The sexual abuse of children
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
As I was preparing exegetical notes on Titus 2:1-10 in December 2017, I was also watching and reading with horror the report by the Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions and the degree to which the Christian church had allowed pedophiles to run loose within its ranks. Pedophiles are very cunning, both in grooming their victims and hiding their evil behavior, but even when outed, children were not believed, and if believed, the perpetrator was often moved on to a new living to offend again.
It is interesting how the household code Paul sets out for Titus aligns with many of the civic virtues commonly acknowledged throughout the Hellenistic world. Paul makes the point that Christ-like virtues valued in society at large should be valued and imitated by the Christian community, particularly when they are framed by the command to love one anther. The societal purpose for the imitation of these virtues is stated clearly in Titus 2:5, "so that no one will malign the word of God" - "it's a good advertisement for the Christian faith (the gospel)", Phillips.
Sadly, by our shameful neglect for the welfare of children in our care, we have successfully maligned the gospel. It will take a generation, if not longer, for trust to be rebuilt with the wider community.
Commentators have observed some problems with the Royal Commission: the statements of survivors were not challenged (understandably so, but.....!); The standards of today were backward-referenced to a more innocent time; a failure to affirm that the prior intent of Christian institutions acting for children was for good, not evil, and that more good prevailed than evil; testimony derived from recovered memory therapy was accepted at face value; the failure to grasp the subtleties of denominational and diocesan authority structures inclined the commissioners to tar all Christian institutions with the same brush; the focus on the Roman church (it had more cases of abuse, but then it had substantially more schools and organizations under its care) while failing to examine government schools where many teachers have been suspended for sexual misconduct, opened the Commission to the charge of bias; an over emphasize on historic abuse at the expense of contemporary abuse, making the historic contemporary - this failing was magnified by poor reporting in the media; a failure to recognize the significant efforts undertaken to address the problem of sexual predators operating within the Christian church (abuse in the Roman church peaked in the 1970's, but was addressed by 1990); there was a failure to recognize that the more entrenched pedophiles are now found operating within families, particularly foster families, or in secular pedophile rings functioning at large and willing to dispose of the evidence.
Yet, even with these criticisms, the work of the Royal Commission was outstanding and served as an indictment of the Christian church, particularly for the Roman church, but also my own denomination, the Anglican church. Thankfully, in my old diocese, the Sydney Anglican diocese of Australia, we somehow managed to dodge the worst of it, either by luck or good management. Youth institutions such as The Charlton Boys Home, Camp Howard, along with the hundreds of youth fellowships, Sundays Schools and the like, maintained a high standard of child protection. Sadly, the Church of England Boys Society, CEBS, ended up nationally with some half dozen pedophiles operating in its ranks, one in Sydney. As I understand it, only one minister was found guilty of sexual abuse, having had an improper relationship with a teenage girl.
How can we ever come close to imaging, in our congregational life, Christ-like virtues that Australians hold dear, virtues like the loving nurture of children, when we face the evidence of failing to protect so many of them, even hiding the heinous crimes against them? The sins of the few, some in the position of authority, have stained the many and we must bear the shame.
Our response to child abuse is important, not just for the welfare of children, but for the sake of the gospel:
First, the report of the Royal Commission into the institutional response to child abuse issued in December 2017 must be properly considered and acted on. There is concern over the suggestion by the Commissioners that the seal of the confessional should be broken in the case of child abuse, but there is confusion over this rite in that the seal does not properly apply to a secret, but rather to a sin.
Second, institutions with children under their care must bear responsibility for any damage inflicted through abuse, offering the necessary support for the recovery of a survivor's dignity. Attempts to protect the church from litigation have been a shameful exercise.
Third, institutions must give priority to the welfare of children in their care. I was part of the Sydney diocesan Synod in the 90's that set about establishing protocols for the protection of children under the guidance of the then Archbishop Harry Goodhew. The work to protect children from sexual predators must continue and be strengthened.
Over the last few decades the syndrome of the Holy Huddle has tended to replace the Church in the Marketplace. The Christian church can no longer remain disengaged from the wider community. The widely publicized statement of the Royal Commission that child abuse is a continuing problem in institutions in Australia, and this along with the increasingly anti Christian stance of the media, has left the wider community with the view that pedophilia is primarily a Christian church problem of which only the tip of the iceberg has been exposed. We cannot leave the wider community with this impression; it is destructive of the gospel and can lead children into danger. Since the late 90's the Christian church has been proactive in addressing this issue (for the Roman church, The Melbourne Response, 1996, and Toward Healing, 1997) and we cannot leave parents with the impression that it is unsafe to send their children to a church activity, or church institution, school, etc., but quite safe to send them unsupervised to the local park.
There is only one channel left for mass communication these days which can reach every household in the land and that is the letterbox. There is no magic formula on how we should approach the style of communication, but possibly a letter from the diocesan Bishop, Moderator, etc., stating what has happened, what was done / is being done to address the problem, and what is being done now to protect children - ie., the facts, without gilding the lilly, rather than media sensationalism. Added to this, a small publication on the church - history, institutions, gospel statement, blah, blah, blah, and possibly a local info / invite. card. The local churches could be responsible for distribution, by hand or by post, to every letterbox in their area, which presumably they would be happy to do, rather than continue to be viewed as the local pariah, rather than the local parish. Of course, aggressive atheists now happily see the Christian church relegated to the rubbish bin of history, so those who dare push the lid open will be challenged. But so what! The powers of darkness will always challenge the light.
This is a terrible time for the Christian church, but it cannot be compared to the horror inflicted on innocent children, little ones precious to our Lord, Matt.18:1-7. We who focus on grace rather than law, must redouble our efforts "to behave as befits holiness", Tit.2:3, and expect that of all believers, particularly those with authority. Let shame be a positive motivator. We have faced this past evil and it is now time to take hold of the future.