Child Sexual Abuse, Society and the Future of the Church

Hilary D. Regan (ed.), ATF Theology 2013
ISBN 9781922239242, 131 pages

This book is a collection of nine essays about this highly sensitive and emotive subject, largely from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church but with a number of lay and other essays from other denominations. This review explores a number of these essays, which vary from a broad overview of the subject through historical descriptions past and recent, theological discussions and onto personal opinions about the dysfunction of the church and the effects of celibacy. The authors include ordained and lay, and academics and knowledgeable onlookers.

In the opening essay Michelle Mulvihill gives a brief account of her childhood in a rural NSW town in an Irish Catholic family. She recounts the weekly influx of very naïve young Irish Catholic priests imported into her diocese who had Sunday lunch at her family home. She continues giving a ten-point list of impassioned suggestions she feels that the church must do to rectify the current parlous state of affairs. These include statements such as: (1) churches need to break the silence about the abuse within their own congregations; (2) public displays of atonement are urgently needed; (3) the silence of religious women has sadly been very loud; (5) it is time for the churches to hand over all information relating to criminal and other matters; (8) clearly public agencies must handle current and future complaints. Mulvihill finishes with a brief description of the subsequent essays in this book.

In 'Towards the Theology of the Child' Alan Cadwallader of the Australian Catholic University gives a theological discussion about how he feels 'the child' has been misstated in recent understandings of the Bible and how a reinterpretation will help 'the child' become a more Christological category and move toward 'the child' being honoured as actual children rather than an indirect concept as he suggests is currently used and most probably misused (not at all like Jesus did).

Ann Drummond uses her experience in the Uniting Church to discuss two classes of adult-to-adult sexual abusers: the 'serial perpetrators' and the 'wanderers'. Emphasising the church's all-too-often poor response, she highlights that serial perpetrators have, in the past, been shifted from parish to parish by the church hierarchy—shrouding their misdeeds and giving them the opportunity to continue in their predatory behaviour. Drummond briefly discusses current church disciplinary action and suggests that, because the role of minister in the church is no longer considered to be prestigious, sexual predators are not as attracted to the church as they were. When discussing the 'wanderers' she suggests that they should be classed differently, not reducing the punishment but noting that people who wander off the 'straight and narrow' on a single occasion need to be treated somewhat differently than those who time and again perpetrate sexual misconduct.

Chris Geraghty speaks from the point of view of an ordained Roman Catholic priest and the effect of that on understanding human sexuality. This is a personal reflection on the problems he encountered as a young man who went straight into the priesthood from school and so had very little real insight into what human sexuality was. His views of the subject were clouded by the traditions and stricture of his training and seclusion from society in general. He points to various historical texts that diminish the value of women as an example of some of the discolouration that is or has been applied in the discussion of women from the point of view of Catholic priests in their insular and celibate world. He balances this by pointing to the life Jesus lived and how Jesus 'associated freely' with women ignoring the customary Jewish taboos and that they were part of his active ministry. His final statement is 'It is time to find a way out of the bog, back to the gospels.'

Michael Kelly SJ discusses past failings of the Roman Catholic Church and the shame felt by countless Catholics about the abuse that has been exposed within the church. He discusses how the Roman Catholic Church seems unable to manage its own affairs and that this external intervention is not the first that has occurred. He suggests that the church has not learnt enough from past interventions and hopefully this intervention will lead to 'greater accountability, due process and a greater respect for the natural rights of individuals at all levels of governance, an attentive listening and a readiness to make changes to achieve better outcomes'.

An interesting, though academic, subject discussed by Laira Krieg and Paul Babie was the effect of anti-discrimination legislation on religious freedom in Australia. This brought out the broad effects of the different types of anti-discrimination protections provided in Australia and the effects of the different treatments. This discussion is very thorough and gives much cause for thought, and is summarised in a quotation from Patrick Parkinson: 

Like all rights, the right to manifest belief is subject to limitations but not to abnegation. A winner-takes-all approach to the conflict between conservative religious beliefs and gay and lesbian rights would be a loss for human rights generally. No amount of soothing talk about 'balancing' can disguise when one right is allowed to eradicate another.

The main thoughts being discussed here are (1) that of religious freedom in Australia, and (2) making space for religion in the Australian context. The essay also highlights the need for caution when granting 'privileged position' on the grounds of religious belief: such privileges may have contributed to the current need for the Royal Commission under discussion in this book!

