Wednesday 19 August 2015

Safeguarding in Scotland: McLellan Commission Report

My knee jerk reaction to the McLellan report (Full report PDF here; summary from Law and Religion UK blog here) is that it's far too important a topic to have a knee jerk reaction on. Judging from the highly negative story in The National, it's likely to have a rocky reception from at least some abuse victims.

Although I have read the full report, it's too long to have engaged with it fully yet, and moreover it's the sort of thing that needs to be lived with for a while and reflected on to do it justice. That said, as contribution to the discussion which must ensue, the following are my initial thoughts. I make no claim as to their finality: one must simply start somewhere.

If it's possible to step back from the Somme like battles of Catholics and 'Others', the sheer disgust at the abuse within the Church and (perhaps more importantly) the appalling treatment of cases of abuse by the hierarchy shouldn't be underestimated. I haven't abused a child. I haven't covered up the abuse of a child. I wouldn't want to do those things or support anyone who does. I would welcome the full force of the Scottish criminal law being applied to those who have done so. And those attitudes are going to hold for most Catholics in Scotland. I see (particularly) the sexual abuse of children as something that society as a whole has not been able to deal with well. I see the Catholic Church's cases of abuse as part of a wider pattern. the Church having particular circumstances (widespread contact with children; dispersed patterns of authority; various national cultures; simply massive numbers of members of the Church etc etc) which alter the details, but do not change that fundamental pattern. To see the existence of abuse as just or even especially  a Catholic problem is dangerous because it underrates the persistence and universality of the issue. On the other hand, the Church is my patch and I would like to see as much done within it as possible. (I confess I find it odd to read the report with its emphasis solely on the Catholic Church when in the UK, we seem to be going through a period where it seems (likely? possible?) the systematic abuse of children and perversion of justice within the political class has been widespread. That of course doesn't mean that a report on what the Catholic Church can do isn't needed. But the corruption within the Church is not separate from that of wider society and any solutions equally cannot be completely separated.)

As far as the very concrete proposals of the report go (eg strengthening the role and powers of safeguarding co-ordinators), so far as I can tell, they seem thoroughly sensible. Where I found myself feeling less sure was in respect to the 'softer' suggestions about a change in culture and attitude. Here, what may be an admirably cut and dried approach with regard to structural changes can very easily slide into the banality of the quick fix. For example,

5.12 A Church cannot be controlled by fear. A Church must be controlled by love. That is not an optional extra it is of the essence of the Church’s being. If the Catholic Church in Scotland is to fulfil the promise of Bishop Toal “that the priority principle must be assistance to the victims of abuse”, it will need to discover the perfect love which casts out fear.

So far as I can make sense of this, it seems to be in the context of a) not fearing the anger of survivors when engaging with them; and b) not fearing the financial consequences of lawsuits. I'm not sure a) is exactly 'fear' although I suppose individuals might well fear the unpleasantness of sitting down with someone who, as a result of abuse, hates you and the institution you stand for. (But here, there has to be a realistic assessment of how great a role such individual encounters can play. One of the awful things about wrongs is that they are not always able to be put right by well intentioned individuals. Such a 'fear' does not strike me as completely misplaced.) b) strikes me as completely rational. Any organisation (eg the NHS) which has to exist to deliver a service cannot but fear legal measures which frustrate that purpose. I suspect many survivors would (understandably) not object to shutting down the Church completely. But for those of us who do want the Church to go on functioning, a certain fear about practical consequences seems entirely appropriate.

To take this further:

3.87 A Catholic, scriptural, Scottish, fresh theological understanding of safeguarding might bear fruit. It is likely that the new, clear insights it will bring will make their way into the prayer and worship life of the Church. A Safeguarding Prayer appears on the website of the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service: 

Lord Jesus we praise you for calling us to the service of others.
We pray for a generosity of spirit to ensure the vulnerable are protected.
We pray for a compassionate heart so that we will reach out to those who are wounded by abuse.
We pray for courage and determination as we seek the safety of everyone in our parish communities. We dedicate ourselves to this work of service and pray that you will help us to do your will at all times and in all places.

3.88 No doubt many of those involved in safeguarding use this prayer. This prayer could be the beginning of a new treasury of prayer as new theological insights illuminate and encourage the Church. Prayers for survivors and their families, prayers for Advisers and Coordinators, prayers for priests and bishops and congregational leaders, prayers of repentance, prayers for hope, prayers for understanding, prayers for the Church. To set safeguarding in the context of the whole worship of the Church is, in itself, a real and necessary theological insight.

[My emphasis.]

My gut reaction to this is that it's typical of a sort of woolly minded liberal Protestant theologising that the Church would do well to avoid. Most of the egregious abuse within the Church does not require any theology to recognise. Raping children and passing the perpetrators onto to fresh parishes to rape again is clearly and simply morally wrong. Concealing crimes from the police in a well run jurisdiction like Scotland is also morally wrong. There is absolutely nothing subtle about the wrongs here and many of the measures to prevent them in the future are also not terribly sophisticated. Where things do get more problematic is in the essentialising of the practice of 'Safeguarding' and its placing unproblematically at the heart of the Church's actions. Whatever merits or demerits this sort of attitude may have can only be chewed over. And that involves debate and the possibility of criticism and rejection. (Compare, for example, the claim that 'Safeguarding' should be placed at the heart of education. How is this related to the common-or-garden 'keeping children safe'? (It's not at all obvious that the professionalised practice of 'Safeguarding' is identical to keeping children safe.) And even if they are identical, should 'keeping children safe' be at the heart of education?)

