Skip to content Exit mobile menu

stephenBy Prof Stephen Bullivant

A "total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders... for the safety and welfare of... child victims."

A known child abuser being "allowed to retire as a valued member of [the community], with continued unrestricted access to young boys." The outright failure of the institution's "the most powerful people... to protest against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade", and the fact that  "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, [they] repeatedly concealed critical facts". The irrefutable conclusion that "The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity is the most significant, but not the only, cause for this failure to protect children and report to the authorities."

Catholics cannot afford to ignore these quotations (along with a great many more) from the official report into multiple instances of horrifying child abuse and cover-up within the State of Pennsylvania.

They do not, however, come from the Grand Jury Report into the vile sins and crimes committed in three-quarters of Pennsylvania's Catholic (arch)dioceses, released two weeks ago. Rather, these were published in 2012, and in fact, they don't relate to a religious organization at all. These damning words are taken from the Special Investigative Counsel's inquiry into the case of Jerry Sandusky, a (hiterto) much-loved football coach at Penn State University, convicted on 45 counts relating to child abuse. The particular focus of the abovequoted report, led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, was on the various ways in which the university authorities enabled, ignored, and then actively covered up, his years of abusing young boys.

College athletics are not an obvious comparative study for dealing, finally and seriously (though how many times have we heard that?), with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Nor with the structures and cultures which permit, encourage, and protect it. But, as anyone who has read both reports cannot fail to note, the parallels are certainly there.

To cite just a few examples: Sandusky exploited his status and “celebrity” to gain access to vulnerable young people. Credible allegations against him went unreported to the police. Despite clear evidence of his posing a real and present danger, few efforts were made to prevent his access to children. Blind eyes were turned. Doubts were beneficed. Several senior leaders at Penn State were found guilty of a cover-up in order to protect the institution's reputation.

And it's not just sports (though plenty of other examples, from English soccer to American gymnastics, could be mentioned too). How about major media organizations?

While Hollywood has been in the news of late, the most flagrant of cases comes from a rather less razzamatazzy quarter. Sir Jimmy Savile was a BBC television host, children's entertainer, and charity fundraiser, whose 2011 death was marked by widespread media mourning of an eccentric "national treasure". The following year, prompted by the investigations reporting of a rival channel (the BBC having buried their own journalists’ reporting) floods of allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape emerged. These ranged over a period of over fifty years, the great majority of them relating to times when Savile had unsupervised access to children and young adults at television studios and (through his charity work) hospitals, schools, and even prisons.

Savile was never tried, let alone convicted, before a (temporal) court. But given the weight and credibility of these accusations, official police and government reports have taken the unprecedented step of referring to his "crimes" and "victims". These reports make plain that Savile's status accorded him a free pass to abuse, seemingly at will. Victims who did come forward were ignored, silenced, and/or threatened. Despite Savile's reputation as a sexual predator being  widely known in professional circles, no attempts were ever made to curtail his access to children or vulnerable adults. And when serious allegations did start to surface, his employers were eager to bury them. Sound familiar?

The recent revelations about sexual abuse within Chicago public schools - 'Police investigated 523 reports that children were sexually assaulted or abused inside city public schools [between 2008 and 2017], or an average of one report each week', according to the Chicago Tribune -  must also be noted here. This is not, however, the first such set of revelations. A study of abuse allegations in New York schools in the mid-1990s, for instance, found that out of 225 cases where abuse had actually been admitted by teaching professionals, only 1% lost their licence to teach. Only 15% were fired, and only a further 20% were suspended or formally reprimanded.

These examples do not, I hope it need hardly be said, in any way minimize or mitigate either the quantity or "quality" of horrors, both of abuse and cover-up, committed in the Catholic Church. Nor must we forget that the Grand Jury report, which does not even cover even the whole of Pennsylvania, comes after a good thirty-odd years of such revelations issuing forth as though from a burst sewerage pipe. But they must give Catholics pause, if they really are serious about tackling this issue once and for all.

Most "answers" to the sexual abuse crisis exhibit a form of Catholic exceptionalism. That is, they fixate upon the ways in which the Catholic Church is different from other religious groups, or large organizations, and propose that as the "root cause". There are all manner of contenders here: clerical celibacy, clericalism, an all-male priesthood, one or other kind of ecclesiological or liturgical vision, and so on. Perhaps one, or some, or even all of these play their part to some degree. I am perfectly open to the idea of Catholic abuse and cover-up having a distinctively Catholic structure. But it seems to me to be dangerously - genuinely dangerously - misguided to suppose that all or even most of the Catholic problem must be due to more-or-less uniquely Catholic factors. After all, college football teams, state-funded broadcasters, or school staff rooms are not obviously examples of organizations committed to, say, mandatory celibacy or a particular hermeneutical approach vis-a-vis Vatican II.

(So-called “clericalism” may, admittedly, be a different matter. If we regard the basic idea to include certain individuals being considered reproach or question, and/or self-serving cultures of patronage and protectionism, then the Sandusky and Savile affairs might certainly be viewed as secular analogues. Though again, this kind of "clericalism" is evidently not exclusive to the Catholic Church.)

The Catholic Church is demonstrably an odd institution – even by secular standards, but naturally all the more so if the traditional Catholic claims about its origins and purpose are true. Nevertheless, as the Second Vatican Council rightly observed in 1965, the Church is also "a community composed of human beings" (Gaudium et Spes 1). And as such, it certainly shares a great many characteristics with other such groups and institutions. Among these, sad to say, is the phenomenon of child sexual abuse - according to a study by the World Health Organisation, for instance, worldwide an estimated 223 million under-18s experienced 'forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence' in 2002 alone - and a predilection of others to ignore, deny, or actively conceal it.

This is a point I have been making, on and off, since around 2013 - when Catholics could reasonably hope that the worst of what could come out must surely have done so already. How tragically naive we were. There is vastly more to be said on this topic, of course, and a great deal of further research to be done. But the essential point I am making here is this: the Church may bespecial, it is not so unique that its sins and crimes are special ones, peculiar to it alone. As we look to the future, this is a fact that we will ignore at our - and our children's - peril.

stephen-bullivantProf Stephen Bullivant

Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary's University in London, UK. His co-edited book Theology and Power: International Perspectives (Paulist Press, 2016) brings together responses to abuse within Church and society from theologians and social scientists from Europe, North America, and Asia.