In the final essay Bernard Treacey OP writes from Dublin about the Irish Catholic experience. Over the last decade a number of major enquiries have been held with senior judicial oversight. The result of this has been the exposure of very serious failings within the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the start of the redress process based on these findings. Various reports to government have resulted in a number of changes and a monetary redress mechanism for some of this. The Irish Catholic Church has until recently had an outsider (from the Presbyterian Church) acting for six years in a senior role overseeing the National Board.

These few words cannot give a full insight into this book or this subject, and it is important to recognise that the current Royal Commission into institutionalchild sexual abuse specifically excludes abuse within a familial environment—which accounts for approximately 80% of child sexual abuse. Consequently, it cannot be said that this book covers the subject fully, and some of the essays could be said to be off at a tangent. However, anyone wanting an alternative view to that seen in the media is encouraged to dip into this book. A major point could be that the church in general has not provided Australian society with a good example of Christian living. Also that the external scrutiny now imposed upon the church is a good thing that will hopefully force previous poor (if not reprehensible) practices to be rectified and the perpetrators and those protecting them to be brought to book.

Jonathan & Katrina Holgate worship at St Alban's Highgate WA where Katrina is the assistant minister

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries

Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press 1996
ISBN 9780060677015, 272 pages

This book has been around for a number of years now, but it's well worth revisiting in case it isn't familiar to you. It is one of those fantastic books that ought to be required reading—and indeed seems to be just that—among people connected to church planting/growth networks.

Stark is a well respected sociologist who decided, as a short-term hobby, to turn his tools and expertise towards engaging with the question of how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries.In the preface, he says of himself:

I'm not a New Testament scholar and shall never be. Nor am I a historian… I am a sociologist who sometimes works with historical materials and who has, in preparation of this volume, done his best to master the pertinent sources… What I am trying to contribute to studies of the early church is better social science—better theories and more formal methods of analysis, including quantification wherever possible and appropriate.

Whilst acknowledging his indebtedness to many theologians of various disciplines who assisted him in his choice of hobby, one read through this book reveals that he is guy who knows what he's on about. His fresh perspective, the tools of his science, his keen interest in the subject and his easy writing style make this book a brilliant and worthwhile read for anybody, regardless of how learned (or not) they may be. Moreover it's a book that many could read in a couple of sittings or over a couple of afternoons.

Personally I found it encouraging for two reasons. The first is my concern with the liberalisation of traditional Judeo-Christian ethics in both the world and the church. Stark does a brilliant job in describing what the Greco-Roman world was likely to have been like to live in and how the radical otherness of the church—essentially a maintenance of traditional Jewish ethics—actually brought transformation and life into a world suffering deeply from the consequences of its own ideologies.

The second reason I found this book encouraging is because of my current role in planting a new church. I appreciated Stark's reflections on how cults, sects, and religions grow through networks of relationships that continually remain open. I also appreciated his reflections on the theological, historical and sociological realities and events that meant that Christians maintained these open networks of relationship. A further point that I found particularly encouraging was his assertion that, for the church to grow from 300 in the upper room in ad 33 to the suggested 56% of the population in ad 350, the church only needed to grow at a rate of around 40% per decade. For a church planter whose current congregation is around 12 or so, it's encouraging to know that if we see God convert four people in the next decade, we'll be well on the way to seeing the West largely reconverted!

The Rise of Christianityremains an absolute gem for anyone who has an interest in the early church, in sociology, in the early church's mission to the Jews, in the ethics and life of the early church and of the ancient Greco-Roman world, in the role of women, and in many other factors and emphases—sociological, political, historical, ethical and theological—that contributed to the obscure, marginal Jesus movement becoming the dominant religious force in the Western world in only a few centuries.

Nicholas Lockwood is curate at Christ the King, Willetton WA and minister in charge of the church plant in Canning Vale


Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Karen Swallow Prior, T. S. Poetry Press 2012
ISBN 9780692014547, 220 pages

By the Book: A Reader's Guide to Life

Ramona Koval, Text 2012
ISBN 9781922079060, 256 pages

Spiritual autobiography is a prolific field, from Augustine's Confessions, C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.

Seventeenth-century England saw the height of the genre. Bunyan's Grace Abounding is perhaps the most famous example. A plethora of offerings established similarities in narrative structure: a sinful young person begins to reflect on the spiritual, and develops a corresponding angst about their soul's future. They repent, but soon commence a cycle of sin, repentance, then a return to sin. A 'road-to-Damascus' experience eventually transpires, compelling a definite conversion. Life thereafter remains difficult, but many of the protagonist's emotional anxieties are quelled through knowing God and being known by him. As Protestant works they reject a notion that Catholicism overemphasises otherworldliness, to highlight God's immanence in the mundane of the everyday.

