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Clerical Abuse: The Institutional Responsibility

A comment in response to my post on Pope Benedict’s meeting with the Irish Bishops (“Clerical Abuse:Vatican Blame Game, Revisited”) queried my claims that part of the blame lies deeply embedded in the rules, institutions and culture of the Church itself.  The same comment also raised a perception of disproportionate treatment on this site of matters of Vatican theology, and Vatican adminstration.  That issue I will return to later.  However, the question of the church’s institutional responsibility for the abuse problems world wide, including abuse of adults as well as children, is one I have investigated and explored at length at my home site, Queering the Church. I have previously promised to summarise those arguments here, but have not yet done so.  Accordingly, I felt obliged to respond to David’s comments at some length.

Reflecting further overnight, it seems to me that my response is sufficiently complete to represent the summary I promised earlier.  As not all readers go into the comments, particularly not after the first appearance of a post, I though it could be helpful to post the exchange here, in full.

(With thanks to David, for clearly formulating the questions.)

David’s questions:


How did the Vatican rules, cultures, and procedures create the conditions? Are you suggesting that children wouldn’t have been abused if the Vatican had different teachings on sexuality? Or, are you suggesting that if a priest had better sexual outlets that they wouldn’t have abused children? Draw the connection for me.

With regard to the secrecy and cover-up, I think there is plenty of blame to go around. I think we forget that victims and/or their families didn’t want to report, and that theories about the acceptability, causes, and treatment of sexuality deviancy were very different in the not so distant past. Contraception, abortion, and homosexuality were all crimes when I was growing up.

But, more to the point, I don’t see how this goes to the Vatican. It is not as if the Vatican was approving of pedophilia or trying to subvert the law. I am not aware of a single case where it is claimed that law enforcement was informed of a crime and the Vatican tried to stop an investigation.

And my response:

David, there have been many analyses of how the church has created these conditions. The one I know best is “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church” by Bishop Robinson. He was the key person investigating the problem for the Australian Bishops Conference, so he has both an insider’s view, and also a bias to see things from the point of view of the church, not of its critics. His conclusions were clear, and largely coincide with the conclusions of other observers with knowledge of the workings of the church, and professional expertise. Richard Sipe is the best known of these, followed by Gary Wills (Papal Sin) but there are a whole series of them.

It’s not about the church’s teaching on sexuality, but about its institutional procedures and culture. In summary, these are:

Selection and training:
At bottom, the problem lies with individuals with inadequate psychosexual development. The Vatican insistence on compulsory celibacy discourages heterosexual men who have a fully developed, conventional interest in sex, and also deliberately excludes homosexual men who have honestly faced and dealt with their orientation. This leads to a disproportionate number of candidates who have do not have fully formed psychosexual maturity, including gay men who are in denial, and heterosexual men whose sexual development has been malformed. The problem is exacerbated by inadequate education in sexuality in the seminary. The situation has improved, but numerous priests’ memoirs report that they entered the minor seminaries aged 12 or 13, and emerged 12 or so years later having had neither formal instruction in any aspect of sex, nor even the opportunity to discuss it with peers – any talk of sex was strictly forbidden. Tom McMahon, a former priest who later trained in psychotherapy, writes a series on “the psychology of the priesthood” at the Australian e-zine,  “Catholica”. He wrote of his experience that on his ordination aged 25, he had the sexual understanding of a twelve year-old – his age at entering the minor seminary.

Control & Secrecy.
Bishop Robinson describes how the Church’s culture of power and hierarchical control leaves some priests, who are at the bottom of a chain of control, with an attitude that they are in a corresponding position of power over the lay people in their own congregations, especially the children. For them, using this power is way of compensating for their own perceived powerlessness when dealing with the bishops. Robinson agrees that this is not the way it is supposed to work: there is in theory a collegial relationship between bishop and priests, as their is in theory between pope and bishops. However, as Robinson and a wide range of other commentators have observed, this supposed collegiality in many instances just does not exist. The culture of secrecy and cover-up is embedded in official documents, and has been widely observed in all the press reports, and the Murphy Report, since the stories of clerical abuse first began to surface.

