Scalecraft and the Catholic Church

In a recent article, ‘The craft of scalar practices,’ our own Alistair Fraser introduces the idea of scalecraft to refer to the ‘skills, aptitudes, and experiences at issue in working with scale.’ In his paper, Alistair identifies the importance of scalecraft within colonial administration and in the economic practices of transnational corporations. He also offers an detailed example from the recent history of South Africa where white Afrikaner farmers continually reorganize space and redefine agrarian issues in defense of secure title to their land. I think this notion of ‘scalecraft’ is a very helpful one and throws light upon some important geographical dimensions of state, corporate and individual behaviour.

It is worth extending Alistair’s arguments to think about the scalar practices of the Catholic Church. There are at least three ways the Catholic Church engages in scalecraft: governance, imagination, and management. In terms of governance, we can think about how the Church creates, where it can, a hierarchical system of parish, diocese and archdiocese. In his book on Human Territoriality (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Robert Sack discusses the Catholic Church as a classic instance of an institution that uses control over space to supervise and direct the conduct of people. In some ways, we can think of the Reformation in Europe and the Penal Laws in Britain and Ireland as attempts to interrupt this hierarchy and thus to break the chain of command.  Catholic archdioceses were no longer to be sutured to state systems, were indeed banned, and kings and queens no longer had their divine right to rule consecrated by bishops or cardinals answerable to the Pope in Rome. Of course, the hierarchical order established as parish and diocese was never as complete or as tidy as it could be imagined. There are, for example, some religious orders of monks and nuns who did and do operate alongside this hierarchical system, answerable not to local parish-priest or regional bishop but instead to their home institution with its own spiritual leader and then directly to the Pope. One important dimension of this extra-episcopal system has been that it literally and metaphorically created spaces for female authority and female-centred reflection within an institution directed by, and often largely for, men – see, for example, Margaret Mac Curtain’s discussion of the struggle waged by religious women in Ireland to wrest from the male hierarchy the right to develop professional medical training for Irish nuns; ‘Late in the field: Catholic sisters in Twentieth-Century Ireland and the new religious history,’ Journal of Women’s History 6:4/7:1  (1995) 49-63. There are also charismatic and evangelizing movements within the Catholic Church comprising laity seeking spiritual guidance through missionary activity that likewise does not always submit to direct Episcopal control. Indeed, missionary activity within the Catholic Church has often had a sort of frontier spatial form, beyond existing diocesan systems and sometimes resisting their introduction even when the density of Catholic believers would seem to allow them. Many of the important schisms in the Catholic Church have taken the form of challenges to papal authority and the establishment instead of new orthodoxies detached from the contemporary papal direction of the Church.

Scalecraft is also very important to what, following Derek Gregory, we may perhaps term the geographical imagination of the Catholic Church. As Dáire Keogh describes in a fascinating article on ‘The Christian Brothers and the Second Reformation in Ireland,’ (Éire-Ireland 40:1-2 (2005) 42-59), in 1797, facing down the repressive Penal Laws, Thomas Hussey (founding president of Maynooth) wrote to the fellowship of his diocese of Waterford and Lismore, a pastoral letter in which he castigated the established Church of Ireland as a “small sect” and asserted that Catholics were part of a greater church which would “flourish until time shall be no more” and he enjoined his flock to be not “ashamed to belong to a religion [in] which so many kings and princes, so many of the most polished and learned nations of the world glory in profession.” Here we see Hussey connecting the local to the global in ways that interpellate Catholics as members of a global and magnificent community. With time the global vision of Irish Catholicism became, increasingly, a missionary one. With the Catholic Church so well established within the independent state of Ireland, Irish Catholics were invited to see themselves as the lucky and privileged few facing a wider world of unbelief. This missionary global imagination had at least two dimenions. First, with Ireland as beacon, it figured a civilisational geography in which advanced peoples brought Christian and scientific enlightenment to the backward, ignorant and heathen folk of the tropics. Second, with Ireland as island, it offered an anti-modernist vision in which fealty to the traditions of the apostles and saints offered protection against the atheistic corrosion of secularism and communism. This geographical imagination, then, shaped a selective engagement with the world outside Ireland, poor countries were to be evangleised, the rich to be resisted. This global mental map had also its special and devotional places, sacred spaces in Mircea Eliade’s term–as described in the first chapter of his 1957 book, The Sacred and the Profane. As James Donnelly shows in a fascinating article on ‘Opposing the modern world: the cult of the Virgin Mary in Ireland, 1965-85,’ (Éire-Ireland 40:1-2 (2005) 183-245), a devotional place such as Fatima could both inflect and amplify this missionary geographical imagination. The international organization that is the World Apostolate of Our Lady of Fatima (also known as the Blue Army and very popular in Ireland) cultivated an eschatological vision given, it believes, by the Virgin Mary to the girls at Fatima and by light of which it insisted upon the urgency of undoing the communist revolution in Russia and turning back the immoral forces of secularism so that an impending global cataclysm might be averted. And, as always with such global visions, they were also turned within and Irish devotees of the cult were promised that by making the devotion of the Five First Saturdays they would, as the Irish Catholic promised in 1971, not only be, “saving many souls from hell, and bringing peace to the world” but would also be addressing domestic issues, “the unrest in our country, artificial contraception, pornography, drugs, and so on” (quoted in Donnelly, 204).

