Church abuse the product of a sick society
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse has revealed some of the outrageous abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests, brothers and nuns.
It was not just the abuse itself that was appalling, but the decades-long coordinated cover-up by the church hierarchy, and the penny pinching that has denied the victims anything approaching adequate financial compensation for their torment.
There are a whole series of factors that come together as a toxic cocktail to explain the scale of the crimes.
First, there is the authoritarian nature of the church, which gives virtually unfettered power to the hierarchy. There is absolutely no democracy in the church. Parishioners don’t get to elect their priest, let alone their bishop. They have no say over church policy.
This was even more the case in the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. In those days, most Catholics were poor working class people who were often viewed with ill-disguised contempt, or at best paternalism, by the bishops and many priests.
They were berated as sinners, subjected to hell-fire sermons, hectored to donate more money to church funds and repeatedly warned about the evils of communism and of Labor politicians who were supposedly soft on communism.
The power and prestige of the clergy made it very difficult for parishioners, especially working class parishioners, to challenge or even question the behaviour of their priest. Also, because priests were put on a pedestal, victims of abuse knew that they were unlikely to be believed – even by their own families, let alone by bishops or the police.
The church’s reactionary attitudes to sex, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and so on made things so much worse. It helped create warped people, some of whom became both priests and abusers.
The cover-up is the easiest thing to explain. Like any other powerful institution in capitalist society – the military, the police, the banks, the mining companies and the like – the church made protecting its prestige, influence and wealth its number one priority.
That came well ahead of its supposed moral code, let alone justice or compassion for the abuse victims. Anyone who complained was fobbed off, hectored, bribed or intimidated.
It is hardly a surprise that so many of the victims were children, one of the most oppressed groups in our society. Children have virtually no rights and no say. They are treated as the property of their parents, their teachers or the state.
Children were seen and not heard. Often they were not believed when they complained. Who would side with them against someone in authority?
And as the royal commission has revealed, it was not just the Catholic Church that was involved in the appalling abuse of children. The Salvation Army, the Church of England, the Presbyterian Church, Jewish groups – every religious institution in the country – has a shameful record of abuse and cover-up.
The religious institutions could not have gotten away with it for so long without the backing of the state authorities – the police, the judges, the politicians, the top public servants – who decade after decade either deliberately turned a blind eye or actively facilitated the abuse.
Indeed, despite everything that has come out, Tony Abbott continues to defend his reactionary soul mate Cardinal George Pell.
The terrible abuse of children is not just something from some past era from which we have moved on or confined to the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. Wealth, power and hierarchy inevitably lead to the oppression and exploitation of the powerless. That doubly applies to children, who have so very few rights in our society.
State orphanages, youth detention centres, psychiatric hospitals, disability centres, police boys clubs, schools, prisons and other secular institutions such as the Boy Scouts or Yooralla – in all these institutions there was vile abuse.
Obviously the dynamics and the way abuses were carried out were different, as were the particular power structures within the institutions and the social status of the abusers. But their records are little or no better than those of the churches.