Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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In the Australian context, one (Irish) Christian Brother executive wrote to another member of a Provincial Council, 6 May 1954:

You will find that this particular weakness is difficult to root out. It is remarkable that it tends to break out time after time...One of the greatest troubles with the weakness is the harm that is done to the boys. Boys find it hard to forget anything of this nature, especially on the part of one whose office is to deplore such conduct, and there is the danger that the same weakness may manifest itself in the boys when they are placed in somewhat the same circumstances.'


'Frequently the church mourns over her virgins' - St. Cyprian of Carthage, c. 250 AD


'I have been shocked at the extent of the abuse uncovered. I have studied experiences far beyond anything I have ever expected. The church ignored sexual abuse due to a fear of the consequences of just how much more abuse might be uncovered. In a number of recent cases of abuse, I have to report an intensifying of efforts in some churches to close ranks and protect priest offenders.' Sr Angela Ryan, former Chair, Congregation Leaders of Religious Institutes.

- Glascott, K. 'Church hid sex abuse: Catholic clergy' Australian, 15 April 1996, p. 5.


'There is ample evidence from a wide range of religious denominations that clergymen can publicly and vehemently denounce sin in others while quietly and repeatedly indulging in it themselves. The sexual practice of clergy is part of the important teaching truth of the Catholic church. Example is, as much or even more than the word, a powerful and effective means of teaching. Celibacy in religious tradition is meant to the a lived way of how to regulate the sexual drive in accord with Christian principles.'

- Sipe, A.W.R. A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, Brunner/Mazel, New York, 1990, pp. 128 - 129.


Men Behaving Badly

Of recent years, the Catholic church in the English-speaking world has been ravaged by scandal; its public reputation in meltdown. Religious institutions have often seemed as sex havens for paedophiles. It was in this situation that in early 1997, I visited my home city, Melbourne Australia. Its Archdiocese was one of the most troubled in the country; my own Religious Congregation featured regularly in the media, and almost always for the wrong reasons. Soon after landing, I visited a cousin and her family for the evening meal. I wasn't in the door long, and had just got a coffee to hand, when she blurted out that Father X, a priest ministering in an area of the city she knew well, had a live-in boyfriend. Father was one of the growing phenomenon of sexually-active gay priests of ribald stories and popular folklore. 'It's not good enough !' she stormed angrily.

If that priest did really have a resident boy friend, and allegations are not proven truth and rumour often equates as lies; then his days of peace and security were over. Within a few days every bishop in Victoria was apprised of the allegation, the precise parish pin-pointed.

There is a moral to be drawn from this episode, whether the priest to whom reference was made was indeed guilty of aberrant behaviour or not. In an archdiocese with around a half-dozen priests and sundry male religious convicted and/or in jail during the nineties for sexual offences; where the Archbishop has admitted paying compensation as a result of the sexual depredations of twenty-one of his priests and with discussion of paedophile priests and philandering ministers in the media ad nauseum, devoted church-going Catholics are rattled. At first people didn't want to believe it. Religion is being linked with paedophilia, buggery and gay saunas. Their response can border on the hysterical at times as they wake up to the knowledge that horrifying sexual abuse has taken place, and considerable non-compliance with vows of celibacy by a large minority of priests.


Reed, C.L. 'Unfaithful', Mother Jones (US), Vol. 22. No. 6, Nov/Dec. 1997, pp. 45-55.

More than 100,000 men worldwide have left the priesthood since the 1960s. In America, the number of priests has fallen to 48,097, a 17% decline since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic Research Centre at Georgetown University...and by the year 2000 according to estimates from Catholic reform groups there will be more married former priests than active priests.

They believe they could never make it on the outside ... with good reason (sometimes). Many have watched colleagues leave in order to pursue a relationship only to wind up behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant or on welfare. The anxiety becomes more acute the longer a priest stays within the church ... most Catholic dioceses refuse to offer any type of pension to a priest who resigns. Former priests can find themselves penniless after years of service.


'In every instance where there is a pattern of abuse, someone in authority has permitted the activity. This permission can be given under the guise of forgiveness.'

- Sipe, A.W.R. 'Celibacy and power', Tablet, 26 November 1994, p. 1504.


'Brothers usually do not know the sexual or celibate adjustment of even their closest friends. A priest's sexual life becomes visible primarily through a scandal in which an accusation, a pregnancy, a lawsuit or an arrest, comes to public attention. A Brothers sexual behaviour is usually kept secret from every other person.'

- Sipe, A.W.R. A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, Brunner/Mazel, New York, 1990, p. 5.


Hypocrisy and Dysfunctional Living

The Millstone

Jesus appears to have child molestation in his sights when He is quoted in Matthew 18: 5 - 7 as saying: 'Anyone who is an obstacle bringing down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck.' Certainly paedophilia was common in the Graeco-Roman world...and the early church was against the practice. The Didache, the oldest extant commentary on the gospels, early second century, commands: 'Thou shalt not seduce young boys'. The earliest church council for which any records exist, that at Elvira in 309 A.D., proposes 'irrevocable exclusion' - i.e. the offender should not receive communion even at the point of death 'for those who sexually abuse boys.' (Canon 71)

Nevertheless, the problem has never gone away, and can never be suppressed entirely. Even at the time of the critical and decisive Third Session of the Council of Trent, 1552-3, Pope Julius III entered a sexual liaison with a fifteen-year-old boy he had picked up on the streets of Parma...and before he died Pope Julius created the young man a cardinal.

Yet from the dawn of revelation, the 'People of God' were urged to a more advanced morality than that common among the neighbouring peoples.

I am Yahweh your God. You must not behave as they do in Egypt where you once lived; you must not behave as they do in Canaan where I am taking you. You must not follow their laws. You must follow my customs and keep my laws; by them you must lead your life...You must not lie with a man as with a woman. This is a hateful thing. You must not lie with an would thereby become unclean. Genesis


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