Religious Life Without Integrity
The Sexual Abuse Crisis
in the Catholic Church
By Barry M Coldrey
8: THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
There is no way of proving that the sexual
molestation problem of the last thirty years provides more flagrant breaches
than at any other time in the church's 800 year-old demand for celibacy
for the priesthood in the Latin-rite church.
However, since the 1960s, the Western world
has experienced a 'sexual revolution' and profound change in social
habits and the strength of firmly-held religious values. The church in
the world is not immune from the influences which permeate society.
The Vatican Council in the early part of
the decade heralded major changes in some areas of church thinking and
since the mid-1960s, some 100,000 priests have left the active ministry
normally to marry and have families. The Vatican Council happened to coincide
with the advent of the so-called 'sexual revolution'.
'The priest's chastity is no longer so well
protected by society or by his religious ideals. More is demanded of the
man himself. If he is to remain celibate he must draw upon his own resources.'
- De Berker, P. 'Celibacy and sexual
health', The Tablet, 30 August 1997, pp. 1094-95.
There are certain features of the sexual
revolution which created change and which it is possible to list in chronological
In 1944 penicillin was discovered which
made it possible to treat some STDs; fear of infection was one of the
restraints on sexual promiscuity.
In 1955, Playboy
was launched both as a voice of sexual freedom, and a feature of
changing social mores. It was becoming easier to talk of sexual matters
Gradually from the 1950s, sexual explicitness
bordering on exhibitionism has exploded in every corner of the media
to the point of public saturation.
In 1963, the marketing of oral contraceptives
enabled women to control their own reproductive functions; and could
separate sexual activity once and for all from the risk of pregnancy.
The fear of unwanted pregnancy had been an encouragement to abstinence
The women's movement became a feature of
Western societies from the 1960s. Its agenda varied, but most feminists
could unite to expose and denounce activities where men were doing nasty
things to women and minors. It was the women's movement which did most
to bring sexual abuse of children on the politico-social agenda from
In the past, people involved in gay or
lesbian behaviour formed a generally silent minority, but parallel with
the women's movement, gay rights activists demanded and increasingly
gained full community acceptance. What the Catholic church
denounced as sodomy became increasingly socially acceptable. By the
1990s, gay behaviour was said to have developed fad status on the British
Meanwhile, in the Catholic community
there was a drastic diminution of the use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation;
and a lessening of the sense of personal sin.
In such a climate it was easier for (some)
'celibate' priests and vowed members of Religious Congregations to forget
Biblical denunciations of homosexual practices and to treat their vow
of chastity as an 'optional extra'.
'That is why God left them to their filthy
enjoyments and the practices with which they dishonour their own bodies...That
is why God abandoned them to degrading passions: why their women have
turned from natural intercourse to unnatural practices and why their menfolk
have given up natural intercourse to be consumed with passion for each
other, men doing shameless things with men and getting an appropriate
reward for their perversion.' Romans, I. 24 - 27.
In the climate of open discussion and (relative)
community tolerance of gay behaviour, (some) priests and Religious may
be more willing to drift into homosexual relationships. As one humourist
said: 'The unmentionable vice, now mentioned, can't keep its mouth shut',
as in the following example:
'A forty-seven-year-old priest had a long-standing
friendship with a Catholic family who were not his parishioners. He was
a warm and physically-demonstrative person who was accepted as 'one of
the family' even on vacations and family holidays. One of the sons, seventeen-years-old
announced that he was going 'to live with Father' and did. He was accepted
in the parish as 'Father's nephew' but he told his parents frankly that
he and the priest had been lovers for two years. The boy insisted that
the had a great deal of sexual experience prior to introducing the priest
to sexual activity.'
- Sipe, A.W.R. A Secret World:
Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, Brunner/Mazel,
New York, 1990, p.
'The problem is not just with the fraction
of priests who molests youngsters, but in an ecclesiastical power structure
which harbours paedophiles, conceals other sexual behaviour patterns among
its clerics and uses the strategies of duplicity and counterattack against
the victims.'- Joughin, M. 'Church response to the sex abuse priest',
In Fidelity, No.8. September 1995, p. 1.
