Sexual Exploitation and Aid Agencies

While the media has focused a lot on institutional sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, just how wide spread this activity is in other organisations in a position of care for the vulnerable has not yet been reported widely. However, in July of this year a UN report came out presenting shocking revelations of the endemic nature of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by members of aid agencies and peacekeepers throughout the world perpetrated on the most vulnerable – the recipients of their aid and care.

That aid agencies and peacekeepers have been involved in such activities should not be a surprise. The 2010 film, ‘The Whistleblower,” first made me aware that such exploitation takes place. The film was inspired by the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who was recruited as a UN peacekeeper for DynCorp International in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. It tells the story of how Bolkivac, while there, discovered a sex trafficking ring serving (and facilitated by) DynCorp employees, with the UN’s peacekeeping force turning a blind eye.  Bolkovac was fired and forced out of the country after attempting to shut down the ring, but took her story to the BBC News in the UK and won a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against DynCorp.

The July, 2018, UN report, suggests that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision, and a wide range of organisations have been implicated.

The term ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ could apply to a wide range of acts including: rape, sexual assault, other forms of sexual violence, transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex, exploitative relationship, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. The different kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse against children are listed as: child rape, sexual assault, solicitation of child prostitution, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. From the statistics available and the research available, this is abuse that is largely perpetrated by men. Victims were mainly girls aged 13 and 18 years, who reported far-reaching consequences of the abuse on their lives: pregnancies, abortions, teenage motherhood, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, lost educational, skills-training and employment opportunities and social exclusion.

The 67 allegations documented by a 2002 West Africa assessment report listed 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping battalions across three countries in West Africa. The research conducted for Save the Children’s 2008 report revealed that in emergency contexts in South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti, a wide range of organisations were implicated in abuse.

Fieldwork revealed cases of abuse associated with a sum total of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations. These include civil humanitarian agencies such as those delivering food and nutritional assistance, care, education and health services, reconstruction, shelter, training, and livelihood support, as well as military actors providing peace and security services.

It also showed that a broad spectrum of different types of aid workers and peacekeepers were implicated in the abuse. For example, staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers, were identified as having been involved. Participants also implicated a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ people.

No corner of the aid sector appears to be immune. The problem is a collective one. Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK said, “this is not the occasional bad apple that we are dealing with here; it is a structural and systemic problem that we have to deal with through proper integration.” Watkins further said, “Although the problem appears pervasive, the exact scale of Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector is currently impossible to define. We heard repeatedly that there is under-reporting, based both on research and anecdotal evidence.”

The UN Secretary General acknowledged in his 2017 Special Measures report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, “we feel certain that not all cases are reported”. Practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the “tip of the iceberg”.

In terms of the impact, ‘Rape Crisis and Equality Now’ stated that in addition to the “degrading, harmful and traumatic experience in itself,” sexual exploitation and abuse contributes to a context that is conducive to the objectification and exploitation of women and girls, where sexual violence is condoned and excused. It also forms part of the framing of sex-based inequality, reducing women’s and girls’ rights in multiple contexts and contributing to and reinforcing the environment for further abuse and discrimination against them.

The UN report states that there is little understanding of how sexual exploitation and abuse impact the effectiveness of aid programmes, and the ability of aid organisations to deliver support to beneficiary communities. A senior and experienced specialist in the aid sector told investigators in confidence that the way the communities being served view aid agencies is everything… “we fail at almost all levels above our programmes to quantify the impact this has on the quality of our programmes, or our ability to actually deliver them to their intended audiences.”

The impact of the sexual abuse and exploitation of intended beneficiaries of aid—relief aid in particular—obviously and clearly falls directly upon the victims and survivors of that abuse. In the vast majority of cases, such people will be desperate, already traumatised by disaster, conflict, loss and separation from family and community, and suffering from deprivation of the basic physical necessities. In many forced displacement scenarios, it seems criminal exploiters swiftly target new refugee encampments.

The distribution of shelter, food, water, etc. to vulnerable people can provide potential abusers with powerful levers of influence under the imprimatur of an international aid organisation. In addition to the actual abuse is the impact on the relationship between the beneficiary community and the aid organisations trying to deliver effective assistance

Hamer people around Turmi (Lower Omo Valley – Ethiopia)

(presumably including dignified and secure facilities for women and girls and protection from trafficking); the impact of abuse-related loss of trust and confidence on aid effectiveness (let alone other aid strategy objectives) has not been even considered, let alone assessed, as far as UN investigators are concerned.

Collective ineffectiveness in combating sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers inevitably damages and constrains the aid sector as a whole. I am sure, of course, that the vast majority of aid sector workers are innocent of such conduct. However, everyone is tainted by such scandals and the inability, as yet, to have confidence in the systems to deal with, let alone prevent, such behaviours.

In recent months, the MeToo movement has helped bring to light the extent to which sexual abuse pervades workplaces and society at large. The international aid sector is not exempt, and we should not expect it to be. But sexual exploitation and abuse is ultimately an abuse of power and the aid sector is one of extreme power imbalance. Those receiving aid in humanitarian crisis situations are some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people in the world. The sector as a whole needs to confront the fact that, although the exact scale remains unknown, sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It is endemic, and it has been for a long time.


