MORE THAN A 'SMALL MINORITY'
THE CHURCH AND THE ROTTEN APPLES
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt*
The joint statement by the Catholic Archbishops of Melbourne and
Sydney is apparently designed to put to rest concerns expressed
in the media as to 'paying off' or 'bribing' victims and survivors
of sexual abuse by the clergy. Yet far from doing so, surely it
leads only to further questions on the stance of all churches and
their hierarchy. At bottom is the failure of them all to take steps
necessary to end this scourge on the lives of too many Australian
Whilst some are now heard, in their speaking out of ravages imposed
years ago, what of those whose pasts go unacknowledged. And what
of those who are unheard now, when there are numbers now being abused
and exploited by clergy who still believe they will not be brought
to book. After all, who listens to children?
The Archbishops' 'apology' is couched as an acknowledgment of sexual
abuse and other betrayals of trust 'which have been committed by
a small minority' of the clergy. This sounds like the 'few rotten
apples in the barrel' protestations of police forces around the
country, whenever the whiff of corruption arises in the public arena.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry taught us that far from a 'few rotten applies',
dealing with police corruption needs a concerted, publicly open
exposure of what is going on, and what has gone on, over long periods
of time. Police corruption is recognised as arising out of power
abuses, cover-ups and the 'rotten apple syndrome' itself.
The 'few individuals' referred to in the Archbishops' message could
be interpreted as meaning those of whom the public now knows, because
they have been prosecuted through the court system, with findings
of guilt and prison terms. But latching on to these, or even the
acknowledgment of a few more 'individuals' will not serve the church
well, ultimately. Nor will it serve well those who still look upon
the church as a place of comfort and hope, an institution founded
upon the admonition of Jesus: suffer the little children to come
The 'small minority' approach is what has allowed the practice
to be covered up in the first place. As each 'case' came to attention,
the man was moved on. Being individualised as a problem located
in the one individual did nothing to deal with the real issue. Furthermore,
it bred and fed on the notion that the individual was only a poor
sinner, led astray by the child who sidled up to him, taking advantage
of his 'human weakness'.
Even if, now, the 'small minority' are recognised as responsible
for their own behaviour, this does not advance the recognition that
the employer itself is responsible, and is responsible not only
for 'the individual' or the 'small minority', but for the system
which enabled the abuses to arise in the first place.
The 'small minority' approach individualises a systemic problem
within the church, and continues to place at risk all the little
children whose faith is placed in the care and compassion which
the church is expected to exemplify. Too often, the care and compassion
have been extended not to the little children, but to the exploiters
of the little children, those who have caused them to suffer. This
is not what Jesus meant.
The church is not the only institution to fail when faced with
systemic exploitation and abuse. The armed services is another where
the systemic nature of bullying and brutality is never acknowledged
as cultural. It, too, is covered up, described as a 'one off' or
seen as the responsibility of a 'few' individuals. The 'small minority'
Around Australian, education departments have at last begun looking
at the hierarchical nature of power, the authority of teachers,
and the need to take proactive, positive steps to do something about
the systemic abuses that can - and do - occur when the vulnerable
are left in the care of the powerful. Anti-discrimination legislation
is focusing on this, too.
The Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tasmania) says that no one should
be discriminated against on the basis of an 'irrelevant criminal
record'. The sole exception is where the 'education, training or
care of children' is in focus. There, if it is necessary to 'protect
the physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing of children',
discrimination is not unlawful.
The Act recognises, too, that it is not only a conviction that
should be taken into account. Rather, the definition encompasses
arrest, interrogation or criminal proceedings, even if no further
action has been taken, a charge has not been laid, a charge has
been dismissed, a prosecution withdrawn, a person has been discharged
with or without conviction, or the finding was 'not guilty'.
When the wellbeing of children is in question, those who are responsible
for their care must abide by the highest standards. There can be
Ultimately, it is not the 'small minority' of those who have been
found out that are the sole responsibility of the church and all
institutions where sexual abuse and exploitation occur. The responsibility
lies too with those who are as yet concealed and supported in that
concealment by a culture of covering up, smoothing over, paying
off, or disbelieving. The greatest responsibility, however, lies
with those who have the ultimate care of the whole flock. So long
as there is no recognition that institutionalised abuses and systemic
exploitation are at the heart of this matter, the church, like our
other institutions, will continue to make fiction out of the realities
of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
We can all agree that the little children ought suffer no more.
But those who have the power to end the suffering are not only those
who engage in the conduct which directly creates it. Those at the
pinnacle of every hierarchy carry the ultimate responsibility to
end it. The 'rotten apple' at the bottom of the barrel is not the
*Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a barrister and 9at that time) Tasmania's Anti Discimination