Secrecy and Sexual Abuse in the Church

Foreword: Sexual Abuse in the Church and by Christian ‘sects’ such as Christian Assemblies International points to a highly disturbing and continuing trend for sexual abuse to be swept under the carpet and go unreported to police. In this powerful piece of writing, Graeme Ness, a former Uniting Church Minister, reflects on the poison that continues to fester in our communities while a culture of denial and deceit remains the characteristic response of Church and Spiritual leaders.

In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the following words attributed to Jesus, appear:

“If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones [children], it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” [Matthew 18:6 NRSV]

“The first [commandment] is ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” [Mark 12:29-31 NRSV]

Enquiries into past sexual and physical abuse of children in Australia, both within the states and federally, have emphasised the fact that abuses have occurred across a wide range of church and community organisations, and that those organisations have often kept them secret.

It is also clear that the Ostrich Approach [head in the sand] taken by these organisations has simply compounded the damage.

The leaders of the organisations, by failing to deal with the abuse issues, have magnified the damage to the victims and also damaged their organisations. The credibility of the leaders is opened to question, as is the credibility and trustworthiness of those who work within these organisations, whether they work in a paid or voluntary capacity.

Over 20 years ago a Roman Catholic priest who had many years of experience in the church, told me “If a child falls over in the playground of the school, I can no longer go and comfort the child, I have to go and get a teacher.”

Because past abuse by some priests, brothers and others had not been dealt with by the Catholic Church, but hidden, his freedom to work as a caring human being and a priest were damaged. His actions became suspect and questionable because of the behaviour of others. Like any wound with poison in it, if it is not treated it will fester, spread and become far more damaging.

Religious and other organisations have also used the loyalty of the victims and/or their families to the organisation and to their “good” name, to put pressure on them and ensure that no reports are made to police: this to limit the damages they need to pay out, assuring them that the organisation will deal with the perpetrator/s, but frequently failing to do so in any proper manner. They have also failed to live up to the standards which they proclaim from their pulpits and expect their members to uphold. As they do this, they deny the “Light” that they claim to bring to the world.

When the leaders have failed to deal with the issues, seeing themselves as beyond or above the law, they have not understood that they may be seen as accessories to the crimes that have been committed, and to the crimes that will be committed in the future by those they have failed to deal with and report to the police.

It is well beyond the time when the leaders must be required to live by the standards they proclaim.

By Graeme Ness, Retired Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia, Woolgoolga, NSW, Australia

Related Reading:
Secrecy and Sexual Abuse: Is the Confessional failing the Church and its Members?

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365 thoughts on “Secrecy and Sexual Abuse in the Church

  1. Realising the extent of the abuse occurring under the banner of church/religious institutions is become more widespread as various countries are having to face the tide of people coming forward and now starting to talk publicly about what has occurred. There are thousands so there can’t be any claims that the abuse has only happened in isolation to a couple of people. The extent of the secrecy and denial is also very evident in the way various leaders and the direct perpetrators themselves still fail to see any wrongdoing on their behalf. So well said Graeme – it’s past time for this behaviour to end.

  2. Hi Graeme, this is a great point . . . “When the leaders have failed to deal with the issues, seeing themselves as beyond or above the law, they have not understood that they may be seen as accessories to the crimes that have been committed, and to the crimes that will be committed in the future by those they have failed to deal with and report to the police.”. . . . In fact not dealing with these issues exposes the very foundations that these organisations stand on!

    1. Hi Kathleen, as I reflect on all the issues around abuse, it is also becoming much clearer to me the extent to which families, by failing to name the issues, in order to protect the family name, are doing something similar. Because in the past we have not named the issues we have allowed the abuse to continue. So the responsibility does not just fall on the organizations, it also lies with each of us not to allow family pressure to keep it all hushed up. Until we all take responsibility the abuse will continue.

