What Mormons Can Learn From Catholics and George Pell
Guest Post by TimTam
When I first saw the thousands of brilliantly coloured ribbons tied to the fence around a cathedral in Ballarat, I mistakenly thought that meant that church welcomed gay parishioners.
I was wrong.
The ribbons around this cathedral and even the letterboxes in front of many houses were all a part of the Loud Fence Project. I quickly learned that Loud Fence is a movement that encourages individuals to tie brightly-coloured ribbons on the fences around Catholic (and sometimes other) cathedral and church buildings as a symbolic act of solidarity. The solidarity is in support of and recognition of the survivors of sexual abuse, their families and communities, particularly those who were abused at the hands of priests.
There was such a high rate of child sexual abuse reports in Ballart, Victoria Australia by school and religious leaders that a royal commission was launched specific to Ballarat. The intention was to uncover, understand and learn why such a relatively small city had such a significant amount of reported abuse. In the Australian system of government, royal commissions are the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance. They usually cover larger geographic areas, in matters that effect hundreds of thousands of people. Such a commission in a small area meant that the government identified that there was a major problem; a problem that was only recognised when it was arguably too late. One of the findings of the commission was that there was-
“…a catastrophic failure in the leadership of the (Catholic) Diocese and ultimately in the structure and culture of the Church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by its priests.”
– Report into Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat released | Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse”. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved 16 December 2017.
The Royal Commission wasn’t limited to the Catholic community. It also delved into public and private schools as well as other churches. The findings were sickening: statistically speaking, one in three boys were sexually abused in Ballarat, most often at the hands of clergy. The sexual abuse of children, specifically boys was in pandemic proportions. This triggered a secondary epidemic of suicide: Ballarat has the second highest rate of suicide in Australia. Perhaps that is the reason that LDS family services doesn’t offer counseling to Ballarat residents, even though Ballarat is only 90 minutes’ drive from the heart of Melbourne. Instead, the church recommends that those reaching for help simply call a “local” (non-LDS) counselor.
The most recently convicted offender is Cardinal George Pell. His conviction was a long-sought acknowledgement of the horrific history of institutionalized clerical sex abuse, From a global perspective, Pell was also the Catholic Church’s most senior official to be convicted of child sexual abuse. In his religious career, Pell was appointed as a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003, where he served on the Pope’s Council of nine advisers- in other words, he had the ear of the pope. Comparative in Mormon terms, his position was similar to being a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Before his calling to the Council of nine, Pell served as a priest, and in a number of different religious appointments, finally becoming the Archbishop of Melbourne. In this office, he created a diocesan protocol to investigate and deal with complaints of child sexual abuse. In an irony that was sadly predictable, this is the same time period in which he was accused, and just this year, found guilty of sexually abusing two choirboys.
Pell’s conviction shook the Catholic church around the world—it was the primary story on both CNN and BBC , and in Ballarat, where Pell was born, political statements and official responses were released in intervals, ticking down through a small, but significant list of sympathizers. Abuse that widespread didn’t skip the non-Catholic churches. Even for those lucky enough to not be assaulted, they still knew friends or friends of friends who were victims. Even in the Ballarat ward, the rumor was that a member’s adult son completed suicide a few months prior to Pell’s conviction. This man was a husband, a father, and a survivor of child sexual abuse. But no one was talking about it.
The LDS church’s response to Pell and reports of child abuse was different, which, in so many ways was predictable. Without any acknowledgement or even a breath of the name “Pell,” the LDS Pacific offices effected anti-child abuse videos and “training” in addition to its already diligent implementation of government child-protective legislation. (In Australia, all church members are encouraged to carry government -issued working with children clearance cards; those in callings with children are required by law to have the cards) . To be clear, this meant that in reaction to the pandemic of child abuse, the LDS church provided her members with a non-compulsory anti-child abuse video for bishops and stake presidents to use.
In other words, a discovered pandemic of child sexual abuse was addressed by the LDS church by suggesting that church members might consider watching an optional online video if they felt like it. No big whoop. No statement. Just a trickle-down hint of a video resource.
Interestingly, further components of the Royal Commission found that when women, specifically mothers reported concerns about the abuse or the actual sexual abuse, they were “ignored.” These were mothers stepping up to protect their sons, and yet were disregarded as official complainants. After all, it was easy for the women to be ignored. The religious system of governing in the Catholic church, just like the LDS church, is patriarchal: women are secondary. As the Royal Commission stated, it is “a structure in which ultimate power and responsibility rests with one person: the provincial.” In Mormon terms, the “provincial” is considered equivalent to a bishop or Branch President. The report continued that it was, “a system without checks and balances” and because of that, the church “has the obvious potential for mismanagement or abuse of that power and neglect of that responsibility.”
