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.

5 thoughts on “Ian Elliott: Safeguarding requires a shift in Church power-balance

  1. For me; the hierarchy have completely lost their credibility as church leaders; with one exception; Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Until the rest accept their responsibility for their actions; inaction; silence or neglect, for the cover-up of the Clerical Child Sex abuse Scandal , they have automatically lost all credibility. They must be held accountable.

    I am reminded of a comment in relation to a separate historical situation;

    “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy , was not the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people; but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people”…………..Martin Luther King Jnr.

  2. Thanks, John.

    I suppose many (most?) of the current Irish bishops would claim to have a clean personal record on this matter. However, none has been proactive on the issue of direct personal accountability and transparency – seemingly because they see that issue as resolved by the existence and current powers of the NBSCCC. Also, I suppose they are looking to the papal commission to resolve finally the problem of what is to happen to a bishop who fails on the issue of child safeguarding.

    I suspect they are also afraid to measure the depth and width of disillusionment in the country generally – reflected in your post. Fear of routine open assembly paralyses the church.

  3. Seán, many thanks for your reply. I’m afraid I am not as forgiving or as optimistic as you are.

    Just picking up your points; the credibility of the NBSCCC is weakened by the fact that it is not independent of the hierarchy, it should come under State control. Ian Elliott is a man of strong conviction and independent mind. I do not have the same confidence in it, since he was replaced. Either way it is now dealing with the present. It does not exonerate the hierarchy for the past cover-up of the Clerical Child Sex Abuse Scandal.

    The starting point for dealing with the past , is the five Judicial Review Reports. The fact that some of the bishops mentioned are retired; should not hinder them being held responsible or be accountable for the past.

    Cardinal Raymond Burke lifted the lid on the Vatican thinking model; when he referred to “Our Lord in the Gospel and St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, instruct us not to take our dispute to the civil forum; that we should be able, as Catholics; to resolve these matters among ourselves. (cf. Mt 18-15; 1 Cor. 6:1-6)”. Source: “Rorate Caeli” (TLM group) recent telephone interview with Cardinal Burke .

    Link that to the letter dated the 31st January 1997; from the Papal Nuncio, the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, to the member of the Irish Hierarchy , that their new policy (of 1996) of making reporting of suspected paedophile priests to civil authorities mandatory “gives rise to serious reservations of both moral and canonical nature”. Storero added that “Canon Law ( whereby allegations and punishments are handled within the church) must be meticulously followed”. You can clearly see the root elements of the bishops cover-up and not to bring scandal on Holy Mother the Church, in their oath, at their Consecration ceremony.

    The Papal Commission is moving too slow; it needs continuous push, less clerical involvement and more international lay specialists, just like the Vatican Bank. However until responsibility & accountability has been established for the past there will be little confidence in future action.

    In the meantime the longer the silence goes on; the greater the festering damage to the hierarchy. It will not go away. As you rightly conclude; they may be afraid to address the depth of disillusionment of the faithful and their direct contribution to it.

    1. Many thanks, John. That’s all very useful and to the point. Had Cardinal Burke cared to make the church’s internal processes remotely just or answerable to abused families he himself would have behaved very differently when in office in Rome. The man is blind as a bat – probably because he surrounds himself in acres of red silk to emphasise his own importance. (May the bats forgive me!)

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