  3. It is incredible that families are prepared to protect the church by not calling out the perpetrators of abuse but we also fail to call out the abuse we have in our own homes for fear of rocking the boat. We perpetually put our heads in the sand or turn a blind eye to ill behaviours which harm humanity. It’s time that we all called abuse for the abuse that it is and started to be more honest about what is really going on in the world around us.

  4. Yes this is so true Graeme. The protection of the family name brings up so much for me as it was what was drummed into me as a child brought up in a very catholic environment in the 50’s and the 60’s. No matter what was going on we always had to present ‘the happy family’ to the community we lived in. It is easy to lay the blame on a faceless organisation but to look at and call out abuse in your own life, in your own home in the face of the consequences that will and do follow makes it all very up front and personal, but you are correct until we all are prepared to take responsibility the abuse will continue.

  5. We are all responsible if we allow a culture of secrecy to continue in any organisation we are involved with. All churches have a responsibility to encourage people to speak up and put aside the self-interest of worrying about possible damages from past or current abuse.

  6. Thank you for the example of the priest who can no longer comfort a child because of the sexual abuse committed by his colleagues – and you are totally right, when things are left hidden, they certainly start to fester.

  7. By not protecting the children when you see harm getting done you are part of the criminal activity.
    The moment we are aware of something we have a responsibility. And if we think we can avoid responsibility by acting that the law doesn’t count for you, you will sooner or later find out that, that doesn’t work. The karma you created with denying the whole thing is waiting for you. So better off if everyone starts directly taking there responsibility.
    And the thing is that the churches, especially the Catholic ones, pretend that the ‘family’ is very important. If we preach so, we need to live so. We are here to support our children as one big family to let them feel true love and the connection with God. Sexual abuse is a big crime to do to our children. It needs to stop.

  8. There is nothing more hypocritical than to proclaim a way of being that you yourself are not prepared to live up to and sadly the church is deeply hypocritical in this way. Much harm and damage has been done through empty words and only abiding by the tenets of the faith that suit ones agenda.

  9. There can be no doubt that those in the churches who didn’t report child sexual abuse and didn’t act to stamp it out are not only accessories to a crime, their crime of covering it up is equal in every way to that of the child sex abuser.

  10. “It is well beyond the time when the leaders must be required to live by the standards they proclaim.” And this not only counts for the Catholic church but for all organisations and business’ in our societies, as we are lacking this same responsibility of living that what we proclaim to stand for. Could it be that because of the lack of true responsibility in those religious institutions (to walk the talk so to say), as they play as a role model for many in our societies and therefore we unconsciously also do not take this same responsibility into our lives and business’ we are in?

    1. Sadly there are still too many men, especially some in authority in churches, companies, sport, who don’t [or won’t] understand that what used to be regarded as “boys will be boys” comments about women and girls are no longer acceptable. Nor do they understand the hurt and damage they cause. And because they don’t understand, they refuse to see why they should accept responsibility for allowing comments and actions to go unchallenged. Often the justification is, “It was only a joke”, but jokes can be just as harmful as ongoing malice.

  11. It’s great that we’re now seeing the abuse and the depth of what has been happening finally beginning to be exposed and we have to be willing to continue seeing and outing abuse wherever it is occurring.

  12. The person that fails to comply with standards to disclose abuse in this naturally is just as liable as the person who committed the crime.

    And in many instances a more serious crime in the nature that the person needs more corrupt ways of thinking to justify themselves oppose to a common criminal.

  13. Very well said Graeme. The irresponsibility and gross hypocrisy that is rife in all the traditional religions is coming home to roost and it won’t be long before the vast majority can see these institutions as they truly are rather than what they want them to be. This is not a criticism of the many good people that toil in these institutions to support others but rather directed at the roots of these organisations which are deeply loveless.

  14. Thank you Graeme for sharing about the dreadful crimes committed against children by the few where others who are not guilty are punished none the less. It is great that in this day and age it is being brought out into the open instead of being hidden and defended by those in charge, it is a rot that needs to be rooted out.