Posted in Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Right Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

For this month’s article, I wanted to share in full the just released conference communiqué from the Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry Conference that was held in Melbourne on the 27-29th of August 2018. I believe it is an appropriate and challenging response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the final report being published on the 15th of December, 2017. The communiqué is addressed to the Christian churches, stating that, “we are at a tipping point,” and that “recovery will depend on engaging in a thoroughgoing reformation of theology, structures, governance, leadership and culture.”


An ecumenical conversation on the task of rebuilding and renewal for Australian churches following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was conducted at a University of Divinity-hosted conference on Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry from 27–29 August in Melbourne. The conference was the first ecumenical gathering of its kind to discuss the way forward for the churches in Australia.

The Health and Integrity in Church and Ministry Conference was sponsored by four leading Catholic religious institutes – the Franciscan Friars, the Passionists, the Redemptorists, and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers – along with the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, Yarra Theological Union, Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers, Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers, and a number of private donors.

The conference featured fifty presenters and panellists drawn from Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe, and
the United States, and was attended by approximately 270 delegates, including church members and leaders, academics, clergy and religious, ministers and church workers, survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates, and groups advocating church reform.

To the Church and the Australian Community

This communiqué is addressed to survivors of child sexual abuse in church institutions, to members of the Australian Christian churches, and to Australian church leaders, including the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Religious Australia, and the leadership of the National Council of Churches of Australia (NCC).

Above all, this communiqué is an appeal to the whole Australian community, including all members of faith communities, because participants believe that health and integrity in ministry and the rebuilding and renewal of our churches should be of the utmost concern to all Australians, whatever their beliefs.

A brief synopsis

The sessions discussed the following topics: the causes and dimensions of the tragedy; the collateral damage to ecclesial communities; the ongoing pastoral care needs of victims, their families, and affected communities; theological Implications; implications for church governance and leadership; Church law; implications for ministry (including formation for ministry and professional supervision for those in ministry); the international and multicultural dimensions; and supervising the perpetrators.

The conference expressed its solidarity with the many thousands of men, women and children who had been directly and indirectly harmed, and strongly condemned ongoing denial by some church members of the truth of what has happened.

During the conference, delegates acknowledged and thanked survivors of child sexual abuse for their courage, resilience, and their testimony before the Royal Commission, and affirmed that they will continue to stand in solidarity with them. Conference delegates expressed sorrow for the many lives that have been lost due to child sexual abuse, and concern for all those who have not felt able to come forward with their own stories of abuse, and for those of our Aboriginal sisters and brothers who have been abused in church care. The conference also acknowledged the brave “truth-tellers”, whistle-blowers, journalists and the media for their courageous role in bringing these criminal acts and their institutional cover-up to public attention and forcing Australian governments to act.

Describing the criminal sexual abuse of children by clergy, religious, and church personnel as a national tragedy, the conference resolved that it is essential for Australia’s churches to fully implement all the Royal Commission’s recommendations pertaining to them. But the conference also called for the churches to go beyond the minimum standards of implementation in the Royal Commission’s recommendations, to undertake thoroughgoing reform of theology, ministry, governance and leadership, and in so doing to return to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. Survivor Joan Isaacs told the conference that it was time for the churches to “get back on the donkey”.

Opening the Health and Integrity Conference, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity, Professor Peter Sherlock, said the conference provided a focussed opportunity for the University to identify both immediate and longer-term actions. One outcome will be the creation of a new goal in the University’s Strategic Plan commencing immediately, to pursue the dual themes of health and integrity in church and ministry.

Where are we, and how did we get here?

In his address, Emeritus Professor Des Cahill of RMIT University, told the conference that the Royal Commission’s final report was the most thorough and credible report that has ever been produced on the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions. “Due to the Royal Commission’s unparalleled moral authority, Australian governments are moving quickly to implement its recommendations”, Professor Cahill said.

Professor Cahill said that the image of religion had been severely damaged by the child sexual abuse crisis,
and that the Royal Commission had demonstrated that many religious institutions were not in good shape. He described the Australian Catholic Church as ‘a shipwreck’ and described the performance of the Australian Catholic Bishops in taking almost nine months to formally respond to the Royal Commission as ‘appalling and abysmal’. Professor Cahill said deep cultural change was needed in the churches, going beyond professional standards and child safety mechanisms. He argued that the Catholic Church would need to completely rethink the sacrament of reconciliation in light of the Royal Commission’s findings, its theology and praxis of priesthood, and its theology of gender and sexuality. He also called for the conference to adopt a wider focus than child sexual abuse, to include the abuse of vulnerable adults, including seminarians, novices and the sexual assault of female religious by priests.

Collateral damage to ecclesial communities

The Health and Integrity Conference heard that there is grief and pain everywhere throughout the Australian churches as a result of the criminal sexual abuse of children. Beyond the damage to the victims themselves, pain has also been caused to many of those who live and work inside the church.

Dr Megan Brock RSJ, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar, spoke of the “post-Royal Commission feelings of exhaustion and numbness experienced by many of us”, and the strain experienced by those whose task it was to deal with abuse cases and clean up the mess.

“I am aware that many individuals who work in religious and pastoral ministry, including priests, brothers, nuns, pastors, teachers and social workers, feel betrayed by their colleagues who perpetrated the abuse, and their colleagues who failed to respond with integrity and justice”, Dr Brock said. “Some will also be questioning the dysfunctional and sometimes abusive church structures within which they have had to live and work.” These included adult female and male religious who have themselves experienced sexual abuse in the Church.

