2 March 2024

Society still struggles to address abuse. Understanding power imbalance is key

Imbalance of power can perpetuate abuse in systemic institutions. Picture: iStock

By Willy Maddock 

16 March 2022

One of the core issues clergy have had to come to understand in dealing with abuse is the impact of power imbalance in relationships. Clergy and the whole church institution have always been more powerful than the victims of abuse. At the very same time, clergy may well have felt powerless. Both facts have to be recognised. The offices of priest, deacon, or bishop are inherently positions of power. One holds a licence and has been publicly recognised by ordination and consecration, and then again through inductions and installations and even enthronements to various ministries. (Even the term enthronement speaks volumes on its own!) 

Yet, individual clergy may feel very vulnerable in some ministry situations. For example, many are dependent on their parishioners for their living and their housing. A cleric who has been a cleric for a long time might face homelessness if they were to lose their job, as they would be without their own home or a rental record. This is not an imaginary risk. They may also be on the receiving end of bullying from a parishioner, with little recourse if the bully is not an office holder. But still, their office is a position of power. 

Read more: Struggle continues despite 30 year milestone for women’s ordination 

The training we are now receiving is helpful in understanding these things. So it is quite astonishing to see a Prime Minister who has not the first idea about the place of imbalance of power in abuse. At various times in their political careers I am sure every politician has felt vulnerable, without any certainty about the level of support they have even from their own party. Nevertheless, the office of Prime Minister does carry with it a great deal of power and the distinct possibility of influencing decision making.  

The current Prime Minister, when visiting the fire zones in the disastrous fires of 2019-2020, was filmed ignoring the refusal of some survivors to shake hands with him, instead picking up their hands against their will and making them shake hands. This was not just poor judgment, but an act mimicking an abuse dynamic, as the Prime Minister’s power at that point far outweighed the powerlessness of the victims. Some of them may have lost everything except the clothes they were in. The one choice left open to them was to control what happened to their own bodies. The one thing above all else that needed to be respected was their personal choice about what might happen to them and their personal boundaries. 

It was not like the Prime Minister did not have things he could do to assist them that were within his considerable power to influence. He could help organise relief of various kinds. He could encourage and expedite the declaration of a disaster with all the assistance that flows from that by law. He did not need to force himself on anyone in any kind of physical way. That is without even considering whether this was done for a photo opportunity and thus political gain which, if true, would make the abuse worse.  

Later the Prime Minister also spoke of laying hands on people without their consent. Evidently, he was doing this when he put his arms around the shoulders of some people in need as a form of prayer. Again, to do this without permission is to step over someone’s personal boundaries without their consent, however well-intentioned the idea might have been. There is nothing to stop us as Christians offering prayer to someone in need. On many occasions, when asked, people will graciously accept this offer in the spirit in which it is intended. However, when we ask first, the person is at liberty to decline our offer, and some do. They need to be able to do this without any sense of embarrassment or pressure. They need to be in control of what is done to them and for them. We need to be gracious in accepting their decision. 

Someone who has experienced disaster may be struggling greatly to sort out how they might feel about the Divine or what if any relationship they wish to have with the Divine. Good basic pastoral care requires us to listen first before we move to any “solutions”. What the person may need from us most is to vent their anger at the world, at politics and at the Divine without judgment. To listen carefully, to offer respect and genuine understanding and to take great care not to step over any boundaries may be the greatest gift we can offer at that time. Such behaviour may leave open the door to further conversation.  

There was quite a backlash towards Grace Tame when she refused to shake the Prime Minister’s hand. When the Royal Commissioner into the Banking sector The Honourable Kenneth Hayne refused to be caught up in a friendly photo shoot with the Treasurer, he was described as “being his own man”. There were no jolly handshakes or warm smiles, but this was seen as someone showing integrity and courage. One has to ask why the double standards for Grace Tame?  

Read more: Enter Grace Tame, an answer to prayer: Reverend Alison Andrew

As with the victims of the fires, it is clear that she and the Prime Minister are not “friends”. They have not agreed about the way in which survivors of abuse have been dealt with. It is also well known that she has survived terrible abuse. Once again when dealing with a survivor of abuse, however courageous, wisdom would say that it has to be her choice with whom she shakes hands. Indeed, her stance showed integrity and courage as her actions undoubtedly matched her feelings and thoughts.  

Expecting people to be “nice” to those in power has much more to do with keeping up appearances and what I call the “Hyacinth Bucket form of theology and engagement”.  This enables people to believe that a situation is not as bad as some are trying to say, even when clearly this is not reality, and the appeasing behaviour can reek of double standards. With regard to abuse, whether that is in the Parliament or any other institution or private setting, we still have a long way to go as a society to address the situation and its causes. Understanding imbalance of power in relationships and acting to redress its consequences is a very important part of that process.  

Willy Maddock, Retired Cleric, Spiritual Director, and survivor of abuse 

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