We need to be clear what 'scandal' means;
it is not the same as 'scandalise' and an example may assist. The issue
is not a minor one.
'Father Meaney' is working near the sacristy
where old 'Mrs O'Farrell', the sacristan, is sorting the vestments. 'Father
Meaney' cracks his finger with the hammer and swears loud and clear. 'Mrs
O'Farrell' is shocked, 'scandalised' - just fancy a man of God using
such vile words ! We laugh. It may be distasteful to 'swear' but
it is not sinful and 'Father Meaney' did have provocation; it is not his
Moreover, and this is the punchline: 'Mrs
O'Farrell' is not being drawn from faith in Christ or his Church by Father's
swearing; it gives her a talking point at bingo and around the parish:
'Wouldn't you think...' However, in the case where 'Father Meaney' and
many other priests and Brothers are found clearly to have ignored their
vows of celibacy and/or broken the criminal law in a serious way, scandal
is given; i.e. people, especially younger people, are drawn away from
'They're no better than anybody else' 'They're
all at it; only the unlucky ones got caught' I have heard these comments
myself; and more than once and in many variations on the same theme. The
perceived behaviour of the priests justifies the lay person's ignoring
of the church's moral law or his/her religious obligations.
Others are molesting children
(Plante, T, Bless me father for I have sinned:
perspectives of sexual abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests, California,
1999, as cited in Sipe, A W R, 'Abusive clergy', The Tablet,
27 November 1999, p 1614)
The evidence is that a higher percentage
of Catholic priests and male Religious molest children more than other
ministers of religion. Clergy of all denominations do not molest equally.
In her foreword, the lawyer, Sylvia Demerest cites a 1995 survey of 19,000
treating professionals, funded by the National Centre on Child Abuse and
Neglect. The study found that in the US, 94% of abuses by religious authorities
were sexual in nature. Over half of these cases (54%) involved perpetrators
and victims who were Catholic, even though Roman Catholics comprise only
25% of the United States population. The minor victims of priest abuse
are overwhelmingly boys and teenagers, (80-90%), which is contrary
to the pattern of abuse in the general population.
American studies are not the only ones
which defy the assumption that clergy of all denominations abuse equally.
The Briggs-Hawen study included 200 convicted child molesters in New
South Wales, Australia. It found that 93% of convicted and imprisoned
child molesters had themselves been sexually abused as children and 60%
stated that they had been abused by a Catholic priest or Brother.
Mr Nicholas Kent, producer of the Home Box
Office, Cable TV sensation in the United States, 'Priestly Sins, Sex and
the Church' answered the claim 'others are doing it' in the following
The occurrence of sexual abuse in society
at large is quite irrelevant to the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic
church. There are particular consequences to sexual transgression or abuse
by members of the Catholic clergy because the clergy renders itself distinct
from the rest of society by the vow of celibacy. In the minds and hearts
of many Catholics, the vow of celibacy is linked with the stature of the
priest and the trust with which he is invested by the lay community, and
by the church hierarchy. The breaking of that vow has profound spiritual
implications, which are in no way diminished by relative comparison to
instances of sexual abuse in society at large. (Roberts, T, 'HBO Program
on sex and priests denounced by church officials', National Catholic
Reporter, Vol 32 No 29, 17 May 1996, p 5)
There has been a nationwide pattern which
I have observed over the last 35 years. Bishops know of ongoing sexual
misconduct by Catholic priests and religious and bishops co-operate to
keep such misconduct from becoming public knowledge. The following are
uniform practices: failing to investigate indications of any sexual misconduct,
even with children; failing to supervise properly the cleric in his assignment,
failing to ensure that the cleric is prosecuted for misconduct with children.
Once an incident occurs, energy and policies at the highest levels of
Church authority have been directed to damage control, avoidance of scandal
at all costs, and efforts to placate and manipulate victims and families.
The latter often involves intimidation, misleading information, and even
fraudulent means, if necessary. Policy also involves maintaining the priest
in a new assignment without proper supervision and without informing the
congregation where the abusive behaviour usually continues. (Sipe, A W
R, Preliminary expert
report, p 16)