Theological implications

In his keynote paper, Rev Professor Richard Lennan, an Australian priest who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College in the United States, warned that any church that proved unwilling or unable to learn the lessons of the Royal Commission “will disqualify itself from a continuing place in Australian society”.

Professor Lennan said the Royal Commission had brought distorted aspects of the Catholic Church’s culture into relief. “When the Royal Commission defined clericalism as the idealisation of the clergy, and by extension the idealisation of the Church, it was describing a form of idolatry”, he said in his keynote paper. “Idols cannot ever give life; they can only be a distortion of what God enables.”

“While taking up the specific recommendations of the Royal Commission will certainly help the church to become a more transparent and authentic body”, Professor Lennan said, “the renewal of integrity in the church requires more than individual pieces of reform: it requires broad and deep cultural shifts in the church. To achieve this, it will be necessary for the Church to embrace an overarching approach to change”.

Governance and Leadership

The Health and Integrity Conference heard that, in many areas, the Christian churches lag behind secular society in providing ethical governance and leadership, and that the creation of healthier institutions lay in adopting governance models that are transparent, accountable, inclusive of all the People of God, and genuinely dialogical, participatory and collaborative.

Susan Pascoe AM, President and Chair of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and Chair of the Community Directors Council, told the conference that although most of the churches have signed up to the National Redress Scheme and many have issued apologies to victims, to date there has been limited public recognition by the churches of the need for governance and cultural reform.

“Abuse survivors, many of whose lives have been irretrievably damaged may take some convincing that genuine reform is on the way,” Ms Pascoe said. But Ms Pascoe said the voices calling for change in response to the child sexual abuse crisis have enormous power, and the Church was at a “tipping point”.

Noting that Basic Religious Charities are currently exempted from meeting the reporting obligations and governance standards of other charities and not-for-profit organisations under the 2013 Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Act, Ms Pascoe said it was “reasonable to expect church bodies to operate on comparable, or equal governance standards as corporate, government and not-for-profit entities”. She said they should also be subject to the same, or a comparable, regulatory regime.

Canon Law

The conference heard that structural changes in Catholic canon law are “absolutely necessary”, although these should build on what is already positive in canon law. In his keynote paper on Catholic Canon Law, Professor Rik Torfs, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, argued that the 1983 Code of Canon Law still carries traces of an outdated ‘perfect society’ theology that is contributing to the survival of the culture

of clericalism in the Church. These aspects include the view that the Church is self-sufficient and independent of the civil law (canon 22); the fundamental distinction between the clergy and the laity (canon 129); and the lack of separation of the powers of governance (legislative, executive and judicial), which are concentrated in the hands of the pope and diocesan bishops (canons 135, 331, 381). Professor Torfs also said it was of the utmost importance that canon law procedures were made more transparent and more accountable.


In relation to formation for Ministry, Janiene Wilson, who has taught seminarians and laity at the Catholic Institute of Sydney for 25 years and worked as a clinical psychologist with clergy and religious for 25 years, told the conference that Catholic seminary formation had been underpinned by a ‘faulty anthropology’, meaning “a purely theological understanding of the human person drawn entirely from scripture and tradition, without reference to science”. In the Catholic Church, Ms Wilson said, “Ministry has traditionally been something done to a passive laity, and now we have a two-tiered model of ministry. Ministry is identified with clergy, and the laity for the most part are passive recipients”. She called for a renewed understanding of ministry based in an ecclesiology of communion.

In relation to the Royal Commission’s recommendation that all persons in religious or pastoral ministry should receive mandatory pastoral/professional supervision, Dr Alan Niven of Stirling Theological College in the University of Divinity, expressed concern that the supervision response put in place by the churches could fail because of marginal resourcing and lack of cultural and strategic support. He argued that professional supervision needs to be re-framed. It is not something external to ministry, so much as a form of pastoral care for those in ministry, a theological discipline, and a form of ministry in its own right.

