How are institutional responses to child abuse affecting your faith?

  • Mark Gilbert
  • 27 July 2015

Over the past decade, many countries have made various investigations and inquiries into child sexual abuse. Often this has been provoked by the prevalence of abuse within the Catholic Church. In Australia, we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This has already seen a number of institutions come into question: governmental departments, churches, schools, sporting bodies, and the Scouts. And rightly so. If individual abuse of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society is abhorrent, organised abuse within institutions either unwittingly or deliberately is reprehensible!

Institutions are formed when individuals gather together for a common purpose. Society often puts great trust in her institutions, because through them we achieve much. The British Empire influenced large parts of the world through her institutions, and the United States does so even now. Industrialisation brought great prosperity and development to the western world; railways, factories, modern medicine, the banking system, the legal system, corporatisation and government have brought many blessings.

However, modernism, the mother of the institution, has her faults. Cities and their sky-scrapers dominate the natural environment; massive housing developments suppress the individual; and corporations use and then discard the very people they are designed to serve, and became an end in themselves. Post-modernism has helpfully shown us that our institutions were not worthy of the absolute trust we sometimes put in them, and warned us of the dangers of doing this. The Royal Commission we are currently undertaking in Australia can be seen as a natural outworking of the post-modern project.

Throw into this mix the Catholic Church. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Church was God’s gift to the world. Infallible, trustworthy, unreformable. I was taught that salvation could be found by trusting the Church and her teachings alone.1

The Royal Commission will certainly challenge people’s trust in the institution of the Church, whether that be Catholic, Anglican or otherwise. And that is not a bad thing, if, instead of to the Church, we are able to point people’s trust toward the promises of Jesus and him alone.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis, for all his recent popular comments, still places ultimate trust in the Church:

And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”2

And sadly, many Catholics too put their ultimate trust in the Church, though this trust is waning.

Our challenge remains to point people to the only one who is worthy of our ultimate trust: Jesus.3

Trusting in Jesus leads to the formation of institutions—churches—as people who trust Jesus gather together as his saved people. Institutions can be good, they can be bad—they just should never be the ultimate objects of our trust. In the Bible, the church is always the result of trust, never the object of ultimate trust. The Royal Commission will give us lots of opportunities to call people to put their trust in Jesus, not the Church. A great question to ask particularly our Catholic friends is “How is the Royal Commission affecting your faith?” And then point to Jesus alone.

1. From Vatican II 1965 document; Dei verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (emphasis added):It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

2. A Spadaro, 'A big heart open to God', America, vol. 209, n. 8, 30 September, 2013.

3. The Road Once Travelled is a book I wrote particularly for Catholics who are struggling to trust the Church. It encourages them in their struggles saying, “You might be giving up on the Church but don’t give up on Jesus—find him in his Word with people who trust his Word.”

Photo credit: Tony Alter