Professor Gordon Lynch comments on child abuse report

Sam Wood
Professor Gordon Lynch

‘Yesterday’s publication of the report on the Catholic Church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse raises fundamental questions about the way in which the Church’s leadership continues to respond to sexual abuse. Whilst recognising significant progress made in developing safeguarding systems in the Church over the past 20 years, the report sets out a number of concerns about the organisational culture in which these operate. Citing a number of instances of cases in recent years, the report notes that bishops still seem to be learning how to empathise properly with survivors and that too often the organisational interests of the Church have been put ahead of survivors’ needs. Pastoral care for perpetrators in the Church is still, the report notes, as a whole better than for those who have experienced abuse.

‘The broad impression from the report is that the leadership of the Church still regard sexual abuse as a problem to be managed at arm’s length rather something that raises deep questions about the Church’s identity, theology and structures. This was certainly my experience of working over four years as an expert witness for both IICSA and the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry for their child migrants case studies. My work for these inquiries helped to show that senior Catholic child-care administrators, including the then Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Griffin, had allowed a system to operate in which children from Catholic residential homes were sent to Australia without proper consent or follow-up checks. Several hundred of these boys were sent to four homes run by the Christian Brothers in Western Australia which are now recognised to have been amongst the worst places for systemic sexual abuse in post-war Australian history.

‘As this material came to light through the inquiries, I naively expected this to provoke deep soul-searching in the Church’s response about how its ethos and structures had allowed such a devastating failure of vulnerable children. Instead, my perception was that the Church’s response was carefully calibrated to express sufficient regret to convey sympathy whilst avoiding as much admission of organisational culpability as possible.

‘Yesterday’s report confirms the sad impression that many leaders in the Church still believe that its moral authority is better protected by dealing with sexual abuse as a procedural or reputational issue, rather than embracing the harder route of deeper institutional reflection. Where there is a willingness to change this seems too often stifled by the culture and structures of deference to the Vatican, whose refusal to co-operate with IICSA, its report noted, ‘passes understanding’. For the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, to give the inaccurate impression that he had offered to resign in relation to criticism of his leadership over sexual abuse is indicative of a culture of superficial PR games rather than deeper institutional repentance. For him to say that staying in post because Pope Francis had requested it was ‘enough for me’, simply restated the culture of deference to a Vatican whose behaviour IICSA had strongly censured.

‘This is doubtless a hard time for those who have experienced abuse in the Church. Whilst some may get more sympathetic responses in future, there is nothing to indicate that the Church recognises how its impulse to protect its sense of moral authority or culture of ecclesiastical deference may continue to compromise its responses. From the tone of the report, it seems clear that the IICSA panel recognise this too and stronger recommendations about independent oversight and regulation of bodies like the Catholic Church are likely to follow from them.

‘This is also a difficult time for many Catholics who see their leaders as failing to express the deep currents in their faith of confession, repentance and commitment to heal the world. I write as a humanist, but in the past I have been inspired by people like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Latin American liberation theologians and the ‘Greensisters’ movement whose profound spirituality I still respect. Catholicism remains a deep, broad movement with the capacity to inspire creativity and change. In the wake of the IICSA report, many Catholics will be left wondering whether the leadership and structures of their Church are betraying the best of their faith. Such questions are raw and painful, but it is only through facing this crisis – and the challenge of survivors’ experiences – full on that a deeper form of institutional change may emerge.’

Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at Kent’s Department of Religious Studies. His public engagement work has included serving as an expert witness for both the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry; co-curating a major exhibition with the V&A Museum of Childhood; collaborating on the national music project The Ballads of Child Migration; and co-producing educational films with the BAFTA award-winning digital channel TrueTube.