Conference resolutions

  1. We the People of God say ‘NO’ to child sexual abuse and to the institutional circumstances that led to its cover up, and we demand the removal of any conditions which put children and vulnerable adults at risk.
  2. The criminal sexual abuse of children in religious institutions has been a national and international tragedy. We hope for personal and community healing, we express solidarity with the victims of child sexual abuse, their families, and affected communities, and pledge to continue to learn from survivors and their advocates.
  3. We affirm that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been a gift to the entire Australian community, including the churches, and that it presents the churches with a unique opportunity for revisioning and renewal. The churches share a common guilt and shame in relation to child sexual abuse. They must accept the Royal Commission’s recommendations in full. But they must go beyond minimum standards of implementation, to embrace a thoroughgoing reformation of their theology, structures, governance, leadership and culture, and in so doing return to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
  4. We affirm the profound importance of the Royal Commission for survivors of child sexual abuse and their families, as an event in the life of the Australian churches, as an event in the life of the Australian nation, and internationally. We thank the Royal Commission for exposing the truth about child sexual abuse in the churches and other Australian institutions, including the dimensions of what has occurred, and we condemn the ongoing denial by some church members of the truth of what has happened.
  5. We affirm that as part of accepting responsibility for the immense damage they have caused, the churches must take responsibility for the lifelong care and support of all those whose lives have been harmed by child sexual abuse in church institutions. This goes beyond the notion of “redress”. It is vitally important that locally- focussed healing services for victims, their families, and affected communities be supported and financed by the churches at the national level. Ongoing care should be based on the principles of trauma-informed practice, meaning that it should be holistic and survivor-informed. The churches should urgently review their processes for responding to ensure that victims are not re-traumatised when they seek support and redress from the Church.
  6. Child sexual abuse is also an ongoing tragedy, including in church-run institutions internationally. We affirm that the Royal Commission presents Australia with a unique opportunity and responsibility to contribute through thought-leadership, and church and government action, to international efforts to address the scourge of child sexual abuse and its institutional cover-up.
  7. We affirm that the Church is in constant need of conversion and that theological reflection is essential to sustain the church in its mission and help free it from the distortions of the past. We call on all the churches to engage in a process of fundamental theological and interdisciplinary reflection about the causes and implications of the child sexual abuse crisis. We call for new theological approaches to the body, sexuality, gender and the child, that are informed by contemporary experience and scientific understandings.
  8. We reject clericalism in all its forms. We note the intervention of Pope Francis (20 August 2018) in his “Letter to the People of God”, which states that: “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives”. We demand an end to those values in our church culture which are antithetical to the values of the Gospel, including the patterns of silencing and domination which have characterised so much of the response to child sexual abuse in our churches.
  9. We affirm that any restoration of trust in the churches will be dependent on a commitment by our church leaders to contemporary ethical standards of good governance based on the principles of transparency, accountability and inclusivity. There can be no theological excuse for dysfunctional or unhealthy governance structures and practices. We call on the National Council of Churches of Australia, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Religious Australia, and all Australian church members and leaders—national, diocesan, and local—to take concrete steps to create more participatory churches. It is essential that the laity in general, and women in particular, enjoy full equality in the Church, including in church governance.
  10. Through the disaster of child sexual abuse crisis and the experience of the Royal Commission, the churches have been called to a renewed understanding of ministry. We therefore call on the churches to engage in theological and pastoral reflection and research, informed by the social sciences, into healthy and effective models of religious and pastoral ministry for the 21st century and best practice models of initial formation and ongoing support for persons in ministry.
  11. We affirm the importance of increased funding by governments and churches for research into the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We recognise the benefits which will flow from the creation of specialised research institutes—centres of excellence—that will inform improved teaching and practice in governance and ministry. We call on each of the churches to consider providing seed-funding to create an ecumenical centre 
for pastoral supervision under the auspices of the University of Divinity. The Centre would provide training, accreditation, professional development, and best practice professional/pastoral supervision. It is suggested that a steering group be established to work towards implementation of this proposal.
  12. In order to protect children and communities, prevention of offending is essential. This must include adequate treatment and help for offenders, so they do not re-offend. We call for more research into the origins and underlying factors of child sex offending in order to maximise the future protection of children and vulnerable adults.
  13. We call on all Australian churches to participate fully in the national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse on 22 October 2018.
  14. We affirm the need for monuments, rituals and archives to preserve documents and record the voices of victims and their stories. The churches should also consider instituting a shared National Day of Remembrance and Bearing Witness, to be held perhaps on the anniversary of the release of the Royal Commission’s report on
15 December 2017, to ensure that the testimony of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse continues to 
be heard, to be an occasion on which each church reports publicly on its progress in implementing the Royal Commission recommendations and what it has done by way of reforming its governance and culture to respond positively to this national tragedy, and also to be an occasion to celebrate those righteous truth-tellers who refused to keep silent about the abuse and those who have worked in the interests of victims and child safety.


We give thanks to those religious leaders who attended the Health and Integrity Conference, including bishops and leaders of religious institutes. We affirm the power of conversation within and between churches that creates a respectful space for constructive action for reform in response to the child sexual abuse crisis.

We look forward to an even broader multi-faith conversation. We undertake to repeat this conference in some form, in solidarity with survivors, and to build on the interest groups and networks of church leaders, theologians and social scientists, researchers, practitioners and faithful which have been established and/or confirmed over three hope-filled days in Melbourne in August 2018.

— Professor Maria Harries AM, Emeritus Professor John Warhurst AO, Professor Peter Sherlock, Dr David Leary OFM, Stephen Crittenden.

Posted in Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why the Swing to the Right?

The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States took me completely by surprise. I didn’t think such a thing was possible because I believed that, as a world, we were beyond such a blatant swing to the right in terms of political attitudes. But I should not have been so surprised for, when you look at the US elections in light of the world political stage, including here in Australia, there has been a clear and consistent swing to the right for some time. From Brexit in England, to the rise of fascist parties in various European countries, to the Australian Government’s Asylum Seeker policy and the rise of the One Nation party, there is a right wing reactionary trend that certainly causes me great concern for the future. So what has caused this swing?

An obvious and immediate answer is the destabilisation created by the rise of Islamic Fundamentalist based terrorism. The events of 9/11 changed the developed world’s attitude profoundly. It has heightened a sense of insecurity and particularly fear of an enemy that can strike without warning on home soil and has civilians as the primary target. This perceived threat to our way of life has led to a mushrooming in the ‘intelligence state.’ We have more government intrusion in our lives from airport security checks to phone surveillance. Intelligence budgets have increased substantially and defenders of these practices say extraordinary measures are necessary to keep us safe.

