Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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There are five levels of experience within an institution - be the institution a sporting club, university department, a school, an office or a prison - or be the institution a diocese or a Religious Congregation. These levels might be

'The Mission Statement' or at the more exalted level of a Church or a religious organisation, its sacred literature down the ages.

The privileged moment.

The ordinary routine day-to-day existence.

'Ornery' (Mark Twain !) grotty, unsatisfactory, unethical behaviour.

Immoral and/or illegal behaviour.

There is the level of principles deemed to guide the organisation, its Bible, its Mission Statement, its 'Code of Conduct'. These principles are framed in grand and generalised rhetoric designed to give a 'warm inner glow' to the hearer or reader. A 'Mission Statement' can be sparse on specifics; it provides a rallying cry - not a precise programme of action. On big occasions, the President's, (or director's or bishop's or Religious Superior's), reference to the 'Code of Conduct' is intended to act in the same same way. Since the principles are framed at such a high level of generality, their relevance to day-to-day conduct within the organisation maybe slight.

Many associations experience privileged moments when their membership live the Mission Statement ideals for a short period or sense their abiding relevance in a heightened way. The priest or bishop might experience this sensation on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday as he gazes at the packed congregations; the college might seem larger than life on its Annual Speech or Open Day; the university department might exalt at a dinner to celebrate a large government grant; the association might feel privileged on its annual Founder's Day celebration.

Such periods are brief; personalities, policy differences, power struggles petty and great are laid aside for the duration. However, the privileged moment cannot last. The day-to-day grind, the cut-and-thrust of the routine intervene. The rich atypical experience is replaced by the daily round. Exaltation is replaced by hum-drum.

Human weakness in all its forms reasserts itself - the personalities, the tiredness, the numbing crises, the power struggles, the policy differences, and up-to-a-point this is the human condition in most groups, most of the time.

However, the phrase 'up-to-a-point' is critical. The reality of daily routine does not mean condoning vicious, immoral or illegal activity. Institutions can descend from the routine with its general earthiness to 'ornery', grotty, sub-standard behaviour.

The line can be fine between the grotty and unsatisfactory to the immoral and illegal. There is a difference between the common scuttlebutt around personalities on the one hand, and the systematic framing of an individual on the other.

In the sexual abuse crisis, the churches and church organisations - especially the Catholic church and its Religious Congregations - have been shown to descend too often from the exalted principles they profess and the low, and sometimes illegal behaviour of some of their members.

Hence the media furore and community outrage.


Crucifixion or Purgatory

Often at internal gatherings or in casual conversations among men of my own Congregation it is common to refer to the 'crucifixion' or 'purgatorial experience' we are undergoing because of the savage allegations of abuse in the Brothers schools of the past, relentlessly repeated ad nauseum in the media.

Actually the words 'purgatory' and 'crucifixion' do not necessarily imply innocence, but the way the words are used by the speakers is just that: 'we' - the Brothers - are being treated unjustly - we are abused (in and by the media) by the regular references to abuse.

This is the kind of self-indulgence which is being criticised from different angles in this exploration. Some Brothers are suffering unjustly; they have done nothing wrong. However, collectively we are not suffering unjustly.

What has happened since 1989 is fully deserved and was bound to occur - for the Brothers and for the English-speaking church. Some bad things happened in the past, so many that an institutional problem can be detected, requiring an over-all solution, not merely the correction of a few misguided, weak, sick or evil confreres.

Why ?

1 Real abuses (physical and sexual) occurred in the educational institutions, orphanages (especially); boarding schools (to some degree); day schools (occasionally). Overall, at least 7-10% of Brothers and priests did molest a boy or boys.

2 When complaints were made, 1950s - 1980s, parents, relatives or friends who complained were regularly treated badly steam-rollered by church officials at various levels, ignored, misinformed and treated like mushrooms !