If it is true, as shown above, that the priesthood includes a disproportionate number of men who have not reached psychosexual maturity, then it reasonable to suppose that some of those who are unable to keep strictly to their vows of celibacy may look to find relief in unhealthy ways. Whatever the explanation, the fact of a correlation (at least) is clear from the evidence: why else would the incidence be so much higher for Catholic priests than for other groups of men? Some Church spokesmen have denied that the incidence is any higher, claiming that “only” 3-5% of US priests were implicated. This ignores though, the fact you raised yourself, that only a small proportion of cases were reported, and that some of those reported were simply not investigated. Making allowances for these factors, the true figure for Catholic priests will definitely be somewhat higher. In my own study of the John Jay report (which was commissioned by the bishops themselves), I concluded that a figure of around 15% might be more accurate.

As for the victims and families “not wanting” to report the abuse, there was certainly plenty of that. (This is why the Church’s quoted figures that “only” 3- 5% of US priests were implicated is way off the mark: underreporting is substantial, as it is in all cases of abuse. For the population at large, it is estimated that possibly only 10% of abuse cases are reported). The rate of underreporting of the church is unknown, but for the early cases at least, it is unlikely to be any better than for the general population. Your remark also ignores the evidence, from the church’s own records and from survivor networks, that in many dioceses, there was pressure applied on complainants to withdraw their allegations. In other cases, complaints were lodged but simply ignored. Frequently, in the US and in Ireland, the response of some in the church implied that the victim was at fault, suggesting that their “sins” (i.e. the victims) could be forgiven. Detailed procedures specified in a key Vatican document on dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct made no provision for any kind of legal, therapeutic or pastoral support for the victims, nor do the reports of the John Jay survey (in the US) or the Irish reports, tell of any such support having been given in practice. None of this exactly encouraged victims or the families to make complaints. If the families did not do say, are they to “blame”? And where the children themselves kept it secret from their parents, as is commonplace in all cases of child abuse, are they to accept a share of the “blame” too?

As for the Vatican and the law, there are numerous cases of the Vatican tying to impede investigation. Notoriously, the Irish Papal Nuncio himself refused all co-operation with the Murphy commission. Earlier, the US bishop of Bridgeport went to court to try to prevent records being made public. It may be true (but I am not sure that it is) that church authorities have never tried to stop or interfere with a police investigation, but there are certainly cases where they have been less than co-operative. This also misses the point. There are a plethora of instances where the church knew of serious crimes which had been committed, but failed in their duty to inform the police themselves. (A duty which they now recognise themselves, largely as a result of the public outcry over earlier failures.)

I agree completely that the Vatican was not “approving” of pedophilia: but in its actions, it has clearly helped to protect many of the perpetrators, particularly those of most senior rank, and to shield them from punishment.

I know that my claims above are unsubstantiated, but I assure you I have substantiated them elsewhere. This is a reply to a comment, and it is now late – way beyond midnight here in the UK. If you want more details for my assertions, read some of my posts on the topic over at “Queering the Church“. Start with “The Church, Power and Abuse“, then “The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet“. Go on to “How We Are All Victims“, and its later counterpart, “How We are all the Solution”. For the US Bishops’ own investigation into the problem, see my remarks on the John Jay study, at “Vatican Blame Game, Updated, for which I studied the John Jay report in full, and commented on exactly the problem of underreporting you raised.” Then end with “Pope Shares outrage,  Shame atMurphy Report: What About The Blame?”, in which I discuss Prope Benedict’s personal culpability .

There is more too – just use the search box, and type in “clerical abuse”.

Also see:

SNAP: Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests

Richard Sipe: Celibacy / Sex /Catholic Priests

Gary Wills: Papal Sin


6 Responses

  1. Terence,

    Thanks for the lengthy reply.

    My immediate reaction is that there has been very little effort expended upon what should be, and what should have been, the proper response to allegations of sexual abuse.

