Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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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 order:

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 openly.

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 and restraint.

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 the 1970s.

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 university scene.

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 routine practice.

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 God. '

'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 statement:

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)


The Conspiracy

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)


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