In contrast to her seventeenth-century peers, Karen Swallow Prior's Booked: Literature in the Soul of Merefrains from employing sin-cycles on which to hang her narrative. Instead, each chapter reflects upon a work of literature in a warm, sometimes colloquial voice, exploring its themes and effect on her life and faith.

Her first chapter, 'Books Promiscuously Read: John Milton's Areopagitica', is her best. Recounting how reading 'promiscuously' led her not away from God but towards him, she draws on Milton's work to mount an argument for evaluating books on form as much as content. Challenging the cherished compulsion towards censorship touted by many Christians, Prior highlights that it was a conservative Puritan who argued against the censorship laws supported by his own faction. 'Let [truth] and falsehood grapple', quipped Milton. Reading Areopagiticacorrects Prior's view of a God of book-blotting, one who promotes a dichotomy between following him and the life of the mind. She finally sees that the God of the Bible is the God of freedom. She can know the truth and it will set her free.

In this chapter Prior follows Bunyan in affirming the role of the everyday in spiritual formation: for her it is particularly the power of books, which for most of her life she loved 'more than God' without 'discovering…that a God who spoke the world into existence with words is, in fact, the source of meaning of all words' (p.11). Such a depiction of the God who affirms semiotic communication and provides its meaning speaks of the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of the Word who became flesh. Following Augustine, Prior acknowledges that God is present in our words (and books) about him and gives our words meaning, but he simultaneously exceeds description by human semiotics.

After this first chapter, Prior's narrative takes a non-linear path. Through reflection on various books and life events, the reader is sometimes granted access to glimpses of her faith journey but is left to piece together the available fragments (for the absence of a discernible faith reflection entirely, see chapter 3). At times the attention to detail about the young Prior's life is overwhelming and more akin to an autobiography of an already well-known figure; some particulars are only later discussed in relation to works of literature. While the introduction convinces readers of Booked's teleological movement—we know that Prior will eventually submit to the lordship of Jesus—a mass of minutiae in a non-linear narrative may leave the reader wondering, for example, why Prior is intricately describing her relationship to farm life. Finally (twelve pages later, in fact) all is revealed: this chapter's primary focus is the power of words to shape others' perceptions of ourselves, and our own,particularly through reference toCharlotte's Web(cf. pp.40–41).

Nevertheless, Prior sometimes unexpectedly interrupts one's pleasant meander through her work, pointedly challenging preconceived ideas and emotions about matters of life and faith. One such example is her vivid recounting of Joe's never-failing love for Pip in Great Expectations. Her retelling is so powerful that a cool heart may thaw in the midst of this tangible sign of grace. She then writes of the silenced, emotion-struck responses to this passage from some of her university students, all the while recalling a story she wrote as a young girl where she aspired to be a teacher: one who scatters 'food for the gathered' (p.70). One cannot help but be moved.

Prior's convincing reflection on the introspective 'search for the self' or 'creation of the individual' as hallmarks of modernity and a corresponding development of a form which could give voice to these themes—the novel—is also worth noting (cf. pp.79–80). Hence, she argues, choosing an orphan for one's protagonist is an obvious choice in many of these works. Divorced from the more obvious influences of community, the orphaned individual is granted even greater scope for autonomously forming their own unique identity. Furthermore language, Prior argues, is the key tool used to create and defend this identity. In modernity, one's 'voice' is not merely the sound produced by one's vocal chords, but the way we make our sense of self known, both to others and ourselves (p.82).

However, missing from these excellent reflections is a meta-analysis from the author on her own practices of writing. For Prior is undertaking a process of 'social dis-embedding' (to use the sociologist Peter Wagner's term) and self-construction at the very moment of writing about it in other works. She dis-embeds herself from her evangelical Christian upbringing and forms a narrative where literature helped her (remember that words are key in modern self-formation), through God's grace, to become the person she is today. Jane Eyreand other books allow Prior to learn life lessons in her process of self-creation, culminating in her realisation, with the assistance of Miss Brontë, that true freedom is 'the freedom to be true to the self she knows she has been created to be' (p.87). There is some confusion in this section over the nature of one's 'nature' (is Eyre's true 'nature' sin-ridden and hopeless? or to be a child of God? or both? This may lead theologians to recall a certain Augustinian versus Thomist debate). Surely that line, with its seemingly contradictory support for self-construction and its opposite—an identity given by something outside oneself—calls for reflection on the nature of postmodern literature-based autobiography. Even the name 'autobiography' might need questioning. It supposes we can write our own life story.