    Today, the secular response is almost always exclusively punitive. In the past, the secular response was quite dismissive. Somewhere in between seems to be the most appropriate. To me, it is understandable that religious leaders of the past responded according to the prevailing secular attitude. While it may be tempting for Church leaders to adopt the new “throw them in jail, and throw away the key attitude”, such an attitude does not appear justified by the evidence, nor by our faith.

    For example, one theory in vogue some years ago was the “recovered memory” syndrome. Therapists were allegedly recovering memories of past victims, and that recovered memory was being used to prosecute. That theory seems to have been largely discredited now. However, it caused significant damage by creating two victims, the accuser and the accused.

    I can provide other examples including children as young as 11 having to register as sex offenders for life, and offenders being committed to psychiatric hospitals for life as a result of civil trials not that different from the witch trials.

    There does not appear to be any moral leadership in the area of sex offenders and sex offenses. The Catholic Church has been unable to lead, in large part because of its past mistakes in the handling of the cases.

    My personal opinion is that the Church has learned much from these experiences. I also think the Church has to avoid following the current secular trends in the handling of sex abuse cases. I do not have much faith in the law’s ability to handle these cases appropriately; and, I have no faith in the law’s ability to deal fairly and morally with the perpetrators.

    • David,
      Thanks for your response. I agree with you that the standard sexular response of “lock em up and throow away the key” is not appropriate, as it grossly oversimplifies the problem, grouping all manner of offences under a single umbrella. As I have written at Queering the Church, I initially delayed any comment on the whole matter, and then ended up writing extensively, because my own experience of abusr (in the boy scouts, not the church) left me with a clear sense that the issue is very much more far -reaching, and far morre complex, than the usual public discourse allows.

      I also agree that the response oif the Catholic Church is has come a long way since the early days: seminary training is beter than it was in the fifties, for example, when some of the worst offenders were in training. The Irish Ryan report showed far greater honesty and courage than previous responses. But there are still far too many lessons still not learned, particularly on the importance of openness and honesty in admitting in its own mistakes.

      My personal view is that the most important reform of all would be to open up the ministry to a wider range of candidates, and to introduce lay participation in the selection of priests and bishops, which would take us back to the practice of he earliest church.

  2. Terence,

    My reaction on the issues of openness and honesty is that these policies are being dictated more by the lawyers and insurance companies than by the Church. As a lawyer, I rarely recommend openness and honesty, especially to secular officials. Many archdioceses are financially devastated by the resulting lawsuits. The actual perpetrators are already financially ruined. So, the burden shifts to the people in the pews, and the charitable causes of the Church.

    I don’t think that the reforms of opening up the ministry to a wider range of candidates will have much of an effect on the sexual abuse issue. My understanding is that the incidents of sexually abusive behavior has dropped significantly. For the most part, the Church is cleaning up the mess that was made years ago.

    Regarding the celibacy issue, I don’t know what effect, if any, celibacy has or had upon abusive sexual relationships.

    • Here, David, It hink we must simply disagree: both on the importance of not obstructing or hiding the truth, and on the harmful effects of compulsory celibacy. Thank you for your thoughts..

      • Terence,

        I don’t know that we disagree. I think there is much to be gained by making the truth be known. But, to whom and for what purpose is the question.

        A proper confession does not require the pentitent to disclose all the details of the sin to the world. In fact, it is generally NOT advisable to do so.

        Further, compulsory celibacy doesn’t have harmful effects. It is the inability to be celibate, and the improper use of sex that has harmful effects.

        • Celibacy is not harmful, and may have many merits for those who are able to cope with it, as St Paul noted. The problem lies with compulsory celibacy, Again, as St Paul noted, for these people it is not advisable to force it on them. This is why the ancient church, as well as the eastern rite Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, and the Protestant churches, do not make it compulsory for all clergy.

          And why so many of those professionals who ahve studied the problem of clerical abuse, agree that it is indeed one of the three prime factors in the problem, worldwide.

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