Finally, we may identify the importance of scalecraft for the management of the Catholic Church. If governance is about authority, its establishment and maintenance, then management is less about such strategies and more about the tactics of responding to opportunities and crises. The Catholic Church faces currently a serious crisis relating to the torture and abuse of children. Scalecraft has been integral to its response. The allegations have been made in many countries and have been leveled against priests, brothers and nuns. The particular intersections of country, diocese and community have allowed distinctive and varied responses. It is clear that child abuse occurs in homes, in schools, in reformatories and in many public and private places and it is also clear that the religious are in the company of relatives and strangers in thus preying upon and abusing children. Such abuse offends against universal human rights acknowledged as such in all states and enshrined in specific local laws in most. The question of violence and sexual assaults upon children by the religious has thus always had a broader context of commission and restraint. Nevertheless, the crimes of the religious have a particular context and response. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a report on the nature and scope of child abuse by clergy and other religious and this report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York was published earlier this year. Of 9,821 allegations for which records were available, there was evidence of investigation into 72%, and of those investigated 80% were held to be substantiated with 18% unsubstantiated and only 1.5% pronounced false. The Church was satisfied that 1,872 priests (the report seems to use this term interchangeably for priests serving parishes and for the men of religious orders subject to Episcopal control) were the subject of substantiated allegations of child abuse and these men were variously reprimanded (9.2%), referred for evaluation (49%), given administrative leave (37.3%), sent to spiritual retreat (6%), sent for treatment (53.3%), given medical leave (8.7%), suspended (45.5%), returned to their order with the Superior notified (4.7%), or no further action taken (2.6%). One can focus upon the many allegations not investigated or one can note the number of priests who resigned or retired (545) or one can be struck by the fact that about only one quarter (27%) of the priests subject to allegations ultimately had their religious ministry in any way restricted as a result. One might even be struck by the extent to which abusers were simply moved to another place where the reputation of abuse could perhaps be shaken off, unless and until it all began again, as Oliver O’Grady testifies in recounting his own career of abusing children as a parish priest in many places in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s. No, the striking feature of this clerical response to child abuse is that crimes were committed and responsible authorities did not report them to the police, and this is where scalecraft comes in.