But is this enough, on its own, to explain the political swing to the right in the developed world?

I would suggest that there is a deeper issue at the heart of this shift. While the fear of terrorism offers a perfect political tool to fuel this shift, the bigger threat to current political parties in developed nations is the unsustainability of our economic system based on the unrealistic goal of ‘sustained growth.’

The model that Western governments have pushed for some time has been that a bigger economy is always better. But this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, economies can’t grow forever.

If developed nations were to grow their GDP by 2% over coming decades, and by 2050 the global population had achieved a similar standard of living, the global economy would be approximately 15 times larger than it is today in terms of GDP. If the global economy grew at 3% from then on it would be 30 times larger than the current economy by 2073, and 60 times larger by the end of this century.

But it is utterly implausible to think that planetary ecosystems could withstand the impacts of a global economy that was 15, 30, or 60 times larger than it is today. Even a global economy twice or four times as big should be of profound ecological concern.

It has been estimated that we would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined. Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Why governments fail to act on this knowledge is that we, the people who live in developed western economies, have gotten used to the high standard of living our countries have developed and enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. In other words, we have become spoilt and our governments know this. They know that to stay in power, they have to deliver what the people want – that is maintaining a high standard of living. But because it is unsustainable, short-term ‘solutions’ are all the go, like keeping out migrants who would ‘take our jobs’ and make more demands on our resources and infrastructure.

After all, if governments respond responsibly to issues like the environment, it would demand a shrinking of the economy or a diversion of resources that would impact on the way of life we have become accustomed to. If people start to feel their way of life is affected too dramatically, they will vote that government out. This is a far greater threat to the longevity of a government in power than a terrorist attack.

The right of politics notoriously favours those who benefit most from the current economic model – those at the top of the economic food chain. Scapegoating is a political tactic as old as time to distract people from the truth – that the way of life we have come to enjoy is unsustainable and is going to come to an end one way or another.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “de-growth”. In other words, a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

Mainstream economists will accuse de-growth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. The fatal problem with the growth model is that it relies on an extent of decoupling that quickly becomes unachievable. We simply cannot make a growing supply of food, clothes, houses, cars, appliances, gadgets, etc. with 15, 30, or 60 times less energy and resources than we do today. We need to embrace renewable energy, but renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. Some countries have shown trends of decoupling; but under closer examination, this is generally because of them outsourcing energy and resource-intensive manufacturing elsewhere. Technology and ‘free markets’ are not the salvation they promised to be.

In order to move toward a just and sustainable global economy, developed nations must reduce their resource demands to a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint. This might imply an 80% reduction or more, if the global population is to achieve a similar material living standard. But such significant quantitative reductions cannot be achieved if we persist with the dominant economics of GDP growth. It follows that the developed nations need to initiate policies for a post-growth economy at once, followed in due course by developing nations. This is humanity’s defining challenge in coming years and decades.

A de-growth society embraces the necessity of planned economic contraction, seeking to turn our environmental and social crises into opportunities for civilisational renewal. Among other things, we would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our material simplicity, we would be rich – if we manage the transition wisely.


Posted in Integrity of Creation, Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Challenge of Conscience in a Rather Unjust World

This month’s blog article comes from fellow Passionist, Dr. Brian Gleeson CP.

“What is conscience?” a teacher asked her class of small children: Quick as a flash, one boy piped up: “It’s what makes you tell your mother before your sister does.” St Paul the Apostle once made a startling comment about his personal struggle to follow his conscience and do the right thing: “I do not understand my own behaviour,” he wrote. “I do not act as I mean to, but I do the things that I hate” (Rom 7:15-16) Talk about true confessions! But perhaps he’s not the only one to admit that he did not always do what his conscience told him but sometimes went against its guidance. I wonder, in fact, if there’s anyone other than Jesus, who has always followed their conscience perfectly and done the most loving thing in every life-situation.

At least Paul was not trying to cover up, find excuses, or blame anyone else for his failures. Unlike the man and woman in the famous story from the Book of Genesis, chapter 3! We know them as “Adam” and “Eve”. But in this poetic and symbolic story about human nature in general, rather than a factual account of the behaviour of the first man and woman in history, they represent you and me. “Adam”, then, is Everyman, and “Eve” is Everywoman. As the Dutch Catechism puts it: “The sin of Adam and Eve is closer than we imagine. It is in our own selves.”

Let us focus on that part of the story that deals with the fall-out from their disobedience to God and God’s commands (3:7-13). They had eaten the forbidden fruit, despite God’s lavish gift to them of the whole Garden of Eden and its trees. They have refused to accept their right relationship with God as creatures of God. They have forgotten their dependence on God for their very existence. In wanting to be just like God and deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong, they’ve simply become, as the saying goes, “too big for their boots”.

The effects of their sin are immediate. The details of the story provide a wonderful psychology of sin. Sin causes feelings of fear and shame and guilt. No longer content to be creatures and accept their human limitations, they lose their innocent, trusting relationship with God. They are now afraid to face God. Despite God being said to stroll among them in the gentleness of a cool breeze after a long hot day, the man and the woman skulk away from their Creator and hide themselves in the trees (v.8). They are ashamed, ashamed that their wrong-doing has been exposed. This is suggested by the detail that they have become ashamed of their God-given bodies, ashamed in the presence of each other, and ashamed before God, and so they try to cover up (v.7). The man attempts to blame God for the mess they are in, saying it was God who gave him the woman as his partner (v.12). His complaint also illustrates how sin tends to separate people from one another, and how it can even destroy interpersonal relationships. The woman, for her part, protests that the serpent tricked her into eating the forbidden fruit (v.13).

