Institutional structures create monsters like Pell

Institutional structures create monsters like Pell

For those who haven’t heard, the verdict on Cardinal Pell has just come out. Shocker — he’s been found guilty.

If you’ve been living under a rock, Cardinal George Pell — the highest ranking member of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia — was accused of sexually assaulting underage boys a while ago. Strangely enough, he denied this claim. Back in December he was found guilty, and now that verdict has been released to the public.

It’s the latest in a long line of high-ranking religious men, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, who have been accused, and found guilty, of sexually assaulting minors. If you don’t know much about it, go watch Spotlight on Netflix when you’ve got a couple of hours. It does a great job of telling the story.

But a growing number of people are starting to ask questions — why is this such a widespread issue? How has this happened? And so that’s something I thought I’d take a look at.

Let’s say that you are a man in the Roman Catholic Church. You’re quite devoted to your church, and so you decide to spend some time and become one of the clergy. You can’t marry, and you spend a number of years in seminary, and some time as a deacon, before becoming a priest. It’s a lot of hard work to get there, and there’s a lot of pressure.

When you do become a priest, you promise to obey what the bishop says, stay celibate, and live a Godly life. That last one in particular can be a lot to live up to. But now, as a priest, you have certain privileges. You can minister to those under your care, and you learn about things that you didn’t know before.

You’re given power that you didn’t have before. You have a certain level of access — both to areas and to people — that you didn’t have before. And there is a level of secrecy, or at least a lack of transparency, around many things that happen. Things are kept in confidence. After all, this is the point of the confessional. All that you would have to add to this volatile mix is an opportunity.

I should note, I do not intend this to mean that people join the priesthood explicitly to do these things. That would be highly, and I’m fairly certain demonstrably, incorrect to suggest.

What I do believe is the case, however, is that some people — when introduced to this environment where they are given power, access, secrecy, and opportunity, and are under pressure — can use their positions in a bad way. Many won’t, and haven’t.

When I’m saying ‘many’ and ‘some’, I mean in comparison to the total number of priests. As you probably know, a large number of priests have committed atrocities against children. But in terms of percentage it’s about 4%, according to a study by Monash University.

Unfortunately, churches of all denominations can create situations which make it easier and less visible for leaders to hurt others. Thankfully, we are now realising this and starting to put measures in place to ensure that abuse doesn’t happen.

But this is also something that you can apply in different ways, to different organisations, and with different crimes. When you have this mix of power, access, secrecy, pressure and opportunity, sometimes, even people that we’d think of as quite good, can turn down paths that are really quite terrible. This is why, more and more, people are emphasising the importance of transparency and accountability within organisations.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but perhaps, slowly, we might start to see some solid changes. Until then — keep pushing.

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