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Overcoming abuse in church and society

Abuse in the Catholic Church is what the Vatican called ‘the most tragic wound’ to the church and its role within society – and to society itself.

In 2011 Prof Stephen Bullivant from St Mary’s University was appointed Director of the European Society for Catholic Theology's ‘Redeeming Power’ research project into the nature, function and location of theology, with particular attention to the power of theology to overcome power abuse in Church and Society, and with a special focus on the nature and causes of clerical sexual abuse.

Dr Bullivant’s research was intended to engage both the hierarchy of the Church responsible for safeguarding, and the wider Catholic public, in investigations surrounding sexual abuse, and dealing with, or overcoming it. Key figures in the Church, such as the Vatican’s own chief prosecutor, have come forward to engage with this important research.

The research was carried out against a backdrop of other instances of widespread sexual abuse in a large-scale organisation; most notably, the Saville scandal within the BBC and the Sandusky case at The University of Pennsylvania. As a consequence, one significant branch of the research was the mishandling of allegations and cover-ups that have turned tragedies into scandals.

The research concluded that in order for change and reform within the Church to occur, there is an urgent need for: theologians in general to engage with the findings; a new structural approach that is less facilitating to abusive positions of power; and to enable application of these findings to other non-spiritual organisations by not blaming elements of Catholicism (i.e. celibacy) as the sole cause of abuse.

Follow-up conferences on the topic and following Bullivant’s ‘Redeeming Power’ project have attracted delegates from more than a dozen countries and members of the Catholic Church’s safeguarding committees.

The Vatican Response

“I think that slowly, slowly, we’re getting towards a response which is truly ecclesial – we’re in this together, in suffering the wound and trying to respond to it – I think that’s a very important aspect that I bring away from the conference, to share concerns. [...] We need the input from psychology, sociology, psychiatry; we need the human sciences to not only diagnose, but also to have a prognosis and also an efficient therapy.” 
Vatican Chief Prosecutor

What’s Next?

Following on from the ‘Redeeming Power’ project, Dr Bullivant was commissioned by the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission to review statistics on abuse allegations over the past 10 years. The findings are due to be published later this year.

Dr Bullivant has also made several recommendations to the Commission about how current practices for collecting and presenting such statistics at a national level might be improved.