What is at work here is a psychology of self-justification and a refusal to take the blame for doing anything wrong. We seem to be living in an age of blunt consciences. Some drivers run over pedestrians, but instead of stopping to assist the injured, they drive on. Family peace is shattered in homes by repeated offences of abuse, disrespect and violence. The Women’s “Me too” Movement has been disclosing hundreds of instances of sexual assault and even of rape. Fraud, deceit and distrust abound. Our “Big Four” Banks and other finance agencies have been “ripping off” customers and diddling them out of their life-savings, leaving them stranded and homeless. Slavery and slave-trafficking continue here and there. We hear again and again of wage theft, of employers paying their employees far less than the award wage, and in some instances, paying nothing at all. Then there’s the desperate situation of many people in Syria, being driven from their homes and livelihoods by the scourge of constant war. Too many people in too many places feel unnoticed, unwanted and rejected. And too many rich people are getting ever richer at the expense of the poor.

That’s just a small snapshot of the sins of society today. Just as concerning are the reactions of the offenders, who exchange such lines as these: “If it feels good, do it!” “Take no responsibility!” “Shrug your shoulders and walk away!” “Blame the boss! Blame your mum! Blame your childhood!” “Admit nothing!” “It’s their word against yours! Deny it!” “Plead not guilty!” “Laugh it off! Just say ‘The devil made me do it’, or something, anything, other than that you goofed, that you did it!”

What then, is the answer to all such moral dilemmas and challenges? St Paul puts the question this way. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me [from myself], from this body doomed to death?’ His answer to his own question is this: “God [will] – thanks be to him – through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24-25) Paul is saying in other words: “Salvation, or redemption, must come from God because it must come from a greater source of being and of healing power” (Monica Hellwig) than ourselves and our own resources.

This is the healing power that we experience in an ongoing personal, family and community relationship with Jesus Christ our Saviour. His role and activity as our Liberator/Saviour could hardly be better expressed than in these words from the Letter to the Colossians, words to us of comfort and hope whenever we are struggling to obey our consciences and do the right thing: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). (

Posted in Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a Better Future

Two years ago, Peter Gardiner CP took a group of volunteers to Cambodia to build houses for poor families. The trip was done with the organization, “Volunteer Building Cambodia” (VBC). Peter had been keen to take a group to do something like this for some time, and after considering different options, settled on VBC who see their mission as encouraging young people to volunteer for worthwhile work in developing countries. They aim to improve the living conditions of families in need in rural areas by providing them with wells, toilets and safe, dry housing. You can view their website to find out more at

Peter was careful to find an organization that truly helped the poor and not exploited them for tourism’s sake. The organization falls under ‘Projects Abroad,’ which is an NGO that was founded in 1992. Since its inception they have placed nearly 100,000 volunteers and interns on meaningful projects throughout the developing world.

Recently VBC sent Peter an update and impact assessment on the houses that he and his volunteer group built. Peter and the group of volunteers he took with him on that trip built 2 houses. The report for one of the houses they built on that trip reads:

“Since you built this house and helped change the life of this family, there has been a positive impact to their living standard. The observation after the house was built, the family is able to send their child to go to school and she is now in grade 8.

“The family reported during this last 6 months, they are healthier than they used to be.  Previously, they were often so sick and were not able to work hard and improve their living condition and did not have enough resource to support for the family. Receiving this house has changed their life mentally and physically. They are less worried about the house condition. The new one they’ve got is very comfortable and enjoyable enough for them not to worry about the safety of their family. The child is able to go to school every day with a good healthy life. The family has the creative ideas for themselves they put a sitting area and made the new kitchen which makes their life is easier. After the house was built, the family painted the walls and the posts and they rebuilt the new stairs to be easier for taking the motorbike up to the house. The family now requests for a cow. The main reason is the mom has time to look after it and they are also closes to the lake so it is easy to feed the cow.

“In brief, you and your team have helped change the life of this family and they are now living in happiness. The daughter is able to get education with the new life and new hopes. In the future, the family plan to make a concrete room downstairs.”

The impact assessment on the other house they built on that trip reads:

“Over years after the house was built, the family is showing a huge positive impact in their family life. They are able to send their children to go to school to get education.

The family reported during this last 6 months, a daughter in the family now gets the malaria and a son is getting stomach problems..

“Receiving the house has changed their life mentally and physically. They are less worried about the house condition. The new one they’ve got is very comfortable and enjoyable enough for them not to worry about the safety of their family. The children are able to go to school. Even though the children were getting sick, the parents are able to gain more income to support for the family and cure the illness. The father works harder and the mother look after the house and the children.

“The family has made some positive changes to their home. They put a sitting area and made the new kitchen and put in walls at the back of the house, which makes their life easier and more homely. The family requests for a water well and the main reason is to make their children easier to use the water.

“You and your team have been an important part of changing the lives of this family and, they are now much happier and more secure. The children are able to get an education with the new life and new hopes. In the future, the family plan to add the shade to the back of the house.