An essentially bureaucratic report does, as far as I can see, its bureaucratic task well in coming up with immediate concrete suggestions. But when it steps into areas of theology and wider implications, it needs to be criticised and reflected on. Yet the rhetoric of the report is that, should the Church be unwise enough even to pause in its welcome of it in toto, abuse is being perpetuated.

Relatedly, there is the discussion of a 'culture of secrecy' in the report. This phrase has been fairly current in the discussion of the Church in recent years. The journalist, Catherine Deveney, for example, was on Scotland 2015 on the BBC last night talking about it again with respect to whistleblowers. (I think she was implicitly referring to this case which I have discussed before.) This is a phrase which is suffering from mission creep. Certainly, if it means the tendency of (eg) bishops to cover up cases of child abuse, it's fairly straightforwardly wrong. But the idea that any organisation, particularly one with the task of the Church, can become totally transparent is chimerical. For example, let's take the case of Cardinal O'Brien mentioned in the report:

2.37 Some priests in the diocese where Cardinal O’Brien had been Archbishop told the Commission that they had been “left in the dark”. In particular it was argued by them that the whole affair raised two issues for the Commission. One comment was specifically about the commitment of the Catholic Church to safeguarding, in a situation in which power may have been used in an abusive way: “Has the Vatican taken seriously policies about safeguarding in the way it has dealt with Cardinal O’Brien? A priest would have been dealt with differently”. 

2.38 The other issue was of a continuing culture of secrecy: “Our Church is in a state of denial. At no point has there been a narrative given by the Church to tell what has happened”. 

2.39 Having said that, the Bishops maintain that it was not a culture of secrecy that hampered them from making a more open response in this case. The Commission recognises that at that time the Bishops were not in possession of the full facts of the case. Regarding any information that they did possess, they were bound to respect confidentiality, both that of the accusers and that demanded by civil and canonical requirements. Subsequently, they were further hampered by the unique position of a Cardinal in the Catholic Church: a Cardinal can only be judged by the Pope and the investigation into the Cardinal’s behavior was undertaken by Bishop Charles Scicluna, at the behest of Pope Francis.

[My emphasis.]

The bishops' response here is odd. To suggest that institutional structures are per se not part of a culture is bizarre. The obvious reply to their response is that it is precisely those structures which are the culture of secrecy. (And their inability to recognise this is part of the problem.) I actually would agree with the criticism that the Church (as a whole, not just or even especially in Scotland) has not deal with the O'Brien case as transparently as it should (and have blogged in this vein before). But the idea that any organisation let alone a Church dealing with often very intimate matters does not need some culture of secrecy is Pollyanna-ish. If the report is going to be judged (as Deveney seemed to be suggesting) on whether it maintains any secrets, it will certainly fail. Apart from the straightforward cases, there will always be difficult cases where some tension will exist between the need for transparency and the need for secrecy. Pretending otherwise simply sets the Church a task which it will inevitably fail.

I think it was David Walls (who was abused at the prep school for Fort Augustus) whom I heard on Radio Scotland around 5pm last night describing himself as a 'student of history' and asserting that the Catholic Church has a 2000 year history of abuse. Frankly, I'm not surprised he feels like that given what he underwent. But someone with such views is not bothered whether the Church survives or not. For those of us who do care about its survival, there has to be a change in attitude to one (as McLellan puts it) where 'the only credible policy for a church was “no abuse and no cover-up” '. I suspect (as I said) that the very specific concrete proposals put forward in the report should simply be accepted and implemented. I also suspect that most cases of abuse simply require the application of basic morality and integrity. But the change of heart and mind to deal with the recognition that (especially) sexual abuse of children is endemic in human society and the day to day implications of that are not straightforward. To this extent, where the report is right to ask for theological reflection, then that theological reflection and application of practical wisdom is inevitably going to involve debate and messiness. If the Church is going to be judged on how it deals with this end of things, it will inevitably fail. If the 'the public credibility of the Catholic Church' is going to be judged by a public traditionally schooled for the most part in the belief that it is a 'pestilent synagogue' founded by Satan, or, in its modern version, a bunch of gay bashing sky fairy worshippers, again it will fail. That shouldn't stop us from trying to tackle abuse. But to the extent that anyone sees the possibility of a solution, rather than constant uncomfortable vigilance and self-questioning, the Church will inevitably fail to achieve it.

1 comment:

  1. The only "right" way of dealing with this would have been for a Catholic leader to have dilated and denounced his own to the police. The fact that this would never happen, and that the filth which occurred actually took place should give us pause for thought.

    I was struck by the Japanese PM last weekend saying that Japan is reaching the point at which it should stop having to say sorry for WWII. Leaving that question aside, what point would our Church have reached for us to be able to say that it could stop apologising? Obviously there's no answer, but charting the course that gets us from here to there at least involves facing up to the enormity of what this means for us all.

    I've never abused a child, and I can list large numbers of priests and brothers who I have dealt with over the last fifty years who never abused me, but we might as well accept that unless we are prepared to accept that there is institutional guilt, and that all of us who are members of the institution share in that guilt (totally separate from the personal guilt of the abusers) and have to find our way forward, we will be condemned to the neo-liberal-protestantising tendencies you identify above as the way forward which will be imposed on us.

    You're really right too in pointing out that while sexual abuse seems to have been widely prevalent outside the Church, this is our patch, and we can't hide behind the fact that these abuses were prevalent in other patches as well. The best thing we can do is find a penitential way forward which cleanses us, and at least offer an option for others.

    I would be hard put to say with any sort of honesty that however much I hate the sin, I love the sinners. That Hell's gates appear to gape open for them is, I'm afraid, something I find it difficult to ascribe to anybody's fault but their own.