In 1996 after years of credible allegations both in Ireland and against Irish-trained priests currently ministering in the United States, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious produced Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response. The Framework document acknowledged that the response of the Church “must accord with the legal framework in society for the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences and for ensuring the protection and welfare of children” (p.14) and thus whenever “it is known or suspected that a priest or religious has sexually abused a children, the matter should be reported to the civil authorities” (p.18) while under its own Code of Canon Law the Church continued to reserve its own “inherent right to constrain with penal sanctions its members, including priests and religious, who commit offences” (p. 15). This presented Canon Law as supplementary to and not as superseding state law and it thus placed upon the Church the legal requirement to report all cases to the police. At the Vatican the Congregation for the Clergy which among other things oversees the institutions and practices of pastoral ministry within the Catholic Church, responded anxiously that the requirement of “mandatory reporting” “appear[ed] contrary to canonical discipline,” that the Framework Document was “not an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document,” and that rather than adopt it  uncritically in cases of allegations against priests “the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed.”

Responding to clear evidence that within the Archdiocese of Dublin allegations against priests were not being investigated adequately either by Church or State, the Irish government created in 2004 a Commission of Investigation under Judge Yvonne Murphy and the subsequent Murphy Report reported from a study of allegations against 46 priests (of 102 under the authority of the Dublin Diocese and against whom allegations had been made in the period 1975-2004) that by appeal to Canon Law or simply in the face of denial by the accused priests, successive archbishops had not adopted the state-imposed obligation of mandatory reporting. It was also clear that on many occasions the priests were not even held accountable within Canon Law itself suffering it would seem no more than a warning and receiving the benefit of clerical cover-up. The Commission described as “risible” (p.205) Archbishop McQuaid’s reponse to one early case that the photographs of the genitalia of ten-year old girls taken by one priest and sent over to England for processing reflected no more than the priest’s “wonderment” at the appearance of female genitals. Scalecraft here operated both to allow the Archbishop to use Canon Law and his responsibilities to the Pope as a screen shielding the priest for police investigation, an appeal to confidentiality between priests meant that incriminating testimony was not forwarded to the police, and somewhat ironically, worry about having an unflattering light shone from Rome upon the Irish Church may also have inhibited McQuaid leading him to abort systematic interrogation of claims even under the provisions of Canon Law. Since the publication of the report on Dublin a further report on the Diocese of Cloyne reached similar conclusions. The Cloyne report identified the 1997 advice from the Congregation for the Clergy as particularly troubling in setting Canon Law against the state-mandated obligation to report suspected cases of child abuse to the police and health authorities. The Report threw particular light upon the contrasting logics of Canon Law and state law. Claiming a pastoral role of care for both the abuser and the abused, the Church was not an adequate response to serious allegations because did not meet the abused individual’s need for validation of their complaint, it “does not provide for a genuine investigation of the complaint. It cannot provide for the protection of other children” (p.73).

Enda Kenny speaking about the Cloyne Report in the Dáil

Enda Kenny responded  in an angry speech that the Report ‘exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic’ and in doing so highlighted the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, … the narcissism … that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day,” downplaying the “rape and torture of children […] to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation.’” The Taoiseach insisted that Roman Clericalism had hardened the hearts of many in the hierarch of the Church and he asserted of Ireland that “this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the ‘Republic’ of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws … of rights and responsibilities … of proper civic order … where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version … of a particular kind of ‘morality’ … will no longer be tolerated.” It was a Republic, moreover, learning to put its children first, a Republic “Where the law–their law­­–as citizens of this country, will always supersede canon laws that have neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country.” Kenny referred to statements made by the current Pope while yet still a Cardinal that “Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church,” before moving to his concluding warning that “As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, as Taoiseach, I am making it absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic.”

The issue of scalecraft is explicit. In responding to the allegations of child abuse, some within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church reduce the matter to the small-scale confidentiality of the confessional and retain evidence at the local scale, while others appeal to the higher order authority of the Pope and manage the damage to Church, priest and victim through the charity of pastoral care without recourse to the secular investigation of public justice. Some of the Irish bishops of Cloyne and Dublin have been involved in both. However, the most widespread abuse has probably not been in institutions directly under the control of the Irish bishops but rather in state institutions farmed out to religious orders for management and direction, perhaps most extensively those run by the Christian Brothers. As Dáire Keogh describes, in his Edmund Rice and the first Christian Brothers (Four Courts Press, 2008), the Christian Brothers began under Episcopal direction as educators providing Catholic education as from the early nineteenth century, Ireland was progressively loosed from the constraints of the Penal Laws. In 1820 the Holy See gave the order formal recognition but brought them also under papal management. This scalar practice was not uncontested and some of the Irish members refused the charter from Rome continuing to place themselves directly under their local bishop as Presentation Christian Brothers. However, the majority of Christian Brothers were now directed from Rome. This has had significant implications for their response to the child abuse crisis.

