We do not criticise the police force as a whole when there are revelations of corruption. We tend to believe that police men and women protect us and do at least a fair job of upholding the law. Our condemnation is confined to police drug rings and the like and, most importantly, the evil culture that sustains them.
There is every reason why we should apply the same principle in our response to sexual abuse within the Church. In other words, let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers and, most particularly, the culture that has sanctioned their actions, even if identifying it is a lengthy and costly process.
Bishop James Moriarty led the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland until he resigned in 2009 after he was criticised in the Murphy Report into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. He was one of many church leaders who effectively allowed sexual abuse to occur under his watch.
'With the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture,' he said in his statement of resignation.
Identifying and describing the culture that prevailed should count for almost everything in the investigation of clergy sex abuse (as indeed with corrupt behaviour in the police force and other professions). Individual abusers, and those in authority who failed to act, were a product of a culture that accepted, at best, the existence of sexual abuse as an abhorrent fact of life and, at worst – among offenders – that sexual gratification at the expense of those subject to one's authority was a 'perk' of the job (like funds from crime for corrupt police).
Specifically every inquiry into sexual abuse should draw significantly on ethnographic and historical expertise. Ethnography — referred to as 'thick description' — aims to provide a detailed, in-depth description of the unwritten rules by which we live our lives. It has the potential to unlock the secrets of a culture and, in connection with sexual abuse, explain why some church personnel abused minors.
O'Hanlon has written several essays on sexual abuse and the Murphy Report in the theological journal The Furrow. He uses the poet Seamus Heaney's well known line about the Irish Troubles — 'whatever you say, say nothing' — to characterise the behaviour of many Irish bishops in relation to sexual abuse. 'This, in the terms used by the Murphy Report, is the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell'. And so bishops, for example, did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was.'
Victoria's parliamentary committee has much it could learn from a study of the Murphy Report and the analysis of O'Hanlon and others. It has already been heavily criticised for lacking expertise and resources, and there is widespread expectation that the result will be superficial and lack credibility.
One committee member, Frank Maguire, has already resigned after declaring he was not up to the job. It could take further resignations before the State Government rethinks its decision to act in haste.