3 During the 1990s, through the awakening, a plethora of church officials of varying ability, integrity and effectiveness have presented a muddled response to the problem - varying from effective to pathetic.

4 ergo - the problems will not go away, not (apparently) until 'we' (church, the Brothers) plumb the depths.

Overall we are not suffering innocently - though many individuals are. It is a case that if one acts so inadequately and so badly for so long, certain unfortunate results must occur with the regularity of night following day.

Moreover, this does not address the other sexual problems and infidelity against vows which had occurred much more commonly than the average pious Catholic realises.



Complaints/Allegations can be divided into three categories

1. Criminal - allegations of present or recent sexual abuse against a child or an adult.

2. Criminal - allegations of past child sexual abuse (CSA) made by, or concerning a person who is now an adult.

3. Non-Criminal - generally concerning relationships between adults.

These relationships between a Brother, priest or nun and one of their parishioners, staff or clients is covered by concepts of Professional Misconduct or Pastoral Abuse.


The Ten Levels of Denial

A marked hostility to the investigator or the whistleblower is one level of denial, the unconscious mental mechanism which allows one to reject facts which are experienced as overwhelming or a threat to one's integrity or homeostasis. Over the abuse crisis the church has often been in denial rather than confronting the reality. Richard Sipe has identified ten levels of denial after a careful study of courtroom reports, media exposure and psychiatric treatment settings.

There is no problem; it can't be true

Church leaders bishops and religious higher superiors have repeatedly made this pronouncement in defense of clergy who have later admitted or have been proven to violate sexual boundaries. While complete denial is harder and harder to maintain in public in view of the large number of priests and Brothers convicted of sexual offences and/or sent to 'Treatment Centres' for assistance, this level can influence church leaders in private. Cover-up, conspiracy and fraud are prevalent at this level of denial.

Abuse of priests may exist, but it is very rare

While the definition of 'rare' may reflect personal assessment, a wide range of material suggests that abuse among the priesthood is not rare by any reasonable definition. Criminal convictions; numbers of priests and religious processed through treatment centres; court monitored settlements, and close studies of some (US) dioceses and minor seminaries make this plain.

The media distorts everything

At this level of denial, church leaders claim that the 'abuse crisis' is largely the creation of an inflamed (and anti-Catholic) media. Widespread media coverage has contributed to the heightened awareness of a sexually-abusive dimension to clerical behaviour, but the media did not cause or increase delinquent behaviour among priests. The facts are knowable from other evidence. Moreover, if Bishops and heads of religious orders wished to have precise numbers of priests/Brothers who have molested children, they could assemble the figures within a few weeks from their own separate files and have them collated nationwide.

Sexual abuse by priests does occur but it is no worse than in any other religious group; and it is less frequent than in the general population

The current state of the evidence is that a higher percentage of Catholic priests and religious have sexually abused children/teenagers than among ministers of the Protestant denominations and runs at about the same extent as abuse in the general population. This latter is not as impressive as it may sound, since priests are carefully selected, especially educated and trained, and officially-missioned for service in a way that the general population is not. Their performance should be better than that of the people as a whole.

Blame the victim

Another form of denial is to blame the victim for the abuse s/he suffered. It is not uncommon to hear a church leader say: 'They wanted it they liked it.' It is sometimes claimed that parents should be or have been more vigilant for their children's welfare. A Canadian bishop once proferred the opinion that abuse was the result of streetwise youngsters seducing naive clergy, which, if true, would be a stunning indictment of priestly selection and training. However, it is not true in the great majority of cases; the adult has initiated the sexual activity.

Abusers are sick, in the way that alcoholics are sick

There is some truth in this for many abusers. Hence the treatment centres for priests and male religious to which reference has been made already. However, there is also the reality of evil. Some clergy choose sex with a minor as a way of satisfying themselves, while maintaining their clerical status. They choose to abuse. These priests are not demented; nor driven by uncontrollable urges. They are not out-of-control.

