Sunday, September 02, 2018

The abuse crisis: too little authority, not too much

Abraham, our Patriarch
A letter to The Tablet, which they have apparently chosen not to print.


As a former Ampleforth pupil (1985-90), I share the disgust of your leader, feature article, and letters page (18 August). I think the various references to the ‘patriarchal’ Benedictine leadership model are in danger of confusing the issue, however.

If one wishes to discover the traditional, patriarchal attitude to criminal behaviour, consider the early Roman hero Brutus when, on the eve of battle, his sons were accused of treason. He executed them.

The Christian model of leadership does not endorse Brutus’ savagery, but it does stress a leader’s role in governing for the good of the community. This is the kind of government of a patriarchal family we find described in Proverbs, and modelled by saintly reforming Abbots, Bishops, and Kings in the Christian centuries. They would all have been appalled at the idea that their role had anything to do with giving criminals further opportunities to commit their crimes.

What we find described in the IICSA report into Downside and Ampleforth is not the rule of a ‘father in God’ inspired by a traditional conception of God himself. Rather, we see the influence of a modern conception of a ‘God without wrath’, a senile and indulgent grandfather. The problem is not the Benedictine model of leadership: the problem is the corruption of that model.

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Shaw

My letter was addressed to the question, treated by the leader and feature articles, of the relationship between the Abbots of these abusive monasteries and their monks. The idea that the problem in these communities was that the Abbots were too harsh on their monks is a sick liberal fantasy. When it came to dealing with abusers, those in authority were all meek and indulgent. One said to me once, when I suggested that an abuser with an alcohol problem be told to give up: 'Oh no, to be effective it must come from him.'

There is, however, a paradox. Authority has also been wielded in abusive institutions, sometimes brutally, to silence whistleblowers and protect criminals.

The attitude of those in authority to abusers is a liberal one. Outsiders who threaten to spoil the love-in get a more steely conception of authority. But we're used to this with liberal bullies: soft on their chums, harsh to their victims. It is exactly the same attitude we have witnessed in relation to liturgical and doctrinal abuse. It is an expression of their inability to confront the evil in their midst, which they must moderate with sweetness and kindness, and their terror of the system being exposed or upset, threats they meet with vindictive cruelty.

Neither side of the paradox has anything to do with traditional patriarchal conceptions of authority.

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  1. There's a lot of stern discipline in the Holy Rule of our Holy Father Saint Benedict. I presume the Abbot had read it ....

  2. I would've been surprised if the Tablet had published the letter, so no surprise. A complete non enforcement of the Rule (at least in respect of upholding purity) seems a notable factor.