Royal commission scrutiny may cleanse Christian practice

“The time has come for judgment to begin in the house of the Lord,” said the Apostle Peter to the early Christian Church (1 Peter 4:17). Very different issues were being faced then, but not too different. The church was facing intense public scrutiny and Peter said that the suffering would be a cleansing experience. Those who were guilty (murderers, thieves and criminals, v. 15) would be exposed for what they are, and the innocent (v. 16) would be vindicated.

But ever since the alliance of church and state power, beginning in the fourth century, and coming to its climax when Pope Innocent IV appointed the Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th century, the Christian Church has managed to avoid the spiritual purification that comes from being held accountable for its actions by a secular state.


The sexual abuse of children by priests, and the systematic cover-ups by the church hierarchy, are the manifestation of a deeper rot — a lack of insight into the appropriate use of pastoral power.

Michel Foucault has described pastoral power as control over the destiny of a group of people, and individuals within that group, rationalised on the basis of the ancient oriental metaphor of a shepherd caring for sheep. Foucault said the acquisition of this kind of power by the medieval church laid the foundation for the governments of modern nation-states.

But in Western society, with our still incomplete separation of church and state, many institutional churches have maintained a strong pastoral control over the lives of adherents.

The only possible justification for such power is the spiritual welfare of the “flock”, and of the individual “sheep”. When that power is used for personal gain, it is abused. The sexual abuse of children is perhaps the most horrifying example of the abuse of pastoral power, but when an epidemic level of abuse happens, it raises questions of causality.

It must therefore be understood that systemic elements of church hierarchy create the culture which enables abuse to be carried out. A lack of awareness among clergy about the ethical implications and limitations of such power, or possibly even a sense of entitlement, is symptomatic of a culture in which the power-hungry and predatory thrive.

This is the culture which instinctively protects their own, their ends and their privileges. It is not difficult to imagine why a paedophile might find a career in such an institution appealing.

The “little things” which are done by pastors: the hoarding of wealth (personally or in the hands of the institution), the interplay of secrecy and promotion; the championing of political parties from the pulpit (such as Fred Nile’s Christian Party, or recently, the GOP in the US elections); the affair with the church janitor … these are not crimes, but they are elements of a corrupt culture, and they initiate clergy into the shared understanding that pastoral power is there to be exploited.

Let’s call it by its real name. The use of pastoral power for personal gain is sleaze. The real question that the church faces is this: how do you break a culture of sleaze?

Geoffrey Robertson

In 2010, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson published his book, The Case of the Pope. Robertson claimed that the Vatican is a rogue state, which has been guilty of systematically covering up human rights abuses.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, had been personally in charge of responding to paedophile priests for 30 years, starting in 1981, and his standard response to paedophile priests was not even to defrock them, but simply to proscribe penance in the form of a pious pilgrimage. The victims were encouraged to take an oath of confidentiality.

Robertson called for the resignation of Pope Benedict over these charges, and his arrest for aiding and abetting sex with minors, rape, and in some cases sexual slavery.

Since the crimes were a violation of human rights, and were carried out on a systematic basis, they fall under the definition of crimes against humanity, and under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

He argues that it is impossible for one country to unilaterally create another sovereign country, and that church tribunals should therefore have no authority to try criminals internally.

What is at stake here is more than just a call for a more just treatment of abuse survivors within the current system. It subverts the very idea of churches holding political power. It challenges the statehood of the Vatican (which was established by Mussolini in fascist Italy), and their right to try crimes according to canon law.

The Royal Commission

The royal commission into institutional responses to allegations of child abuse, announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on November 12, should therefore be understood as part of a broader process of removing special rights and privileges from the church as though the church were not accountable to secular law.

This process is stripping away unjust kinds of relationships, which are a legal relic of feudal Europe and fascist Italy, and will do much to promote change within Australian institutional churches.

[Karl Hand is a socialist activist and pastor of CRAVE Metropolitan Community Church in Sydney.]