The Catholic Church has been convulsed in recent years by sexual abuse scandals. There are two aspects to this. One has been the harm inflicted on children from the abuse but in many instances as much if not more damage has arisen from the secondary harms these children and later adults have incurred in their efforts to get believed.
The second aspect has been the Church’s management of abusive clergy. This has played as big a part in the collapse of trust in or allegiance to the Church as the abuse itself. What in God’s name have bishops been doing, and perhaps even popes, in moving known paedophiles from one setting to another putting other unsuspecting children at risk? This looking after what is often called the institution’s interests, a we stand or fall together mentality, makes it look like every clergyman is an abuser. Following the Pell case in Australia, this has left people defecating on Church altars in Melbourne and Sydney.
Somewhere along the line there seems to be a working assumption within the cleriarchy that while priests may have done harm, the benefits they, or the Church, bring outweigh any harm done.
Note it would be wrong to say the hierarchy here – the word hieros means sacred or moral – the one thing the cleriarchy in this case do not seem to have been.
The Church attitude sounds very like the justification of colonialism, trotted out by the English or French when in the past they have pointed, and still now point, to the benefits of civilisation and science they brought to savages as justifying invasions and massacres. To make this argument work, however, they have to continue to some extent to view the savages as savages.
This comes out most clearly in Jose Mario Bergoglio’s response in Chile in 2018 when facing anger about the Church’s failure to confront child abuse, he effectively responded: if you have faith you believe in us [the clergy] but for us to believe in you [the abused] we need proof. The powerful are innocent until proven guilty. The powerless (the savages) have anecdotes but not evidence.
It also resembles a risk benefit argument pharmaceutical companies have traded on since 1990, when Lilly put forward the argument that it would not be right to put warnings on Prozac as these warnings might deter people from availing of the benefits Prozac and other SSRIs could bring. This is an approach that all companies have adopted since and it completely bamboozles regulators.
Sticking a warning on a priest who might abuse a small number of minors (who’ll get over it) risks denying the sacraments to so many more people who might benefit from them.
Rather like the Church who claim a privileged insight on whether their clergy and sacraments actually do deliver a benefit, pharmaceutical companies engineer the public statements about the benefits of their sacraments, while as we now know sitting on data that often proves just the opposite to what they say in public – more people are in fact harmed by drugs like Prozac than benefit.
This could be turned around so that SSRIs produced more benefits than harms with the right kind of warnings but doctors are far more scared of pharmaceutical companies now than kids are of the Catholic Church – they are not about to speak up.
The risk benefit argument is also one hospitals increasingly make. It’s not just me who sees more and more people who are killed or injured by treatment in hospital, the official figures point this way. In response hospitals and their managers do root cause analyses which focus largely on whether everyone communicated with all the people they should have communicated with and whether everyone kept to the guidelines rather than on the question of what caused the injury or death.
But if those communicating don’t mention that the patient’s agitation started after taking sertraline or montelukast or isotretinoin, then ticking the did-communicate box conceals rather than reveals what happened. And in the case of on patent pharmaceuticals the information about them constitutes the greatest concentration of Fake News on the planet. Adherence to NICE guidelines which in the case of on-patent pharmaceuticals are based primarily on Fake News is a recipe for more deaths and injuries than not.
But hey, if we say this death or injury was anything other than an Act of God, we risk deterring people from seeking treatments from which they (and we) might benefit.
The beauty of the current medical system is that not a single doctor or manager needs to be moved on to the next health organization. They might be moved for other reasons like bullying but not for killing anyone.
You need to believe in us but for us to believe in you we need proof and faced with a choice between us who have kept to the guidelines and ticked all the boxes of process and you who are confused and angry, there is not a coroner on earth who will pick you over us.