“On behalf of VBC we really appreciate and can’t thank you enough for your kindness, your time and your passion for volunteering with us to change and improve this family’s living conditions to make their life better.” 

Peter is organising another trip with VBC for the end of the year, though he personally won’t be able to go. He already has a group of volunteers and met with some of them this week to explain details. Through the website, anyone interested can be in touch with VBC to plan such a trip.

Posted in Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microplastics and Public Health

In September of last year I was made aware that plastic pollution of the environment is not restricted to large items such as one use plastic bags or bottles, but that an unseen form of plastic pollution may have a direct effect on our health. What I am referring to are ‘Microplastics.’ The article in THE GUARDIAN (Sat 9 Sep 2017) by Jessica Glenza reported that new studies have found microplastics in table salt from the US, Europe and China, adding to evidence that plastic pollution is pervasive in the environment.

Concerned about the health implications of our ingestion of microplastics, I did an internet search and found that in October 2017, THE LANCET produced an article expressing concern at the high content of microplastics in our drinking water. The long term health effects are as yet unknown due to lack of research, but this is a wake-up call that we have to seriously reduce our release of plastic waste into the environment. The article in THE LANCET, I believe, is an important one to read:

Microplastics come from many sources: synthetic clothing fibres, dust from tyres, road paints, and the breakdown of larger items. Orb Media’s recent investigation has brought the issue of microplastics in the environment into sharp focus. The analysis of tap water samples from around the world found that a high proportion of drinking water is contaminated with microscopic fragments of plastic (83% of samples collected worldwide, but up to 94% in the USA). Microplastic contamination seems more widespread than we perhaps knew, and they are regularly being ingested by people worldwide. Most concerning is how little is known about the effects of microplastic consumption on human health.

It is no small problem. As of 2015, 6300 million tonnes of plastic waste have been generated, around 9% of which was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in landfills or the environment. The issue of large plastic items polluting the world’s oceans is well known, leading to policies that aim to limit the production and use of plastic bags and bottles, and increase recycling. However, a key problem with plastics is that they are essentially indestructible; rather than being biodegraded, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microscopic fragments. We should no longer just be concerned with large plastic items clogging up oceans and waterways, but also more attention needs to be paid to these tiny fragments and their effects on planetary health.

The tapwater study is not the first to indicate that microplastics are being consumed by humans. A 2014 study of German beer brands found that microplastics were present in all of the samples, and a Parisian study showed microplastics not just in water but also in the air. Microplastics are also routinely ingested by fish and shellfish. But the apparent widespread presence of microplastics in tapwater is particularly concerning because it points to substantial contamination of terrestrial and freshwater—as well as marine—ecosystems.

The ubiquity of microplastic contamination can no longer be denied. To mitigate this global problem, several actions need to be taken, and quickly. First, the amount of plastic being released into the environment must be drastically reduced. Some policies have already been formulated with this goal in mind, for example, many countries have made it illegal for retailers to give away plastic bags for free, and deposit schemes for plastic bottles are in place in parts of the USA and Europe. However, progress on this front has been slow and piecemeal.

To speed up progress on reducing plastic waste, manufacturers of plastic could be forced to take responsibility for the damage wrought on the environment; this is beginning to happen through extender producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which require plastic producers to fund and manage recycling and disposal of their products. EPR laws are already being used in the USA for electronic products such as phones, televisions and batteries that contain lead, mercury, and cadmium; many states now require manufacturers of these products to support their recycling and disposal at the end of the product’s lifespan. Consumers should also be encouraged to change their behaviours to reduce the amount of plastic consumed.

Even with concerted global effort, the amount of microplastics in the environment will continue to grow, and the question remains—what impact will this have on human health? The concerning answer is that no-one knows. To date, there have been no studies of the effects of microplastic consumption by humans.

Designing robust studies to look at this issue will be difficult—observational, population-based studies will be open to confounding, while experimental studies will be impractical (ethically, if nothing else). The deleterious effect of current levels of microplastics might be small, by contrast with the known risks of industrial pollutants such as heavy metals or black carbon, so teasing out the effect at the population level will be hard, and will require a sophisticated surveillance system. If an effect exists, people living in areas of high plastic contamination will develop greater disease burdens as levels continue to rise. Disease-reporting systems need to be linked to pollution databases to ensure any effect is identified early, and action taken quickly.

Solving a problem of this magnitude will not be an easy task. Public education, product innovation, and industry leadership along with strong commitment from local, national and international governments, are urgently needed to reduce the use of microplastics and to understand the effects of these particles on both ecosystems and the human body.

(From: “Microplastics and human health – an urgent problem,” Editorial for Volume 1, No.7, e254, October 2017 issue of THE LANCET)


Posted in Integrity of Creation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the World Need Christianity?

Having just finished reading another history of Christianity, I again find myself feeling disappointment and disillusionment. Why do I read such histories? Because I believe history is one of the most important disciplines to study for the context it gives, the grounding in reality of who we are as human beings, and with that the tempering of inflated ideas of ourselves. Young people today have little interest in history due, I believe, to the fact that with their keeping up with the constant and rapid developments in technology, history appears as if it has nothing worthwhile to offer them. This worries me for, as the saying goes, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”

Paul Johnson’s, ‘History of Christianity,’ certainly does not paint a rosy picture, yet comes to a very interesting conclusion and one that I believe is very important for us to consider, living in a world where, at least in the West, Christianity is in decline. His conclusion asks us to consider the alternative, a world without the influence of Christianity. Given the many concerns we have for the future of our planet both from the perspective of the environment and human rights, his message is an important awareness raiser of what we stand to lose when we so hastily judge Christianity as obsolete, or worse, as the cause of all humanity’s problems.