In contrast to Prior's Christian focus, Ramona Koval's By the Book: A Reader's Guide to Lifeis a secular account of the role of books in the life of this Australian writer, journalist and broadcaster. Koval is probably best known for her former role as presenter of ABC Radio National's The Book Show. The differing titles and publisher descriptions of these texts immediately alert you to one of their main differences: Prior's work concerns literature's (inward) influence upon her soul and spiritual life; Koval's story, as the publisher's description touts, is more outward-focusing as a 'reader's guide to life' and reflection upon the 'authors that have written themselves into her life'.

The power of books to ignite the imagination and grant readers a passport to other worlds is quickly established as one of the central themes of Koval's narrative (cf. p.5).  The reader will soon share Koval's delight at the novel worlds in arctic exploration, Andersen fairy tales, science fiction and Homer's The Iliadand The Odyssey, amongst others.

Like Prior, Koval reads 'promiscuously', both by happy and unhappy accident. For example, the eight-year-old Ramona snatches a glance at some photos of Auschwitz in a magazine bought by her father before her mother seizes the publication, screaming in Polish for hours afterwards. She later learns that her parents are Jewish Holocaust survivors. And as a ten-year-old, Koval takes herself to the local library and, attracted by its 'slim volume', borrows Kafka's The Trial.

Like Prior, book-learning does not always immediately translate into life-learning. Koval dryly remarks early in her fourth chapter: 'I found myself married and pregnant at twenty to a young doctor… [T]he warnings of Emma Bovary and the enticements of Colette were not at the front of my mind' (p.45). From here reference to different works of literature come thick and fast, with increasing vagueness about their relationship to Koval's own life. Perhaps this is understandable for a recognised public figure who does not want people to know too much too soon. But there are a handful of exceptions. She succinctly reports her experience of having an abortion at eighteen, with a doctor who wore 'black-and-white platform shoes'. But the discussion soon turns to feminist literature and consciousness-raising groups: a not-unexpected outcome for a young woman who now sadly views herself as 'damaged goods' (p.88).

Koval's reading increasingly reflects her interest in science, which includes James Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. But her 'waxing lyrical' upon the 'beauty and profundity' of biochemical analysis leads her professor to ask if she has considered an alternate career in journalism (p.103). Here is the power of naming and being named identified by Prior, but no such philosophical reflection is offered by Koval, who after a few cursory comments moves onto another annotated inventory of an impressively diverse series of books. This tendency to avoid extensive reflection is also demonstrated in her discussion of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. She states that she read it, offers a brief thought or two, including the classic 'had I become a woman through simple biology or had society made me one?' (p.84), before hurriedly moving on.

Koval's Jewish heritage forms a significant, yet only sporadically discussed aspect of her story. Perhaps this is due to its association with almost unspeakable pain. During the war her mother spent six months learning to disguise herself as a devout Catholic, terrified that she would be betrayed by her own subconscious by speaking in her sleep the Yiddish she forcibly removed from everyday usage. The adolescent Koval reads The Gulag Archipelagoand Cancer Ward but never discusses them with her mother, 'perhaps…because they were too close to the novels about Nazi concentration camps that I knew existed elsewhere but not in my house' (p.61). Throughout her childhood Passover is observed but not celebrated, for her parents cannot forget previous Passovers with family members who were later sent like innocent lambs to the slaughter.

Later in life, a set of dusty Jewish prayer books holds much beauty for Koval but, not surprisingly, she believes that the words within them are unable to bring life. They are 'silent' and 'seemingly without the power to comfort those who dutifully recited their words or served the soup and matzo balls' (p.191). It seems she treasures her Jewish heritage but its failure to bring life during and after the war killed many people's faith in Yahweh in the everyday messiness of life. It is an inheritance that is more at home on the unread section of one's bookshelf than in a living, active word nestled in the core of one's being.

Ultimately, Koval's tale presents books as travelling companions on the road of life, whereas in Prior's they serve to convict, rebuke and encourage her into greater faith in the Word who tabernacled amongst us. This Word holds out his scarred hands in the midst of our suffering and came that we may have life and have it to the full. Whilst both works speak of literature's power, only one tells of its ability to reflect the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Elizabeth Culhane studies theology at Ridley Melbourne and enjoys reading, writing and cake-eating. She tweets at and blogs at