The Common Good

The Murphy Report on Clergy Sexual Abuse: Why We All Need Accountability

The day the Murphy Report on clergy sexual abuse of children in Dublin, Ireland was recently released found me teaching ethics to clergy (among others) in a Dublin Roman Catholic theological school. Immersed in the shock, horror, and anger surrounding the report, we asked, "How could the leadership get it so wrong? How could it be so widespread? How did it go on for so long?"

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The Murphy Report uncovered abuse of power on a number of levels. First, of course, the priests who sexually abused children abused their power, taking advantage of the vulnerable children in their care. Second, the bishops who learned about the abuse should have immediately held the offending priests accountable, taken steps to keep children safe, and provided rehabilitation for the priests. Instead, they abused their power by covering up the incidents and by allowing the priests to stay in their parishes and continue to abuse children there, or by moving the priests to other parishes where they abused other children. Third, the police abused their power by colluding with the church. They, like the priests and bishops, participated in a culture of secrecy and adopted a hands-off policy toward abuse in the church.

The Murphy Report provides a perfect case study of what not to do with your power, whether you serve in ministry or in a different leadership position. It reads like a handbook of how a lack of accountability structures and a culture of secrecy is a recipe for terrible disaster, resulting in hundreds of children and their families being seriously damaged. The ripple effect of this abuse will continue for generations.

It is, of course, necessary that the priests and bishops be held accountable now that the truth has emerged. And it is appropriate for us to be horrified at what occurred. At the same time, it's easy to point the finger at the priests and bishops, believing that we would never behave in such a way, that we ourselves are above abuse of power in any form. But are we? How might we be on the slippery slope toward abusing our power, albeit perhaps in less horrifying ways?

For example, how often do we find ourselves swept up in organizational politics and as a result not doing what is best for an employee, a client, a parishioner, or a student? What should we do when we see an employee/client/student suffering as a result of organizational dysfunctionalities? Where do we get help with ethical decision-making in our work and where do we get the support to follow through on an ethical decision once we make it?

Reflecting on the Murphy report prompted me to write some queries, both for my own professional relationships and for those for whom I bear responsibility. I share them in the hope that the Murphy Report will spur not only the Catholic Church in Dublin to hold its priests and bishops accountable, but also the rest of us to regularly examine ourselves and hold ourselves and others to a high standard.


In my own professional relationships:

  1. Am I aware of how my own needs surface in relation to students/clients/employees and do I take care to get those needs met in other, appropriate places? (Consider such needs as emotional intimacy, approval, self-esteem, sexual intimacy.)
  2. What accountability structures have I put in place to help me stay ethical in my dealings with students/clients/employees?
  3. How will I know if I'm in danger of an ethical violation? What are the red flags to look out for? How can I live proactively with a sense of ethical awareness?

In the professional relationships of those for whom I carry responsibility:

  1. Are my students/clients/employees/supervisees aware of how their own needs surface in relation to their students/clients/employees and do they take care to get those needs met in other, appropriate places? (Consider such needs as emotional intimacy, approval, self-esteem, sexual intimacy.)
  2. What accountability structures are in place to help my students/clients/employees/supervisees stay ethical in their dealings with their students/clients/employees?
  3. How will my students/clients/employees/supervisees know if they're in danger of an ethical violation? How will I know if they are in danger of an ethical violation? What are the red flags to look out for? How can they live proactively with a sense of ethical awareness? How can I help them do that?

portrait-margaret-benefielMargaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.

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