In 2000 the Irish Government had set up a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. In order to encourage the cooperation of the religious orders, the government (2002) indemnified them against the costs of any damages that might be levied as a result of the findings of the inquiry in return for a transfer of property and other assets equivalent to about €128 million, subsequently raised by the offer of assets that the orders estimated as worth a further €348 million. By 2010, the Irish government’s own prediction was that the overall cost of claims and of the work of the commission itself would be €1.36 billion. After a lengthy law suit the Christian Brothers secured the right to anonymity for the Brothers accused in testimony. The Department of Education withheld files from the Commission and in 2003 this contributed to the resignation of the original chair Justice Mary Laffoy. Ultimately, as it noted in its substantial final report, known as the Ryan Report, after Judge Seán Ryan who replaced Laffoy, the Commission received over 700 complaints against the Christian Brothers, held 149 hearings about their conduct and conducted 220 interviews of  its own [sec 6.14]. The order had undertaken its own survey of Brothers and ex-Brothers in order to prepare itself against possible legal challenge and for long it refused to allow the Commission to review these materials suggesting that they were part of the legal preparation of defense in law and thus the privileged possession of the order as a likely defendant. In the 1960s, the operational headquarters of the Christian Brothers was moved from Dublin to Rome and a large part of the archives of the order went with it [sec 6.16]. These ‘Rome files’ contained evidence of the investigation of abuse by the Church authorities over several decades and involving at least 40 Brothers.

This separation between Rome and Ireland may allow further scalecraft, what Jason Berry and Gerald Renner have discussed as Geographic Reach in their book, Vows of Silence: The abuse of power in the papacy of John Paul II (Simon and Schuster, 2010). In 1990, speaking to a meeting of a Canon Law Society in Columbus Ohio, Bishop A. James Quinn is on tape as noting that many bishops kept certain private files not locally but in Rome and thus with foresight bishops might anticipate that certain files they held might be subpoenaed in the case of child abuse allegations, in which case they could not thereafter be “tampered with, destroyed, removed: that constitutes obstruction of justice and contempt of court. Prior, however, thought and study ought to be given if you think it’s going to be necessary. If there’s something that you really don’t want people to see, you might send it off to the Apostolic Delegate, because they have immunity to protect something that is potentially dangerous” (Berry and Renner, p.69). Thus on one hand the scalecraft of management can use the diplomatic form of statehood to shield material in the Vatican from national courts elsewhere but on the other, the Christian Brothers can devolve back into national organizations to protect the assets of their communities worldwide from damages levied in national courts and thus the North American chapter of the Christian Brothers has filed in New York City for bankruptcy to limit its liability arising from court cases in Seattle.

The responses to the Taoiseach’s speech have made scalecraft all the more evident. Within hours, the Vatican had responded as might an aggrieved state by recalling for talks in Rome, the Papal Nuncio, Giuseppe Leanza. The Vatican press officer complained of “excessive reactions” to the Cloyne Report. In the last few minutes, I have heard (18.55, Thursday 28 July) that Archbishop Guiseppe Leanz has been transferred to the Czech Republic. International diplomacy will roll the dice again as the management of the child abuse crisis continues to threaten the authority and reputation of the Catholic Church.

Gerry Kearns



  1. That’s a very interesting take – and example of the use of an interesting concept i.e. scalar practice / scalecraft.

    Thanks for the introduction to this concept. I must also check out Alistair Fraser’s article.


  2. You make good points here but I have yet to read Alistair’s paper. I think scalecraft may be perhaps an unnecessary addition to the complexity of language around scale. Beyond that, I’ll try and do it justice once the paper is read.

