Dec 27, 2009

Bad apples or a bad barrel? Sexual abuse and the Irish Catholic Church

I've a new post on GlobalComment:

Resignations of bishops is the issue of the day in the Irish Catholic Church. The initial shock of the Murphy Report has worn off, probably because many who opine on its contents have not taken the trouble to read it. I think there is a danger in demanding resignations, not that any demands have been forthcoming, because the Report contains merely a sample of cases. Resignation, as opposed to dismissal, is an ideological move, and the whole issue smacks of the “few bad apples” mentality.

The “bad apples” argument is the preferred argument when it comes to discussing widespread abuse. It allows institutions to choose a few scapegoats. The institution, in this scenario, does not have to consider the role it played in facilitating evil or contemplate greater responsibility for the unfolding of abuse.

In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007), Philip Zimbardo, the coordinator of the Stanford Prison Experiment, investigates the idea that a hierarchical institution itself creates the environment that allows abuse to flourish. The conclusions he reaches are applicable to the attitudes of the Vatican and the Irish Catholic Church upon the revelation of widespread serious sexual assault and rape in the Murphy Report and the torture, violence, sexual assault and rape in the Ryan Report.

Zimbardo suggests that there are seven social processes that may trigger evil:

Taking the first step, dehumanisation of others; de-individuation of the self; diffusion of personal responsibility; blind obedience of authority; uncritical conformity to group norms; and passive tolerance to evil through inaction or indifference.

Each of these social processes can be easily applied to the Irish Catholic Church:

The priestly uniform allowing de-individuation; the unquestioning obedience to Rome and the bishops; the lack of responsibility to the victims of the church; the lack of oversight in every area; the passive tolerance of abuse; and the dehumanisation of the children in the industrial schools through excessive use of force and in the parishes through insurance policies, unjust authority and the culture of silence.

The church in Ireland not only passively tolerated the abuse, but also actively moved the criminals from parish to parish while covering up the details of the crimes in question. This is active evil. The decision to hide a paedophile priest in the boot of a car and drive him to another town was a resolute act to shield a criminal. In addition, it shows that the allegiance was to the institution regardless of the legalities of the situation. The current Pope, meanwhile, instructed bishops not to reveal the crimes to civil authorities. Only those who are severely in denial could allow a “bad apples” argument to stand in the face of such actions.

The conspiracy of silence was aided by the power structures in place. The Catholic Church were the de facto morality police, condemning sins from the pulpit; condemning, for example, sexuality and contraception. The priest’s word or deed was never questioned. The extent to which priests enjoyed immunity was revealed in the Murphy Report. The police dropped investigations of sexual abuse accusations against priests even when corroborating evidence was available. Zimbardo says that power without oversight is a prescription for abuse, and that statement has been played out in the parishes and industrial schools throughout Ireland.

Business as usual will not cut the mustard. To date, nothing has changed within the power structures of the church. However, civil society has changed. With the decline of the church’s influence, survivors of sexual abuse, rape and torture are in a position to seek legal redress. Such action was nigh on impossible until recently, considering that the Irish government has been complicit in covering up abuse, limiting liability for the clergy and acting cravenly in the face of clear violations.

The bottom line is that the institution that is the Catholic Church has not taken responsibility for the environment that it created and maintained. Even now, after two reports that contain graphic descriptions of evil, the church fathers speak through public relations representatives and lawyers. Mealy-mouthed apologies abound, but there is no sense of understanding for the suffering of survivors or the extent to which this evil was allowed to flourish.

Every priest who knew and did not report was complicit. Every bishop that did not pass on information to the police, the Vatican or the priests in the abuser’s next diocese was complicit. Every police officer who dropped an investigation or sent complainants away or returned runaway children to industrial schools was complicit. The state that colluded through apathy and inaction, sending children to industrial schools, and allowing the church such unchecked power was complicit.

Many Irish people want to know what is next in terms of the punishment of the guilty. To my mind, there are a couple of Bible verses that would suggest themselves.

It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.

- Luke 17:2

Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none.

- Psalm 10:15


katie said...

an excellent post! thank you for submitting it to the carnival.

you might be interested in this post as well, about the pope's actions as you mention here.

i'm going to go over to her blog and tell her about your post too.

thank you for writing about this.

Patricia Singleton said...

I agree that anyone who ignores or hides sexual abuse in the church or any other organization is definitely part of the problem. Without awareness and acknowledgment of the problem, nothing changes. Thanks for doing your part.

Marj aka Thriver said...

Thank you for raising awareness and for letting us use this great post for The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse.

I also appreciate the reference on the book about evil. I will look into that one. My parents definitely engaged in dehumanizing me in their abuse. As a CASA--advocate for abused children--I saw how fear led parents to evil. This is a huge issue in child abuse, in my opinion.

Paul from Mind Parts said...

Thank you for a wonderful post... You may be interested in the posts I've made on the Catholic Church at:

I really appreciate the insight into how hierarchical institutions can lead to abuses. Now I've got another book on my "to read" list!!

Mór Rígan said...

Thanks ya'll

I'm pretty disgusted by the church at the moment. it just seems that every week there is a more horrifying scandal than the week before. I am amazed that people still attend mass.

I found Zimbardo's book particularly apt to analyzing the church. It is a very interesting read and I highly recommend it