Ethical Perspectives

December 2010

Power And Abuse

Bart Pattyn


While the authors themselves may not have made the association, a significant number of the contributions to the present edition of Ethical Perspectives deal with themes that remind us of the horror, the rancour, the indignation and the question of forgiveness that have emerged in recent months in the context of the abuse of minors in the church. The remainder of this introduction will focus briefly on this issue.

An expression exists in the English language for problems that are so obvious no one is able to ignore them, yet people manage not to talk about them because they are embarrassing or taboo. Such problems are referred to as ‘the elephant in the living room’: they are so big no one can avoid them, yet everyone pretends nothing is amiss.

The problem of the sexual abuse of minors in the church is a case in point. Substantial numbers were aware that certain ‘relationships’ within the church were highly questionable, but they tended not to want explore such situations further or discuss them, unless it was in the guarded terms one would use when talking about a painful family secret that was to be kept out of the public domain whatever the costs. There is no secret when it comes to the reason we managed to ignore the elephant in the living room for so long: the power and prestige of an institution we were either unable to disgrace or did not dare.

Power and abuse, however, are not confined to the church. Many nineteenth century aristocrats and wealthy citizen were known for molesting their household staff and female employees, yet little was ever done about it and it only came to an end when the power and prestige of the upper classes and the industrialists started to wane. The relatively recent denunciation of the dreadful problem of child abuse within the church has little to do with the suggestion that it is a recent discovery, but with the fact rather that the power and prestige of the church is no longer an obstacle to pointing at the elephant in the living room. Respect for the victims demands that we give them their due by recognising their suffering, by calling the guilty to account, and by insisting on due punishment. The victims’ misery, however, was not only brought about by authority figures within the church, but also by countless silent witness who did not have the courage to face the truth.

It is always easy to be indignant about something that has little if anything to do with us. But we would do well to bear in mind that there are many other elephants rummaging around the living rooms of contemporary society, elephants that rarely attract much publicity. The authority and reputation of the church is in such tatters these days that no one seems to bother any more when appalling memories and sickening assaults bubble to the surface. But can we be sure that we are not turning a blind eye to similar mistakes because we don’t want to undermine the reputation of the institutions within which they take place?

We now know, for example, that many children are subject to abuse in sporting organisations. The relationship of power between trainers and young athletes often appears to be unhealthier than we are willing to admit. But sport has acquired something of a sacral character in recent years and many sports enthusiasts refuse to see its image tarnished. As a result, it would appear that we would prefer to expose what went on in the past than what is going on here and now. An important task in facilitating our assimilation of the mistakes of the past might consist of being alert to the possibility of making the same mistakes in the present. As long as the various media refuse to draw attention to this reality because of the prestige enjoyed by the world of sport, however, all we will be able to assume is that they are driven by ill will rather than justice.

 Page : 513 - 514

To  Ethical Perspectives 4/2010