As a social scientist who is interested in calibrations of power, religion and sexuality, my outlook on a discussion of the Catholic Church's involvement in sexual abuse of Australian children is one that considers such a phenomenon as being situated and operative well within a wider psycho-social context. While there have been very recently published valuable sociological studies of such problems, for example last year Marie Keenan's important "Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church" in Ireland, such works as this one focus especially on the institutional dimensions of the church itself. However, regarding this terrible issue, I view the intersections between the church and our society as seriously warranting greater consideration.
There are several issues that extend beyond the actual church's internal cultural structures that are especially noteworthy to me. Firstly, child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church has a factuality that has been taken for granted for some time in the public imagination both in Australia and abroad; this knowledge has been reflected in popular culture ranging from tabloid news sensationalism to Hollywood films such as "Sleepers" (1996) starring Brad Pitt and closer to home, "Oranges and Sunshine" which exposed several cases of the thousands of English children who were illegally transported to Australia and who were placed in homes run by the Christian Brothers, were sexually abused and or forced into virtual slave labour (2011).
The 2006 documentary "Deliver Us From Evil" which traces the notorious pedophile priest Oliver O'Grady and the corruption in the Catholic Church that protected him; it was Oscar nominated. In Australia there has been a victim support group, "Broken Rites" operating since 1993, and a book, "Hell on the Way to Heaven" published by Chrissie and Anthony Foster parents of two daughters who died due to sexual abuse by a priest of the Catholic Church.
Such a large range social phenomena as these bear witness, they give articulation to our shared western cultural experience and they testify to what is surely widespread social trauma that extends beyond that of victims and their families, beyond the Catholic community and painfully, tentacle-like into the total Australian psycho-social fabric.
Given this, another glaring question that arises is: how and why has such long-term abuse of children by the Catholic Church gone unprosecuted and unpunished? Were a bikie gang, religious cult such as the Children of God or a minority cultural group of men (e.g. Lebanese Australians) accused of such crimes, they would surely have been prosecuted post haste and severely punished as was indeed the case regarding offenders from the latter group in recent years in Sydney.
So then thirdly, what – to date – has exempted the Catholic Church from thorough investigation of these allegations in what is an arguably secular nation-state? Put another way, why have we been uneasy, reluctant, afraid or unable to do so? Why have we accepted the Catholic Church's continued commitment to protecting offenders – never handing them over to face state authorities - and to protecting the assets of the church via in-house inquiry processes such as that in Melbournes's Archdiocese that make payments to victims that are one off and cover all abuse claims whether past or future?
Some hypotheses that may go some way towards fathoming these problems might be that, the ancient and powerful Catholic Church has operated simultaneously within, above and separately from lay society and despite our self-image of being a secular nation, nonetheless remains – in our consciousness - very powerful and difficult to challenge. But why should this be - is it logically consistent? Not really.
While it is a truism to describe disrespect for secular authority as intrinsic to our 'larrikin' national character, we have nonetheless simultaneously been influenced by an institution that claims to mediate between our very mortality and our eternity – a trump card that is rather an unequal or unfair advantage in assertions of power. These are claims that we passively internalize in our socialization at home, in church, in school and through exposure to popular media; these have combined in our consciousness to produce both real memories and also less conscious, less rational anxieties that extend beyond generalized guilt to more particular fears about loss of heaven and spectres of hell that were even more difficult to challenge because they were also quite intangibly irrational.
So perhaps we also need to question what is not rational in our society and it may also well be that our irrationalities that nevertheless are part of what gives us a sense of stability and solidarity in the face of unspoken anxieties – the most awful being those about the safety of our children. And could it also be that underlying our respective secularism, or our atheism, our agnosticism, our alternative religion or our enduring Christian or other faiths is a shared hope that some people – including those of the cloth – still retain a residual identification with goodness, safety, kindness and may still contribute to social solidarity in an era where we do not believe our politicians and all is precarious. In other words, regardless of our conscious beliefs, our underlying socio-cultural ethos and ethics draws profoundly on the morality of our forbears - Christian in the main - and the custodial institution of such morality retains thus its gravitas since it still underpins the solidarity of social order.
Hence, perhaps it has been too terrible for people to do more than whisper in some quarters and shout in others about such deviancy, since actually taking on such an ancient and megalithic institution with our merely secular instruments of law and crown can, in this view, provoke deep anxieties about our very cultural stability.
This status quo now appears to be shifting. From current news reportage Australians have heard troubling albeit explicit allegations from veteran police investigator Detective Inspector Peter Fox, who told Lateline his investigations were hindered by interference from within the Police force and by the Catholic Church. This is the kind of rupture we needed to see – one between the Church and our own social instruments of law - in order to take possession of our own civil authority.
Sheleyah Courtney is lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research is among marginalised Hindu women of Varanasi, a city in North India that is holy for Hindus. She explores issues in Indian urban and diasporic communities of violence, cosmology, sexuality, and gender. Her work embraces phenomenological and psychological anthropology; and is informed by critical feminist theory. She is a catlover and Bollywood movie enthusiast.