When considering the role that Christianity has had in the development of Western society, it becomes clear from a study of its early history that its relationship to that development was not just luck. Christianity appeared at a time when there was a wide and urgent, if unformulated, need for a monotheistic religion in the Graeco-Roman world. The old beliefs with their many gods no longer provided satisfactory explanations for the cosmopolitan society of the Mediterranean, with its rising living standards and its growing intellectual pretensions; and, being unable to explain, they could not provide comfort and protection from the terrors of life. Christianity offered not only an all-powerful God, but an absolute promise of a joy filled life to come after death, and a clear explanation of how this was to be secured. Furthermore, it was disembodied from its racial and geographical origins, and endowed by its founder with a variety of insights and guidelines calculated to evoke responses from all natures. It was, from the beginning, Universalist in its scope and aim. St. Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of all races. Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life, which won the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses, and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous.

Once Christianity became the national religion of the Roman empire, it inevitably replaced the state religion. But of course it was more than a state cult – it was an institution in itself, with its own structure and cycle of growth. In the West it drained the empire of talent and purpose, and substituted its own Augustinian vision of society, in which Christian ideas penetrated every aspect of life and every political and economic arrangement. Europe was a Christian creation not only in essence but in minute detail. And therein lay Europe’s unique strength, for Christianity proved a matchless combination of spirituality and dynamism. It offered answers to metaphysical questions, it provided opportunities and frames of reference for the contemplative, the mystic and the devout; but at the same time it was a relentless gospel of work and an appeal to achievement.

But most importantly, Christianity contained its own self-correcting mechanism. The insights provided by Christ’s teaching are capable of almost infinite elaborations and explorations. The Christian matrices form a code to be translated afresh in each new situation, so that Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth – a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding. The nature of Christianity gave Europe a flexible framework of intellectual and moral concepts, and enabled it to accommodate itself to economic and technological change, and seize each new opportunity as it arose. So Europe expanded into western-dominated society of the twentieth century.

Paul Johnson’s account of Christianity is full of failures and shortcomings, and its institutional distortions, but he admits that this is so if measured by its own stupendous claims, and its own unprecedented idealism. As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of humanity as fallible with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience, and bid him follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St. Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. Conscience, after all, is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created – the self-correcting mechanism at work. The notion of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.

Of course human freedoms are imperfect and full of egocentric delussions. Here again, Christianity is an exercise in the impossible; but it is nevertheless valuable in stretching human potentialities. It lays down tremendous objectives but it insists that success is not the final measure of achievement. Indeed, the primary purpose of Christianity is not to create dynamic societies – though it has often done so – but to enable individuals to achieve liberation and maturity in a specific and moral sense. It does not accept conventional yardsticks and terrestrial judgments. As St. Paul says: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. God has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings to overthrow the existing order.” (1 Cor 1:25,27)

We must bear this in mind when we consider the future of Christianity, in the light of its past. During the past half-century there has been a rapid and uninterrupted secularization of the West, which has all but demolished the Augustinian idea of Christianity as a powerful, physical and institutional presence in the world. But of course Christianity does not depend on a single matrix: hence its durability. The Augustinian idea of public, all embracing Christianity, once so compelling, has served its purpose – perhaps, one day, to re-emerge in different forms. Instead, the temporal focus shifts to the Erasmian concept of the private Christian intelligence, and to the Pelagian stress on the power of the Christian individual to effect virtuous change. New societies are arising for Christianity to penetrate, and the decline of western predominance offers it an opportunity to escape from beneath its Europeanized shell and assume fresh identities.

Certainly, humankind without Christianity conjures up a dismal prospect. The record of humanity with Christianity is daunting enough, as history shows. The dynamism it has unleashed throughout its history has brought about massacre and torture, intolerance and destructive pride in the name of God on a huge scale. There is a cruel and pitiless nature within us which is sometimes impervious to Christian restraints and encouragements. But without these restraints, bereft of these encouragements, how much more horrific the history of these last 2,000 years would have been! Christianity has not made humanity secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast. It offers glimpses of real freedom, intimations of a calm and reasonable existence. Even as we see it, distorted by the ravages of humanity, it is not without beauty.

In the last generation, with public Christianity in headlong retreat, we have caught our fist glimpse of a de-Christianized world, and it is not encouraging. We know that Christian insistence on humanity’s potentiality for good is often disappointed; but we are also learning that our capacity for evil is almost limitless – is limited, indeed, only by our own expanding reach. The human person is imperfect with God. Without God, what are we? As Francis Bacon put it: “They that deny God destroy man’s nobility: for certainly man is a kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” We are less base and ignoble, in other words, by virtue of divine example and by the desire for the ideal that Christianity offers. In the dual personality of Christ we are offered a perfected image of ourselves, of what we could be. Christ is for us the eternal pace-setter for our striving. Christianity’s history over the last 2 thousand years has reflected humanity’s effort to rise above our frailties. To that extent, the chronicle of Christianity is an edifying one.

Posted in Justice, Peace | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment