I’m taken with Abbott’s notion that we need to correctly name a challenge in order to meet it. Bland labels allow abusers to hide behind their institution
Call it the Abbott Test for Moral Action. We can’t defeat a threat until we properly identify and name it, and the most important threats are those that have already proven deadly.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott led a chorus of voices last week demanding that political leaders define recent deadly terrorist attacks as Islamic. Abbott rejected concerns that such comments could inflame anti-Islam sentiment: “Islamophobia hasn’t killed anyone,” he said.
Abbott is wrong on that point. The recent murders in Portland, Oregon appear to be just the latest prompted by “Islamophobia.” But Abbott is right that we ought to correctly identify the mortal threats we face.
I’ve never had a problem using phrases like “radical Islam” or “extremist Islamic terrorists.” Being theologically trained, I understand that scripture is always interpreted in context and culture, and some interpretations are radical, extreme and seriously flawed.
I’m taken with this Abbottian notion that society needs to correctly name a challenge in order to meet it. I don’t often agree with the former prime minister, but he’s correct that we could better define those things that are currently killing Australians.
Let’s start with “institutional sexual abuse”. The current royal commission into institutional sexual abuse has heard thousands of submissions from victims and their families. Too many victims’ stories include suicide. In Ballarat, one police officer compiled a dossier of 43 deaths – suicides, overdoses and others – attributable to sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and brothers in that diocese alone. (Another police report, Operation Plangere, disputed this finding, but Louise Milligan’s carefully researched book “Cardinal” lays out the flaws in Plangere’s investigations.)
“Institutional sexual abuse” is a phrase that describes where the abuse occurs rather than who perpetrated the abuse and who the victims are. I acknowledge the phrase has validity insofar as there are common factors in institutions that foster abuse, including absolute control of vulnerable people, lack of oversight, and a preference for organisational processes over the rule of law.
But the label “institutional sexual abuse” is too bland to confront us with the terror and deadly impact on the victims. It allows abusers – individually or as a class – to continue hiding behind the institution.
The phrase also fails to catch the important differences between institutions that lead some organisations to support more awful and systematic abuse than others.
The royal commission has heard from victims of abuse in many religious and state-run institutions, but the Catholic church (my church, and Abbott’s too) stands out. Over 4,000 cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic church were reported to the royal commission. These reports showed wilful ignorance by church leaders, systematic shielding of abusers and a continual preference for the perpetrator and the institution over the victim.
The royal commission is likely to make findings about how church beliefs and structures allowed abuse to occur. In Australia and elsewhere, such as in Ireland, priests, bishops and nuns have testified to a belief that prayer could cure paedophiles. Some have pointed to a belief that it was God’s work to protect the church’s reputation by not reporting abuse to the police. Had the church been drawn into such scandal, thousands of souls might have lost their faith and been in jeopardy.
The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualised and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.
Should we label this “Catholic terrorism”? The Australian victims of sexual abuse have been terrorised by the Catholic church, no doubt. Is it “radical Catholic ideology” or “extremist Catholic belief” to cover up the sin of sexual abuse for “the greater good”? It’s hard to deny it.
As a Catholic, I shudder at the thought. But I know that such labels would be truthful. And I know, as Abbott argues, that if we really want to solve the problem of the child sexual abuse by Catholic religious (priests, brothers and nuns) then we should name it appropriately.
I posed this question on Twitter last week: should we call this Catholic extremism? One of the police officers who blew the whistle on the sexual abuse of children in the Australian Catholic church, Peter Fox, responded “I’d call it organised crime.” He’s right. But it is more than that. It is a warped, extreme and deeply flawed interpretation of the Catholic faith that led to such crimes.
And we should not comfort ourselves that this distorted theology and these crimes are necessarily a thing of the past. If anything, seminaries are becoming more orthodox and traditional. Little has changed in structure or governance of the Catholic church. As Cardinal Pell told commissioner McClellan, the church’s structure came from God. Why would the church change it?
Under the Abbott test, we should call such flawed thinking out. We must name it. It’s Catholic extremism. It’s killing and terrorising Australians.
Unless we see it for what it is, we will remain powerless to stop it.
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