  15. Hiding and protecting someone who has abused children, in any way sexual or otherwise, is a crime and those that have been doing this need to be called to account. Fortunately we now have the Royal Commission in Australia on this very subject and it has uncovered the many layers of inaction and how this is a far worse crime than the act itself.

  16. We do not need a building to connect with God. We can connect with God through the connection in our inner heart. The churches and mosques etc are all illusionary places to give your power away to something outside yourself. And doing so you disconnect so much from your own body that you disconnect from what you truly feel and can be aware of if connecting with yourself. This way we are closed down to feeling those things such as the pedophilia that has been taking place by some within the Catholic Church, and then covered up.

  17. Yes it’s high time Graeme, and it’s not actually a time one can claim to give oneself as in hiding in the darkness thinking no one will see what you are up to. The light shineth on us all even though we seemingly hide in the dark and we will inevitably pay for what we have done in one way or another, that is universal law. So thinking that one will get away with it is just another illusion.

  18. It’s sad and we have to ask what kind of society we’ve created when a caring man cannot pick up a hurt child in the playground. You are so right there are many things that need to be addressed here and the Ostrich Approach is not supporting anyone – or changing anything.

  19. This is a brillilant analogy “Like any wound with poison in it, if it is not treated it will fester, spread and become far more damaging.”

  20. It is good to see this all coming out in the Royal Commission but I had not heard Matthew 18:6 NRSV before. This harm caused to children is further compounded by by-standers not stepping in and by those in positions of authority sweeping it under the carpet. The on-cost for life is enormous as there is no question that a child’s ability to grow up feeling love and trust and being able to love and trust is greatly affected thereby affecting their commitment to life.

  21. The Catholic Church, as a whole, has not admitted its responsibility in the harm of many adults and children. The fact that this denial has in particular stemmed from the church’s leaders voids the institution of any integrity. When will those who are members of the Catholic Church stand up and say enough is enough?

    1. Thanks Brendan, we all need to call these things for what they are; if any group or organization we belong to gets it wrong, we need to name it and see that it doesn’t continue.

  22. The corruption discussed here is certainly not reserved for the church alone. The hypocrisy we all experience every single day is rife and much of it we contribute to when we hold back exposing the truth.

  23. This is a very good reminder that saving face never serves anyone. Also a reminder that we are equally responsible for a crime if we stand by and let it happen. I think that the culture of worship and hierarchy within the Church can be unhealthy when it comes to questioning behaviours or actions that may seem off, there may be too much ground given and things can slip beneath the cracks. Equally I feel that it is not right that every Priest feel self conscious or uncomfortable to comfort a child. The Church needs to be accountable for the enjoyment that fosters this behaviour.

  24. Thank you Graeme, your blog exposes the hypocrisy in the Church and how true change is desperately needed in this organisation. The calculated way in which the Church has turned a blind eye to the abuse is horrendous and totally contradicts the Church’s beliefs. The Catholic Church especially has lost a lot of credibility because of the way in which they have handled abuse claims, for the Church to restore faith again it needs to become totally transparent and take full responsibility for any harm done to innocent children.

  25. The leaders of these organisations are effectively covering up crimes to which they are accessories. How we continue to allow this kind of collusion is unfathomable; how the Catholic Church retains its immunity particularly so. The British QC and human rights advocate offered a particularly stunning indictment of the latter in his book ‘The Case of the Pope’. That the Vatican continues to remain above and beyond the law is astounding.

  26. Great blog Graeme, the more sexual abuse is exposed the less secrecy there can be about it, and we need to expose the perpetrators – from the person guilty of the act itself, right through to all those who hush it up and disregard the law.

  27. If we don’t speak out against atrocities and abuses we are condoning them with our silence and therefore just as guilty as the perpetrator – if not more so for our silence allows others to be abused.

