Ian Elliott: Safeguarding requires a shift in Church power-balance

In his latest Blog Ian Elliott writes:

IanElliott“Increased accountability means increased transparency combined with greater lay involvement, and more professionalism in the safeguarding decisions made in the Church. It also means a shift in the power balance within the Church through the introduction of an accountability framework that is robust, independent of the hierarchy, and itself subject to scrutiny. None of this should be unachievable if there is sufficient will for it to happen.”

This is the nub of the issue of accountability and safeguarding. The monarchical principle in the church – the principle by which a bishop governs – abhors any separation of power, and a safety-monitoring body must have considerable separation from the authority that appoints clergy if it is to be effective. If the authority that appoints clergy has any serious, even indirect, influence over the authority that also appoints the officials who monitor child safeguarding, then there is no real independence, merely another facade. Who can have confidence in such a system?

Elliott calls in the same Blog for ‘open communication between those in authority and those they are leading’. This cannot exist either without some separation of power in the church. Secrecy can be maintained in any organisation if those who hold information vital to the interests of the wider body of membership are not subject to some sanction for withholding it. So, if vital information is to flow freely, those who control it cannot themselves be the source of all sanctioning authority.

History seems to show that a separation of powers does not emerge without some kind of struggle. The trouble is that those who govern the Catholic Church tend to abhor struggle also, and to see any kind of opposition to themselves as inherently disloyal. Loyalty then becomes defined in terms of deference. This mistaken attitude needs to be identified, and finally rejected, if we are to have a church that can tolerate a healthy separation of power within itself.

The difference in status between the sacraments of ordination and baptism in the Catholic church is an obstacle to this. The ordained have been trained in responsibility; the merely baptised are denied responsibility, and that conditions us to feel incapable of it.  And so the former tend to see deference to themselves as the proper attitude of the latter. Typically, the latter lack all confidence in challenging this mindset.

When will those trusted to lead the church facilitate a proper conversation on all of these issues? At present in Ireland bishops are coasting on the reputation for independence won for the NBSCCC when Elliott was its CEO. They underestimate the likelihood that all of that trust will evaporate in the absence of a direct, balanced and open relationship with their people.   Reassuring reports from the NBSCCC will not in themselves maintain trust in the safeguarding system – unless all Catholics in Ireland receive a clear signal from the Irish Bishops’ Conference that the Age of Deference is over.  That day will have arrived when any Catholic has the right to question his bishop in open diocesan assembly.