    In regard to one of your points you may be inaccurate: “In responding to the allegations of child abuse, some within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church reduce the matter to the small-scale confidentiality of the confessional and retain evidence at the local scale, while others appeal to the higher order authority of the Pope”

    I take the larger point that scale in discussions of abuse is identifiable in various settings, institutions and ‘assemblages’. But the matter of the confessional seal seems to have arisen among the mass media and not among ‘some within the hierarchy’. As this link here ( shows, Minister Shatter mentioned it on July 14 last. In my own view, the seal is a readily identifiable clerical symbol which has resonances in other areas like social work and psychotherapy. As a symbol of increasing state power, it provides a useful trope for other issues.

    Devolving some issues locally and scaling others ‘up’ to Rome stands as a good example of scalecraft all the same. Making the local church amenable to the laws of this apparent Republic is the central struggle between two institutional forms of power. You use the term ‘credible allegations’ and I think that also brings about another discussion about what addresses to power take place for allegations to become credible.


  3. From Gerry:
    Thank you for your comments Eoin

    The seal of the confession has played some part in the confidentiality issues relating to child abuse. When some priests have been told of allegations against other priests they may have chosen to share these allegations neither with the police nor with their bishop on the grounds that the allegation had the character of a confession. There are several examples of this in the various reports on child abuse. I will give three.

    1. The Cloyne Report – – records (pp. 224ff) that “Ulla” went to a priest of the Cloyne diocese in 1990 to complain in general terms about her abuse by Fr “Drust” between 1967 and 1971. This priest subsequently told the Gardai that he had not considered this to be the reporting of a complaint but rather to be a matter ‘of a confidential nature, an unburdening of her soul to the priest.’ When the priest met the “Ulla” again in 2002 he told her that he had made no report of her conversation because he had ‘felt it was under the seal of confession.’ “Ulla” told the Cloyne Commission that ‘she was very annoyed by this. She told him that she was intending to complain to the diocese and he insisted that the 1990 complaint was under the seal of the confessional.’ This priest also told the Commission that he ‘would now approach such a conversation in a completely different manner.’

    2. In a television programme, Sex, Crimes and the Vatican (BBC, Panorama, 2006), Aidan Doyle told of being abused at school by a priest: ‘When [Doyle] told another priest about it, the priest applied the seal of confession to the conversation “so that you will never talk about this and it will be kept secret.” The victim remembers: “I was simply told: you don’t talk about this again. It’s over. You’ll get over it. It will fade away in time.”’ (Diarmid Ferriter, Occasions of sin: sex and society in modern Ireland, London, Profile Books, 2009, pp. 402-3).

    3. In the Ferns Report – , there were allegations reported that a “Fr Alpha” had abused young boys including “Gavin” who later entered St Peter’s Seminary where he spoke of this abuse to the Spiritual Director: ‘[t]he Spiritual Director of St. Peter’s at that time attended the Inquiry and explained that in his capacity of Spiritual Director, students or seminarians came to him from time to time to speak to him. The meeting might involve the Spiritual Director hearing the Confession of the seminarian but it was his belief and contention that all matters discussed by seminarians with him in his capacity as Spiritual Director came under the seal of Confession and that they were absolutely confidential and private. The Spiritual Director could and did give certain evidence in relation to other matters but would not and did not discuss in any way the information, if any, given to him by Gavin. The Inquiry accepted that discussions between seminarians and their Spiritual Director were covered by sacerdotal privilege […].’ (The Ferns Report, 2005, p. 80).

    There is a further set of questions about the secrecy of the canonical process in general and of those aspects relating to child abuse in particular. This is much wider than the sacrament of confession. The prestige of the confidentiality of the confessional can serve to shield both. In terms of scalecraft, the confidentiality claims use interpersonal relations to address wider concerns – as when confidentiality screens an institution from unfavourable publicity. However, your comment has prompted me to a much longer set of reflections on confidentiality and how it might bear upon the issues raised by Shatter. But I will save them for a longer piece.


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