Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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In view of the sketchy evidence above, the church has been 'mourning over her virgins' for a long time, to paraphrase St. Cyprian of Carthage. In this light, the 'abuse crisis' of the last fifteen years might not be as stark as first thought; it is easy to exaggerate; easy to ignore the 'big picture'. Apocalyptic language is not much use. However, the sober figures, even when interpreted in the light of the overall religious scene, do give pause for concern.

With the perspective of the 1980s, Jason Berry, who wrote one of the main books on the issue of clerical child abuse around the story of the notorious Louisiana priest, Fr William Gauthe, 'uncovered an incredible mass of corruption': (Berry, J. Lead us not into Temptation, Doubleday, New York, 1992.

(1) Over 400 Catholic priests in North America were prosecuted for child molestation between 1984 and 1992;

(2) The typical molester can reach scores (even hundreds) of children;

(3) The Church attempted to cover up the abuse.

As with most sexual crime, the majority of cases go unreported. On the other hand, there are around 300 Catholic bishops and 50,000 Catholic priests in America at any one time, so we do need to keep some capacity to look at the big picture.

With the perspective of the late 1990s, the situation has worsened. By this stage 800 US priests have been through the court process; not all convicted - and some 1300 priests have been treated for psychosexual disorders over the period of the crisis. Moreover, these figures concern only those whose activities have come to light. (Sipe, A.W.R. Celibacy: a way of loving, living and serving, E.J.Dwyer, Australia, 1996, p. 140.)

In Ireland, since 1991, there have been 35 convictions of priests, Brothers and ex-clergy in Ireland, according to figures compiled by the church. Some 27 of those were in the Republic and eight in Northern Ireland. Criminal cases for child sexual abuse are pending against 12 members of the clergy, one priest and eleven Christian Brothers (or ex-Christian Brothers). The Irish Times, 22 March 1999, p.1.

Recent developments in various dioceses show that abuse has been widespread, often more than the classic 5&SHY;7% of priests molesting minors. Chicago, 2.7%; Belleville, Il; Albuquerque, NM, 10%, Lafayette, Il, 7%.

The cold figures have been illumined with some spectacular cases which drew concentrated media attention:

Bishop Eamon Casey, Galway, exposed as the absent father of a 17 year old boy by an American divorcee.

Bishop Roderick Wright, Argyll & the Isles, quit the Scottish diocese to marry his divorced friend, and subsequently was revealed to have a teenage son by another woman, who presumed that at some stage he would 'do the right thing' and marry her. Three other women of varying credibility also surfaced to claim that they had had sexual relations with his Lordship at one time of another.

A popular TV priest-personality Fr Michael Cleary died, and his partner and her two children revealed the truth of his long relationship with them.

During a critical month in Ireland, October-November 1994, all hell appeared to break loose for the church:

A fifty-two-year-old monsignor former president of a college sexually abused an eighteen-year-old hitchhiker;

A half-dozen other priests were either accused or convicted of child molestation;

A fifty-eight-year-old priest died around 2 a.m. on the floor of a gay bathhouse in Dublin, stepped over and around until 4 a.m. when he was discovered by another priest patron;

At this stage the extradition crisis over Fr Brendan Smyth triggered a political crisis in Dublin and the resignation of the government.

Similarly to the situation in Eire, the worldwide headlines make for sad and sober reflection:

In Italy a cardinal died of a heart attack in a brothel;

In Austria, Cardinal Groer of Vienna was forced to resign after an enquiry described itself 'morally certain' that he had sexually abused young seminarians on trips and in shower rooms some twenty years previously;

A young US bishop resigned his office at the same time that he revealed that a woman friend was pregnant with his child; and another bishop resigned when he was accused of living an actively gay lifestyle.

and in Rome a police sweep of the red-light district netted several priest patrons. It was plain that the sexual behavior of some priests is sleazy, opportunistic and cheap, rather like that of President Clinton with Monica Lewinsky.

At least five US bishops and archbishops have resigned amid sexual scandals during the 1990s two involving affairs with women, two involving allegations of past child molestations, and now Bishop Patrick Ziemann's affair with Father Jorge Salas, a priest in his Santa Rosa (California) diocese. (Lattin, D. 'Sex scandals bare Church's sordid secrets', San Francisco Chronicle, 14 August 1999, p.3)

In the USA, the Roman Catholic church has paid out (around) $1 billion in sexual abuse lawsuits and settlements, legal fees and counseling. Tom Economus, President of Link Up, said the figure is based on a review of 1400 court cases and information from insurance companies and abuse victims. (Lattin, D. 'Sex scandals bare Church's sordid secrets', San Francisco Chronicle,14 August 1999, p.3)

(Archbishop George Pell, Melbourne, Australia): 'Since October 1996, some 80 offers of compensation have been made to complainants in respect of 21 priests; 70 offers have been accepted. The remaining ten are currently under consideration. To date, none have been rejected ... It is considered that around $A2 million has been paid to victims of sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Melbourne) ... victims advocates say that this Archdiocese usually pays victims between $20,000 and $35,000 each.' (Daly, M. 'Sex abuse cases cost the church $2 million', The Sunday Age, 21 November 1999, pp. 1 & 4).

It does have to be stressed that this evidence is impressionistic; and much of the sexual activity outlined was not illegal; though some was. Overall, however, the modern church appears to have an exceptional problem with celibacy, and the (large) 'tip of the iceberg' of the celibacy difficulty is sexual abuse of minors. The best American research confirms that 5% - 7% of priests have molested children; scattered evidence from the English-speaking world generally suggests a similar figure; and my own research in one (large) religious congregation would provide confirmation.

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