  28. To hide the abuse of another makes you an automatic accessory to that abuse and therefore just as guilty as the actual perpetrator.

  29. I take my hat off to you Graeme Ness for being willing to stand up and speak out as you have. You offer the inspiration of a way forward for those responsible for such atrocities to be brought to account, including those who have stood by and said nothing. This will likely come from a groundswell of others like you within these institutions who eventually say ‘enough’ and it is likely the walls will need to crumble completely before communities will begin to trust those who have put themselves in positions such as these again.

  30. I cringe Graeme every time I read or hear about sexual abuse in our religious organisations. Thank you for calling it out and exposing the outrageous cover-up that to this day, continues to happen.

  31. I am truly incredulous and staggered that such deep level of betrayal and abuse can so blatantly take place and yet there is still such a large number of intelligent people in society aligning themselves with such institutions. It shows the propensity we have to see and know the truth of a situation and yet choose to completely ignore it.

  32. Thank-you for writing this Graeme. it is clear that the predominant culture has been one of being ‘above and beyond the law’ as you’ve stated here. And yet, although we are time and again faced with the extent of the ramifications of such arrogance, this culture appears at its heart, to still hold, begrudgingly admitting the great derelictions in care, and oftentimes still protecting if not offering a ‘comfortable life’ to the abuser.
    We have a long way yet to go, and so these conversations must continue…

    1. Thanks Victoria. Reflecting on all that is being revealed, it is becoming clearer that some parts of our communities have no concept that this abuse is wrong. When I was studying one unit included a segment on mental health, a doctor from one of the mental health hospitals talked about the number of women patients they saw because of the church ban on contraception. They had found that what happened in some communities was that, when the wife/mother had enough children [for whatever reason] she would turn her husband over to their pre-pubescent daughters and avoid further conception in this way. Some of those daughters wound up in mental health hospitals because of this.

      1. This was over 40 years ago but I agree it never fitted within any real understanding of Christian faith. Hopefully it has changed as the resistance to contraception eases.

      2. Yes, one would indeed ‘hope’ for change. Yet still, this is so deeply exposing of a premise and culture that denies a woman ownership of her body in the first place – the ‘ill’ must be struck at its root.

  33. It is always more interesting to hear the perspective from someone that has first hand experience of working in a Church. The conduct that has been lurking and hidden within Churches for centuries is possibly bred by its restrictive and suppressed expectations of Priests, the model has not worked and its failure is proven by some of the shady characters that seem to be attracted to these roles. In saying that, there are so many great Priests with the best intentions to care and love their fellow brothers but the taint is still present and sadly until the Church shows the public that they are willing to stand up for the victims instead of harbouring criminals, I fear this taint will remain.

    1. I agree Sarah. Many people who have given the church their life’s work, have had that work devalued because the church has not dealt with these issues. Their work has become tainted and suspect through no fault of their own, but because of the actions of those who have not lived up to the standards expected of them. And this also applies to those in other occupations who have used their authority and abused their positions of responsibility. Victims have been blamed for challenging the integrity of their abusers. I am drawn back again to the words in the Christian Bible attributed to Jesus: ‘anyone who harms the children would be better thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks’.

  34. Using a position of power to abuse or take advantage of another is unfortunately not a rare occurrence in our society, and we are all part of it for allowing it to in any way, shape or form, and it is totally awesome you have written this piece, Graeme, as an ex-insider if I can call you like that, to expose the hypocrisy.

  35. When we turn our backs on abuse we are adding other layers of harm and hurts. For a very long time Christian churches and organisations have consistently added layer upon layer, with devastating effects. A very sad indictment on our Christian leaders and the people who follow.

  36. In allowing abuse to go unarrested, we are no different to the perpetrator of the abusive act. As such we give permission for abuse to, bit by bit, become tolerated and something we have to learn to deal with and manage in our lives. Whereas in fact, each and every one of us has to divine right to live free from abuse and it is up to us to reclaim this right we all deserve.

