The church and the media

I am currently reading Tony Flannery (ed) Responding to the Ryan Report (2009, Columba Press, Dublin) as I have been asked to help review it.

The Ryan Report was the report by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which sent shockwaves throughout Ireland, as it detailed an incredible number of allegations of physical and sexual abuse in Irish Catholic institutions. The fallout for the Catholic Church has been far worse in Ireland than in other countries (US, Australia, NZ) where similar reports have been published. Many elderly nuns don’t wear a habit in public anymore, for fear of being spat on or assaulted – whether or not they are involved with any of the institutions mentioned in the Report, and whether or not they have ever had anything to do with child care.

The book is written as an attempt to broaden the debate about abuse in the Church. The authors are Catholic, but none are apologists for what happened. They simply try to examine the problem from different angles: why it happened, how to avoid such things happening in the future, what aspects of church teaching might have led to this. The examination of centuries of oppressive teaching on sexuality is particularly telling.

It has always bothered me that church leaders (from the Catholic church and others) withdraw from PR problems. It is easier to resign as an expression of apology rather than defend yourself against false allegations. It is easier not to apologise, for fear of looking like you did something wrong. It is easier not to talk to the media, for fear that they will twist your words and use leading questions to make you say something you didn’t mean. It is easier to pay compensation than fight a legal battle. One author puts it particularly well:

Because the thinkers in the church had run away from the challenging possibilities of electronic media, nobody was available to it, throughout the perfect storm of the child abuse story, to analyse the economic circumstances which caused an influx of grievously unfit people into ministry, to delineate the power relationships regnant within big church institutions which drew sexual abusers to them or to discuss the group dynamics which turn good intentions into bricks on the road to hell.

This is from my favourite chapter so far – it discusses how the Church has failed to engage in the opportunities given to it by electronic and visual media, and has been left powerless in the face of the publication of the Report, and the media attention given to victims.

This is in no way saying that the Report contains dishonest accounts; nor that victims don’t have a right to be heard. It simply attempts to explain the deafening silence from the Church. It is a silence which has prevented unconditional apologies and debates over constructive reform. But it is one created by years of avoiding the mainstream and retreating into the shell of the Church – a far cry from the centuries of missionaries harnessing new technologies to spread their message. Books like this are good, but they’re no substitute for engaging in the debate eight months ago in mainstream media. This failure is, and will continue to be, the major contributor to the demise of Catholicism unless something changes.

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