After the Sex Abuse Summit: What Now?

The Vatican summit on child abuse in the Church (21-24 February), most observers suggest, failed to meet expectations. Despite eloquent testimonies, instead of decisive action – zero tolerance – we got more guidelines. The homily at the closing Mass on 24 February by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, was a welcome exception, since it highlighted the fundamental challenge we face as church: power.

Noting that the Sala Regia in the Vatican was “a place where earthly and heavenly powers meet, touched at times by infernal powers as well” he expressed the need for us to reflect on how power was at the heart of the abuse crisis. How true!

Abuse in all its forms – sexual abuse, bullying, misuse of office for personal gain, et al – is fundamentally about the wrong exercise of power over someone weaker than yourself. It is an exercise of domination, quite often the exercise of those who have been dominated by others. Some research shows that child abusers were often themselves abused as children. Feelings of victims’ powerlessness, backed up by a culture of secrecy and misplaced self-blame, generate rage that sets off a new ‘generation’ of abuse.

It is a vicious spiral that can only be broken by truth-telling and holding abusers accountable. And, above all, by rigorously challenging all forms of abusive power.

Coleridge also pointed to the right exercise of power, service. Noting that “power can turn destructive when separated from service”, he points us to a healthy exercise of power “with and for, but not over” others. For those familiar with disciplines like political science and leadership studies this insight is by no means new. Nor should it be to the Church.

Coleridge, after all, draws this insight from St Paul.

But one must ask whether somewhere along the line we lost this in the Church. Though in all our theology it has been integral, somewhere down the centuries – particularly as Christianity moved from marginal, persecuted sect to a global institution – we have lost it in practice. It’s time we took it back.

If we are to really deal with sexual abuse in the Church, we need to rethink how power as service has become power as domination, particularly by clergy. We need to do this through open and honest dialogue, a fearful prospect because if we take it seriously we must face the possibility of structural change in the Church – if, as I suspect, the practical exercise of power is at the root of the abuse crisis.

In the course of this I suspect that we shall also have to face and rethink our ideas of sexuality. Closely linked to power, sexuality is something most clergy find unsettling. Ignorance of sexuality – illustrated by mistaken conflations of paedophilia with homosexuality, for example – or refusal to acknowledge sexuality’s complexity, particularly the sexuality of clergy, is dangerous. Such bluntness may disturb, even offend, some clergy.

However I see no option other than facing such squeamishness if we are to genuinely address the crisis, arguably the greatest institutional challenge we have faced since the Reformation.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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