Lessons from a PR Fail

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has released its report and it has understandably caused a stir. The Catholic Church predictably came under heavy criticism, and recommendations included celibacy becoming optional and confessions to priests being freed from the absolute guarantee of protection. Pope Francis is encouraging the findings to be studied in depth but the initial response of some Australian Catholics is quite disturbing, perhaps a missed opportunity that could quickly become a lost one if some basic remedial steps are not taken.

These are unique proposals because, of course, other Christian denominations don’t impose celibacy and don’t sanction the protection of criminal behaviour. Confession and confidentiality are respected in other traditions, but not to the extent of safeguarding one person’s rights over those of others. Married clergy still commit various sexual misdemeanours, too, but an imposed celibacy has turned a rare gift into an unnatural burden that has been relieved at the expense of the vulnerable, those to whom offending Catholics priests have a duty of care.

Here’s how I’d suggest that any organisation under siege should be responding to such a crisis.

1. Show a little humility when you get your ‘right whack.’

Catholic defensiveness built on centuries of tradition looks irresponsible when it was at the heart of the very abuse problems under question. Rather than ‘dig in’ when under fire, it’s surely time to fly the white flag and yield on what are surely very reasonable demands.

It’s fine to defend your rights when you are innocent, but not such a good look for the guilty.

The separation of church and state was devised to stop political interference in matters of faith, presuming a responsible faith. While most Catholics are devout and also abhor child abuse, they are embroiled in an institutional problem that needs a credible response. What is needed is one that is heartfelt, honest and clean, one devoid of the smear of self-protection and self-absorption already evident in what could yet become an even greater public relations fail.

Half apologies or defences of rights won’t rebuild trust any time soon. Of course, the Catholic Church is blinded by a presumption of heritage traced to the Apostle Peter, when it was Jesus Himself as ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ who was the ‘rock’ of the church according to the text in question, Matthew 16:18, which must be read in light of verse 16.

Orthodox churches could lay an equal claim to being the oldest church, but neither perfectly represents the Biblical Christianity of the first century. This is due to the layering of extrabiblical traditions over the centuries and an absence of any genuine link back to early church leaders who would identify with the current practices of these denominations.

When it is the Bible, rather than a preferred account of history, that authorises a church’s existence then it is easier to adopt its teachings and find the grace of God to rebuild in the face of the humility that Scripture calls us to.

2. Show the sort of empathy and proactivity more likely for events closer to home.

I wonder whether the Catholic Church’s view on the confessional would change if a person admitted to a priest that a family member was planning to bomb the Vatican.

What about if confessing that they had murdered someone close to the priest? Would that change anything?

Perhaps for many priests it would not, and perhaps their crisis of conscience would be relieved by maintaining silence in spite of their emotions or even their conscience. Precisely when, though, is a confessed action believed to be of greater criminal negligence than the priest’s inactivity?

Perhaps we will never know if the priest will never tell, that is unless someone else does.

And therein lies a great credibility problem. Some priests have knowingly harboured paedophiles, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they could cure them. Their unwillingness to act in a way that would protect future victims, though, has surely made at least some of them accomplices to the vile crimes of their confessors which cannot be undone.

Just when does this matter enough to allow a priest’s conscience to be a vehicle through which God just might want the greater good to be done and biblical justice to be enacted?

Edmund Burke’s famous quote is surely relevant here to any responsible Catholic official: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

3. What is needed is a surrender of rights not a defender of rights

A solution exists for the Catholic Church. Rather than defend its rights to be free from the dictates of the law – as was the tone of one archbishop this week – just adopt the simplest of solutions … relinquish them!

For the Catholic Church, this solution offers an easy and yet profound chance at progress, even modernisation. It in no way diminishes the Church’s capacity to assert moral authority in other matters at other times, either. That, of course, may well be needed since we know all too well the failings of the state in legislating for matters of morality.

At the moment, though, Catholicism doesn’t appear to have much favour in the eyes of a society jaded by the criminal activities of those charged with a supreme duty of care that was so blatantly abused and then covered up. Is not a willing surrender of rights on these matters a great way to voluntarily rebuild some measure of the respect that has been eroded in recent decades?

As a church minister all too aware of the extent to which Christians generally and unfairly find their credibility called into question over the sins of the few, I certainly hope the Catholic Church can in some way show the smarts to repair the significant social and spiritual damage that it has caused and cannot now run from.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from a PR Fail

  1. Rob – very insightful comments. I wonder what would happen if the church heirarchy humbled themselves and confessed their complicity in these child abuse incidents then sought the forgiveness of God? Instead of weakening the church I expect it would be the most wholesome and restorative thing they could do…

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