the defensive and seek to protect what’s ours.
Consider then the consequences of someone accusing members of your group of one of, if not the, worst crimes a human being can commit – sexual abuse of children under their care. And this isn’t an isolated incident either, some random aberrant outsider who snuck into your ranks undetected, but rather several well-known and respected leaders of your community who have used the authority granted to them by that community and its beliefs to perpetrate these crimes.
This isn’t just a threat against members of your community, which would be bad enough, but against the very nature and fabric of your community itself. How will you respond to such a ground-shaking accusation? Will you calmly stand back and wait while the proper authorities are alerted, a gruesome investigation takes place for evidence that may or may not exist (lots of he-said-she-said in these cases, remember), the general public and the media take every opportunity to laugh, sneer and spit on the community that defines a large part of your being, and then graciously accept the consequences of any criminal prosecution, knowing full-well that the sneering will continue regardless of the findings?
Or do you attempt to prevent this horrific process by denying that it ever happened, then fighting tooth and nail against each and every attempt by outside forces to destroy what is yours?
Which is easier? Accepting that the institution that has underlined your entire life to date is fundamentally corrupt? Or choosing to believe that a child is lying?
These guys gave up on sex for this group. That’s a fairly hefty level of commitment.
Likely this is all sounds a bit intense at this point, requiring some pretty serious faith to even be plausible – I mean sure, if someone had so thoroughly committed to a group that it effectively defined them, then they might react like this, but surely that’s incredibly rare, right?
‘Fraid not. You need look no further than the wonderful world of politics to find exactly this sort of behaviour on display, from every side. A guy assassinates a Democrat Representative in 2011 and right-wingers react by saying he was actually a left-winger because he had The Communist Manifesto on his bookshelf. A left-wing activist shoots up some Republican Congresspeople and people get on twitter saying it’s a shame he didn’t kill more of them. A cop shoots a black man and depending who you ask it’s either a 100% deliberate racially-motivated hate crime, or the result of the black community’s endorsement of criminal lifestyles and violence towards cops.
Christ, a media group tweeted the entirety of the Declaration of Independence for the 4th of July, as they always do, and some folks automatically assumed it was a manifesto for revolution against Donald Trump’s presidency.
Facts are rejected where they do not fit our narratives, all in protection of that sense of self. Incidentally, if you think you are the exception to this, then no one’s found the right buttons to push yet.
Incidentally one of the greatest arguments I’ve ever had was with a hardcore Nihilist who got REALLY upset that I was questioning his belief that nothing matters. Stupendous levels of irony.
Family is usually a good one for that. You reckon you’re above the sort of hardcore denial and defensive self-justification that the Catholic Church fell so hard for? Then ask yourself how you would react to someone levelling some hardcore criticisms about one of your loved ones. Nevermind outright accusations of terrible crimes, I’d suggest that all it would take is a really critical character appraisal of your beloved child/parent/spouse to set you off into a spiral of defensiveness, finding any and all opportunities to reject that appraisal, including the complete and total rejection of the facts in the process.
And thus we see the gaping rabbit hole that the Catholic Church so very enthusiastically drove down when these accusations started cropping up.
The tragedy of all this is that none of it works. What are we trying to achieve when we react to threats to our precious groups with denial and defensiveness? Whether it’s an attempt to protect our community, our reputation, the good things that our community does do, or our sense of self, denial is a stunningly ineffective method of achieving any of those – and as the efforts of the Catholic Church demonstrates all to clearly, it actually makes thing so much worse in the long run.
And so I have a challenge for you: I want you to empathise with the Catholic Church.
I didn’t say it was an easy challenge
I am not asking you to agree with their conduct, which you obviously shouldn’t. I’m not even asking you to forgive them for their conduct, because frankly I’ve never really bought the whole ‘forgiveness’ angle when ‘accountability’ is such a better option.
No, all I’m asking you to do is to empathise with them: make a serious effort to understand why they failed to protect the children under their care and ensure the abusers saw swift criminal justice.
Why? Because unless we can understand what motivates others to make such terrible decisions, then how are you going to know how to react if you ever find yourself in this sort of situation?
Imagine a close friend, a parent or your child turn up on your doorstep one night and says they just ran over someone with their car accidentally, panicked and drove to your place without thinking about it. They’re terrified, think they may have killed the person, but are begging you not to tell anyone, to help them and protect them.
If you try to tell me that you wouldn’t be tempted to help them hide it, then you sir, are either a liar, or have never even been close to this sort of situation before. Because what you are being asked to do is choose, not just between obeying the law or not, but between pretending that a bad thing didn’t happen, and shaking your entire world to its foundations. If you call the cops, your friend/parent/child is getting arrested, they are going on trial, they will disappear from your life and where they were once a source of love, joy and pride they are not a horrible dark sink of share, fear and guilt. You will have to answer question after question about them. You will have to attend their trial and see the loved ones of the person they killed. You will have to endure the media scrutiny and the judgement of strangers, potentially harassment online in in the streets for the accidental actions of your loved one.
You can pretend it never happened.
The fact that these situations are incredibly rare is a good thing, but in many ways makes it even more important we understand what we should do if they occur, because you will not get practice with these. No second chances, no chance to sit back and clear your head; just a horrific choice in front of you with earth-shaking implications either way and YOU. MUST. DECIDE. NOW. Inaction is no excuse. Regret for your choice afterwards is no excuse. You would grant neither of these excuses to the Catholic Church, so why should they be granted to you?
So I suggest most humbly that, as George Pell is either tried for his crimes or otherwise tried in absentia while he cowers in the Vatican, that we neither forget nor forgive those crimes. But we should show empathy, because it is literally the only way we have to make sure we do not become like the Church that saw those crimes and did nothing.