Sexual abuse by clergy exisits, and it is unfortunate. However, the consequences are not dire. The person (victim) who alleges long term or dramatic consequences of abuse was sick already.

Some victims of abuse are seriously affected by the trauma, especially if the abuser was a respected community figure.

'Father in only human'

Any appeal to fallen human nature is no more an excuse for sexual abuse than for robbing a bank, or stealing, or killing someone. The core issue is sin and breaking the law and in this special context, violation of fiduciary responsibility behaviour essentially incompatible with one's identity, mission and responsibilities.

'The sinner is at the heart of Christianity'

The call for forgiveness can be, and has been used as a defence against accepting the reality of what has occurred. Divine forgiveness is open to everyone at all times, but it can be entered into, only when one accepts full responsibility for his transgression, reforms and makes restitution.

'A few bad apples'

The is a fallacy in the senses that (a) too many priests/Brothers have offended for the use of the word 'few' to be accurate; and (b) the statement denies the structural problems in the selection, training and life-styles of priests when 'bad apples' suggests that we are dealing only with separate human problems.

The unspoken message given by the church to (sexual) abusers is: "While we don't particularly want this element in the church, if you do abuse and you're caught, we can move you to another diocese. If in time you are caught there also and charges are brought against you, we will assist you to deny the charges. We will discredit witnesses, withhold important records of your whereabouts over the years that you served with us, and as far as possible we will publicly support you to discourage witnesses who have the audacity to challenge our authority. (Baker, Josephine, Director, Organisation for Recovery from Institutional Abuse, The Irish Times, 4 April 2000, p. 7)


Five men, one of them a priest, have been arrested during a police investigation into sex abuse at St. Mary's Hall, the preparatory school for Stoneyhurst College in Lancashire. The five have been charged with indecent assault on young boys and will appear at Blackburn Magistrates Court on 18 June (1999). Another former teacher at St. Mary's Hall was earlier charged with indecent assault. The police investigation into possible abuse at the school between 1968 and 1998 is continuing. The police have emphasised however, that there is nothing to suggest that pupils now attending St Mary's Hall or Stonyhurst are at any risk. ('Five men arrested from Jesuit preparatory school', The Tablet, 1 May 1999)


The Faithful Majority

Anyone who has been prepared to grind their way through this grim material needs to keep the majority of priests in mind, while s/he contemplates the problem minority.

It will not be until Judgement Day that we will recognise properly the thousands upon thousands of good, and often heroic priests and bishops who serve American Catholicism. Only in that ending and beginning light will we grasp the sacrifices they make, all well-hidden from the world, to carry out their mission. They are called mediators, they are the men in the middle of the wrenching problems that have visited the structures of clericalism over the past generation. When a (TV) programme such as that shown recently on Home Box Office about priest sexual abusers is aired, these good men feel the winch of pressure on their lives tighten a little more. However, such shows are not about good, dedicated priests, not even the priesthood, but a clerical culture that is disintegrating as poignantly as 1940 France. It deserves dispassionate study and reformation. (Kennedy, E, 'Sex abuse crisis not invented', National Catholic Reporter, Vol 32 No 30, 24 May 1996, pp 4-7)


The Third Draft

This is the third draft of a document which the author commenced in 1996 after the outburst from his cousin, she furious over that priest in (a suburb of Melbourne) who, she said, had a live-in boy friend. It is a fact that the priest in question received a change soon after the matter had been laid before the Archbishop, whether guilty or not I do not know. However, has anything changed since the first draft ? Well much has developed, but only one informing idea has altered in my mind.

The author believed (in 1996) that if a priest or Brother had a normal heterosexual affair of any substantial length he could never settle down to resume a celibate life and might as well leave the priesthood or Religious life. Time and more research and more evidence have shown that this is not necessarily true.

Some priests or Brothers can, after an affair, resume a normal celibate life. How many can and how many cannot is not known with certainty, but it is possible and has been done - reasonably often.

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