One might argue that there is a system of checks and balances within the LDS church, with High Councils of men and male Stake Presidencies. But is that really a “system”? Each branch and ward is a combination of geographically combined individuals; the reporting structure is fed through a stake president who is also in the calling in part due to his geographical location. There are no “sister cities”- or rotating “brother stakes” in distant areas wherein checks and balances can occur; all checks are made within the local boy’s club, no questions asked. And though sometimes ward and stake boundaries may change, the changes may shuffle a problematic relationship or person elsewhere. This is exactly what was found in the Royal Commission. In many of the sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic organization, when a complaint against an ecclesiastical leader gained momentum, the accused clergy member was moved to a new location, or given a new “calling”. The royal report continued that “In some cases, the reason given for the move was to conceal the true reason for it and to protect the reputation of the Christian Brothers and avoid scandal and embarrassment.”
So the predators were moved to avoid embarrassment. Not to protect the innocent. Not to maintain chastity or even piety. It was to avoid embarrassment. When I first read this, I was reminded of when I was working as an administrative assistant for a much older, married LDS man. At that time, I was forbidden by him to travel in the same car with him to corporate meetings. The reason I was given was that this separation was necessary to “protect the priesthood.” Do you know how creepy it was for me to hear that from my boss and my church leaders? I was labeled as a predator because of my gender, and the much older, and physically stronger men were in danger of being one-on-one with me in a car. Yet at that same time, as I am now, I am required to speak to male leadership (bishop, stake president) privately as means of declaring my pious worthiness, wherein they are required to directly ask me about my adherence to the “law of chastity.” So– it’s okay for me to be one-on-one with an individual mormon man so long as we talk about my sex life. Ya know– because I can’t serve pizza in my home to a couple of 18 year old missionaries, because that is sexually predatory thing for me to do.
Just like the Catholics, these policies are to protect from embarrassment from ill-behaving males, not as a means of protection. The checks and balances are non-existent, and wholly-aligned to protect the male leadership from women and children, who are positioned as predatory within LDS church policy and structure. Yet as the Glory of God is Intelligence , it seems wise for the members of the Church of Jesus Christ to learn from the catastrophic Catholic sex-abuse Royal Commission findings. We’ve borrowed hymns from other christian denominations, share a bible with Baptists, and copied the Methodist general conference concept. So what can we borrow and learn from the Catholic experience in how to protect children?
We can empower women. The conclusion of the The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Royal Commission recommended that women be given decision-making roles at all levels of the church. This conclusion was made because the evidence suggested that in dioceses and churches where women played a larger role, there were significantly lower levels of sexual abuse. In other words, having women in decision-making roles prevented child abuse and child sexual abuse within the churches.
Did you catch that key phrase? “Decision-making roles.” Women is decision making roles about worthiness, religious protocols, and institutional finances. In other words, not a role where one is assigned as a president and given counsellors who are also assigned. Not a role where groups of women must gain the bishop’s approval for primary children’s song choices and programs. Not a role where groups of women must gain the bishop’s approval for Young Women’s cookie-making activities. Not a role where groups of women must gain the bishop’s approval in order to have Relief Society craft classes or book club. Not a role where groups of women must gain the stake president’s approval for the fliers made to advertise Stake Young Women’s camp (maybe that last one was just my experience… because as a 30 year old temple-recommend carrying adult with a university degree, I couldn’t be trusted to make a flyer on my own).
Women in decision-making roles. Real decision making roles. Not assigned. Not micro-managed. Real, decision making roles.
In other words, women who are ordained. ORDAINED OF GOD.
Do you still want to be a stay at home mother? Great! You can still be that and be ordained.
Do you still want a husband who is as dedicated to the gospel as you are? Great! You can still have that and be ordained.
Do you want a son who works hard to memorize sacrament prayers because he feels motivated to serve the Lord? Great! You can still have that and be ordained. So can your daughter.
Do you want to have your daughter go on a date with a young man who opens her door, pays for the meal and treats her with dignity and respect? Great! You can still have that and be ordained. So can your daughter.
Do you want to do the major thing that is shown to protect boys from being sexually assaulted at church? Me, too. To do this, evidence shows that we need to support the ordination of and increased decision making roles of women at church.
Do you want to do the major thing that is shown to protect girls from sexual exploitation at church? Me, too. To do this, evidence shows that we need to support the ordination of and increased decision making roles of women at church.
Do you want to protect children and women from abuse? Me, too. To do this, evidence shows that we need to support the ordination of and increased decision making roles of women at church.
Do you believe that children should be able to attend church without fearing that they may be abused? Me, too. To do this, evidence shows that we need to support the ordination of and increased decision making roles of women at church.
But mostly, in addition to knowing that the decision-making roles and presence of women protect children from sexual predators, and overall child abuse…Do you believe women can be guided, influenced and feel prompted to do service and work in the name of Jesus Christ? I do. That is why I believe women should be ordained.
We can learn from the Catholic experience with George Pell and others who have been convicted of child sexual assault. We can make the Church of Jesus Christ a safer space for everyone. All we need to do is allow women to be ordained. I’m tired of LDS church leaders saying, “We don’t know why women can’tr be ordained.” I suggest we stop asking “why,” and instead ask “how” and “what” we can do to protect the men, women and children of the church. Research shows that ordination is an effective answer. Let’s be humble enough to accept this, and invite the spirit of Christ and healing into our lives at a greater level.