Privacy, Secrecy, Transparency and Church 

The scandal involving Cardinal Pell reminds me of an important issue for all churches and houses of worship, and that is the difference between privacy, secrecy and transparency. This post attempts to parse these issues and their implications for abusive clergy and laity.

Let’s look first at privacy. Privacy is a person’s legitimate expectation that specifics of his or her life will be kept confidential. Things that are private in a church setting include:

  • Marital issues.
  • Sexual activity.
  • Substance abuse issues.
  • Personal problems.
  • Income.
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity.

In this context, note that someone may wish to discuss these issues with others. That’s fine, but when that occurs the person with the right to privacy should control how far the information goes. Thus, if someone tells me about any of these issues, the conversation goes no further.

Secrecy is different. Secrecy is keeping information from others with a right to know, and usually hurts the person without power. Things that are wrongfully kept secret may include:

  • Allegations that church financial reports don’t add up.
  • Abuse of a child, the elderly, or someone with disabilities.
  • Sexual activity with a parishioner or someone who has received pastoral care.

Thus, matters that may be rightly private must be called into the light of day when misconduct occurs, or they become secrets. For example, my clergyperson’s sexual conduct is none of anyone’s business if it occurs within appropriate boundaries, including marriage or a committed reslationship. It becomes an inappropriate secret, however, when someone claims privacy to avoid addressing misconduct.

That’s important. For example, during my time as a diocesan sexual misconduct prevention trainer, one of the things I taught was that the most telling way to know if conduct is appropriate is if it must be secret. Thus, if a child tells you that he or she has been cautioned to keep aspects of their relationship with an adult secret, that is a major warning sign and action needs to be taken immediately.

Privacy also can be misused in other ways. For example, if a clergyperson urges a church employee not to come out as LGBT on the grounds that this is “personal,” this is wrong. Urging people to keep secrets in order to make others comfortable is wrong, pure and simple.

Transparency is different. In transparency, information that is appropriately disclosed is shared on a proactive basis, as doing so engenders trust and accountability. For example, members of a church board or vestry must see specific salary data, possibly with the understanding that it should not be shared further. Other issues appropriately the subject of transparency:

  • Annual budgets
  • Operational challenges
  • Details of material financial changes. For example, one church of which I am very fond has a looming budget crisis. While the matter has been discussed at the annual parish meeting, there’s been very limited information in other fora. Needless to say, knowing how to help is very difficult.

Another wrinkle to transparency is the willingness of clergy and other lay leaders to discuss concerns. Clergy who get defensive when legitimate concerns are raised, or who lie to avoid addressing such matters, do lasting harm to a church and its culture. By making it wrong or difficult to raise such issues, they erode trust and promote backroom dealings.

So how should you respond if you suspect misconduct?

  • Don’t roll over easily. Many abusive clergy and abusive systems are good at trotting out fine words and seemingly sincere apologies. So don’t let your desire to seek peace too quickly run roughshod over your sense of justice.
  • Don’t try to discredit the person complaining. In my experience with an abusive clergyperson, several individuals aggressively lied about me in an effort to discredit me. That only made the situation worse for all sides, and made resolution all the more challenging.
  • Don’t make it difficult for others to come forward. Abuse in churches often emerges initially as one or two troubling complaints that are just the tip of the iceburg. That is particularly the case with spiritual, relational, and emotional abuse.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. In my case, one member of the clergy was quick to blame me for negative online comments about the conflict, not realizing that many more people than just me had been hurt by her clergy colleague’s action and were responsible for those comments.
  • Don’t conflate truthtelling with gossip. They are not the same, and it is not wrong to speak truth to power.
  • Consider getting outside help.
  • Recognize the difference between a cease-fire and reconciliation. The latter involves a change of conduct, an apology, and restitution. If those don’t happen, you may still wish to move past open hostility, but it’s important that you not conflate the two. And recognize that, if you or someone you know has been abused, you’re under no obligation to provide secrecy. Discretion may be appropriate, but secrecy almost never is.
  • Pray for all involved.

In the case of Cardinal Pell, the fact that abuse survivors are being shown the door at the Vatican, combined with a lack of transparency, years of secrecy, and a palpable resistance to addressing abuse all tell me that there is no real repentance or change of heart.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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