Scapegoating – The Church’s fall from grace

As a Catholic, the horror of sexual abuse is not that the Church is being scapegoated by the media, it’s the horror that ordinary Catholics feel conned.

The comments were made from Wales by Professor Thomas O’Loughlin in a “Scapegoating: The Church’s fall from grace”, a Flashes of Insight conversation with Dr Joe Grayland, Dr James Alison in Spain and Sande Ramage in Palmerston North.

This Flashes of Insight conversation considers the impact on the church’s fall from paradise, whether the church is being scapegoated, how the Church is dealing with this crisis and asks about real reform and restorative justice. It is a four-part conversation.

Host Joe Grayland asks if the sex abuse crisis will reconcile the Church with itself and with society or will it be a lost opportunity?

James Alison is an English Roman Catholic priest and theologian noted for his application of René Girard’s anthropological theory to Christian systematic theology.

Alison says we all know what scapegoating is – it’s when everybody gets together and blames someone for something that is not in fact their fault.

When we say that someone is a scapegoat, we’re effectively saying they are falsely accused.

However, Alison says the understanding of the scapegoat mechanism goes back to something much more ancient. It is the initial way groups create unity and a coming together instead of destroying themselves in a frenzied all against all.

Alison says the group mysteriously finds it came together against one of their own number whom they had thrown out, and then recognised they were right to do so.

He describes it as a basic human act and an effective way of creating unity.

“It works to a certain extent in as far as we all gang up together against someone and throw them out, we become united. We suddenly have peace for a fairly short time.”

The people involved think they’ve done the right thing because ‘they’ve got’ the person responsible.

Alison says the difficulty in this process is what he calls the “single-victim mechanism” –  everybody calling them guilty for their own interests.

He says we live in a world where the innocence of the victim has become commonplace; the notion that the crucified one turned out to be God is commonplace.

“People are quite unaware of how different our world is in relation to victimhood than the ancient world was, to such an extent that now one of the ways in a violent tussle you try to achieve power is by claiming victimhood. The last thing you would do in the ancient world would be to claim victimhood because everybody knew in the ancient world the victor won.”

Alison says modern society uses the scapegoat mechanism to play games to try to get positions of power – to be, as it were, consecrated within the society.

“Is it possible that we’ve got to a point where Christianity has led us to the situation where victimisation or victims are the victors, and that if you’re not a victim, you’re obviously a loser,” asks Grayland.

Alsion says that Nietzsche thought something like that.

Nietzsche thought that the triumph of victims was a sign of everything that was wrong and that we should go back to having Ubermensch, who would be able to stand firm and not put up with all this victim nonsense.

Alison clarified that Nietzsche’s view is not one he agrees with.

He says the challenge for the Church is not to be reactive to real change as it goes through the revolution we are experiencing at the moment.

Alison says he’s noticed that some church officials tend to double down on the silliest and worst of their possible positions and make themselves more sacred in response to things coming out.

“Actually, as they do that we all learn what isn’t really sacred.”

Alison said it is important for the Church to recognise it is not talking about a script, it is not talking about a text, but is talking about how to interpret ‘a book’.

“I sometimes wonder whether this is what Paul was talking about – the catechism, that which holds back the coming of the kingdom.

“Whether he (Paul) had in mind the sense that the church is actually part of how humanity gets over the lynching thing by religious figures playing into the role.”

Alison says ‘fake religion’ is actually how the most positive form of secularism emerges, not the negative.

“The negative forms of secularism of course, are very easy to imagine, but the positive form – in other words, the creation of goodness, the ability to see through mechanisms of deceit, hypocrisy, etc. come about as we learn the failed attempt of the church to play the sacred role.”

In a strongly worded response to the question, O’Loughlin compares the abuse crisis to being conned by a used-car salesman.

“I don’t want to make this sound trivial, but…

“Have you ever been taken in by a used car merchant?

“I was taken in over 20 years ago by one. And you know, even now, I still kick myself.

“Why did I not see through it?

“… And if I … if I ever saw that guy again, I would just want to deliver…

“So I feel embittered that I have been conned.”

O’Loughlin says the Church has for so long held itself up quite explicitly as a beacon to the nations saying the Church sets the moral standards.

“We set the moral agenda, and I feel the part of the attack on the church today is the horror of feeling yourself conned.

“I don’t think you can tell people you’re bearing witness to the truth. And then tell downright lies,” he said.

Ramage suggests that in terms of her experience of the restorative justice process, people have mixed perspectives to a point where the participants sometimes don’t know which role they are playing.

She calls it the tension of the opposites and draws inspiration from the Christian image of Christ on the Cross.

“The image of Jesus on the cross – probably most of us can get the idea of when we’re crucified and cannot find our way and we are just feeling like a victim persecuted.

“But if we step back and see the whole picture, including the two thieves on either side, I think that’s the most powerful one because this is the victim in the tension of opposites that is not integrated.

“So the thief on one side that sees an ‘I can have a new way,’ the thief on the other side who says, ‘nah, I don’t want a bar of it’.”

Ramage says she thinks the crucifixion is the most powerful image and, as Christians, it is something we somehow have to sit within this crisis.

“The tension is we are both offender and victim,” she says.

The Flashes of Insight conversation centred around the responses to the abuse of power by Catholic clergy and religious.

The background to the conversation is René Girard’s view of scapegoating.

Where to get help

If you are in New Zealand and it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Otherwise call your local Police.

Further New Zealand support

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email

What’s Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

NZ Police Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 – push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334