  37. Abuse and religion is a contradiction in terms. This shows how damaging is to change the meaning of words. The things done in the name of religion are an insult to the true meaning of the word religion and everything it inspires.

  38. It is quite shocking how the church has continually turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse or swept it under the carpet hoping it will go away. Is it any wonder people have lost trust in religion when this criminal behaviour has been allowed to run wild without any accountability for a very long time?

  39. In not addressing the abuse even still, as in the case with the catholic church it tars all those involved in this organisation – it’s beyond time we asked for leaders of this and other religious organisations to walk their talk and to actually live to the standards they proclaim. By not doing so they sully their own beliefs, and how can so called christian organisations treat other fellow human beings in this way; it goes against every tenet of what christianity is supposed to be.

  40. Beyond brilliant piece of writing unveiling the truth. This is what it is all about. No stone left unturned and just simple living and claiming what it is that is true in our hearts.

  41. It is a disgrace – the abuse that has occurred, how it has been dealt with and the repercussions for society. The mark this abuse has left is quite deep and widespread.

  42. Deadly accurate. Spoken from a person who had been inside the mess itself. Having experienced the depth of reality. Hence we should pay attention to what has been shared. And for us to consider what our role and job there is needed to to be done — also if you have no experience with the church, sexual abuse itself — as when we choose to not see and or act on it, we are the carriers of the sexual abuse itself. Ouch, but true..

  43. “Like any wound with poison in it, if it is not treated it will fester, spread and become far more damaging.” We all share the responsibility to stand up and call out abuse so that it does not fester and infect the whole body of humanity.

  44. Thank you Graeme for upholding the integrity that has been found in this instance to be so lacking within the church. For if such integrity is not upheld and no solid foundation laid, especially by the leaders, we allow a rotten seed to not only be planted but to also take root and flourish. As any gardener will tell you, it is these wanton weeds that choke all other forms of life and prevent the flowers being in full bloom.

  45. The secrecy, denial and cover up is one of the most disturbing things about the widespread abuse of children that has occurred. It indicates that the church feels they are somehow above the law. There is an unwillingness to take responsibility and have genuine compassion for the children and their families. It’s all about saving face – which they should realise they lost long ago. The abuse of children by church members exposes religions such as Catholicism for the falsity it is.

  46. Most religions have abused their power, in one way or another they have done this to hold onto their power over people and in the past have been extreme in the wielding of this power. They do not have the ear to God as far as I am concerned, I feel they never have and never will, because they seem to live in the complete opposite way to the absolute love of God. We, humanity have allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by the falsity of the lies, because we have not wanted to take responsibility for ourselves and so gave our power away to the various religions of the day, and not much has changed in this respect. We can see this in the way we are as a collective. For example, I see we are still allowing priests to get away with sexual and physical abuse of children in their care.

    1. Archbishop Denis Hart, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne responded yesterday to the findings of the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. His words were measured and encouraging, but he still holds to the sanctity of the Sacrament of Confession. He indicated that if someone admitted to Abuse in Confession, he would refuse Absolution unless the person was willing to report him/her self to the police. But at this stage this is not a church-wide response I understand how important Confession has been in the Catholic Church, but the Church still sets it above clear and direct words of Jesus about harming children, and loving neighbours. If the two can’t stand together, maybe the Church needs to completely re-think what Confession is, or, if that is not possible, scrap it altogether.

  47. Thank you Graeme, it is well beyond time when we need the ideals and beliefs around what it is to be part of a church or religious to change. “Like any wound with poison in it, if it is not treated it will fester, spread and become far more damaging.” We cannot have abuse of any sort in an institution that purports to be about love, it is a bastardisation of so much trust that people place in order to find meaning in their lives and when the festering of the wound starts to show itself, which it always will, we must address it with the absoluteness of love, truth, justice and integrity that should have been the lived way in the first place.

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