Affirmative action for women is essential for cleaning up the church

Affirmative action for women is essential for cleaning up the church

Women in the church
Can we really expect the ultimate, unaccountable boys club to care for children without women in the room? Tanja Kovac shares the devastating consequences of excluding women and silencing mothers, and how the church could change. 

The groundwork for the abuse of children in the church and other institutions depends on powerful and corrupt men getting mothers out of the way.

Sexual predators must create opportunities to whisk the innocent away from their mother’s watchful eyes and lead children into the secret spaces where society says women can not go. First, the sacristy and altar, then the sports club and sometimes the school.

In the places where mothers are lost forever come the particularly easy pickings for institutional paedophiles. The orphanages, the child welfare institutions and the hospitals for the disabled and discarded. In these places where mothers can no longer be mothers – through untimely death, addiction, bad health, neglect or something else – the abuse by powerful men can be grand in scale and design.

I know something of this. My grandfather lost his mother when he was six years old, shortly after he was infected with polio. Abandoned by his father who had no capacity to raise a disabled boy with one deformed leg, Pop was sent to Bexley Boys Home, a Salvation Army institution in south west Sydney.

Growing up, I thought it was a great laugh listening to Pop’s yarns about how he escaped the clutches of an evil Captain of the home. The details of the abuse Pop suffered were never fully shared with me. Strong and charismatic, he’d found ways to transform this part of his life with humour. But I now don’t like to think about the seven year old who couldn’t run, cowering under floorboards in the dirt at the home’s foundations to avoid the arms of bullying men. I especially don’t like to think about it after the Royal Commission’s findings against Bexley. I am grateful Pop didn’t survive long enough to relive it all.

My pop’s experiences told me that the loss of a mother is risky for a child.

But it is also no less so for the community.

When an entire culture is built on the process of individuation from the feminine – the cutting of apron strings and the umbilical cord – it lays the foundation for the kind of behaviour epitomised by George Pell.

This week, good men and women are celebrating Pell’s conviction.

By all means, celebrate away. Listen again to Tim Minchin’s Come Home. Read Patrick Marlbrough’s masterly piece, The Dead Aren’t Clapping, in Meanjin. Make a Facebook post or two.

As a lawyer and a keen student of patriarchy, I can’t celebrate. I know, sadly, that Pell is only an appeal away from freedom. I know the power of the Catholic boys club in the judiciary and political circles. I hope for justice, but remain deeply cynical.

As long as institutions such as the church, the courts and the state continue beyond the watchful eyes of women – excluding them from equal leadership – there will be men like Pell, taking advantage of power to hurt the next generation and the next.

The entire problem with child sex abuse was writ large for me at Pope Francis’s Bishops conference last week. There it was for all to see – 190 church leaders from across the globe in one room developing solutions to the most dire of problems. All of them men.

How can we expect the ultimate, unaccountable boys club to care for children without women in the room? It’s decision-making insanity.

Gender inequality is the root cause of dangerous male privilege. It leads to child sexual predators and family violence. But also to political and financial corruption. The World Bank, UN Women and the United Nations Development Program have long understood this. They have called for greater participation of women in decision-making, not because women are less corrupt, but because gender equality improves governance.

Gender equality is not one or two token women. You need a critical mass – at least 30% – to improve the responsiveness of public organisations and lay the foundations for anti-corruption agendas. To get even more out of gender equality – improvements in profits and public confidence – nothing short of parity will do.

This is why I believe that the risk of danger to children from exposure to sexual predators will only be diminished when the Catholic Church – and all institutions where children are cared for – grant women full and immediate leadership equality. And when mothers are included in decision making.

It’s no mistake that it was Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who initiated the Royal Commission that would be Pell’s reckoning. A founding member of EMILY’s List Australia, Gillard understood the difficulty of challenging male bastions of power. How ironic that the childfree feminist should become the lost mother to thousands of vulnerable children.

It’s no mistake that it was another tenacious woman and former CEO of EMILY’s List Australia, Vivian Waller, who would pursue compensation for victims and their families.

Taking on powerful men in closed societies requires bravery and conviction.  I salute these women trailblazers, who shone a light in the darkest of places.

But it is now time for men to step up and lead.

Imagine how powerful it would be if Pope Francis drafted a Papal Encyclical on the Divine Rights of Mothers. If he celebrated Mary’s role, not just in birthing Jesus, but in raising him.

Imagine if Francis then used this to set a radical form of affirmative action for the church – a gender target enabling nuns to take their rightful place next to brothers in the hierarchy. Or better yet, a quota for lay women who keep Catholic congregations running, who were actually recognised equally for the work they do for their faith?

Imagine if Francis, at the same time, put an end to the interference in women’s choice over contraception and abortion. (So much skewed social teaching on the unborn fetus to the detriment of the safety of the born child).

All it would take is for one powerful man to lead. Pope Francis could do all this. He really could.

But he won’t.

Because powerful men – current and future – depend on him failing and finding other excuses to retain collective power.

The scapegoat of Satan. The bad apple Pell. These narratives serve to mask the real story. The first sign of an institution at risk of terrifying evil is the exclusion of women and the silencing of the divine right of mothers to speak, agitate and shape the futures of their children. Only affirmative action for women in the church and other institutions will clean up this mess we’re in.

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