Religious Life Without Integrity
The Sexual Abuse Crisis
in the Catholic Church
By Barry M Coldrey
11: HYPOCRISY A Cardinal Sin
'The Irish are increasingly troubled by the
hypocrisy of their church which takes a hard-line on personal sexual matters
while sweeping clerical sex scandals under the rug.' Hillenbrand, B. 'When
Dad is a Father', Time, 21 August 1995, p.
In the modern secular Western world, hypocritical
living is a major evil. It is bizarre that our a religious society should
share so closely an important Biblical standard.
Even a casual reading of the New Testament
dramatises that Jesus was extremely critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees,
the current rulers of Israel. Why was He so vehement in condemning
them ? It seems that they were hypocrites; they were religious leaders
who sought all the perks of the job but they did not live what they preached.
The Pharisees lived a stark disparity between
their traditional ideals and their current behaviour. They exploited the
gullibility of the much-less-educated Hebrew masses. Christ was angered
A similar attitude is common in contemporary
society: those who live within the law, or according to known principles
are approved; religious hypocrites are denounced, especially where sexual
and money matters are concerned. Everybody understands money matters and
A humourous example might make the point
more starkly: one Saturday morning the author was sitting with a confrere
in the community room - he reading an account of 'Prostitution in Melbourne'
and a sympathetic pen-portrait of "Masie O'Leary" 'the nuns
were so strict' one of the city's more distinguished Madams. Brother fumed.
Here was the newspaper praising a brothel-keeper, while on the other hand,
any priest, Brother or church-worker who failed in the slightest way sexually
was attacked bitterly. Here were double standards indeed.
Brother in his indignation had missed the
main thrust of the article. The point was not to praise Masie as a person
nor to endorse brothels. Prostitution was simply a fact of life and Masie
was managing so the paper said a well-ordered brothel according to the
law as it stood.
The place was in a 'Red Light' area, remote
from churches, schools and ordinary suburban living. Her clients came
willingly; no one forced them. Masie made no secret of her profession,
one of the oldest. In those senses, she lived with integrity; she tried
to fool no one.
On the other hand, priests or vowed members
of Religious Congregations abusing children is quite a different thing.
It is against the law. It arouses visceral hostility in parents; it
is the crime with zero tolerance.
'Father' or 'Brother' is a religious teacher
who supposedly lives the community's ideals...and better. He falls; its
news; he offends, the community reacts, outraged in its expectations,
rather than if 'Father' was merely plain 'Mr'.
A priest who offends drags the church into
disrepute. In this sense, the secular community echoes the teachings of
Jesus who attacked the religious leaders of his time, but was comfortable
with 'ordinary decent criminals'.
There are additional reasons, moreover, for
the candour unleashed against the clergy during the sexual abuse crisis.
Since World War II, the key moral issues confronting the church have been
sexual or possessed a sexual element: contraception, ('the pill'); abortion,
premarital sex, divorce and remarriage; gay rights; in-vitro fertilisation.
The church's teaching is austere and this writer has no problems with
this severe line where it is the message of Christ mediated through the
scriptures and a long tradition of church teaching.
However, this conservative position involves
celibate or sexually-active 'celibate' priests and church workers laying
down the law to the married, the ordinary 'people of God'. Now the married
and the 'ordinary people of God' are having to face the painful reality
than many of those doing the lecturing have been living hypocritically
over long periods. No wonder many church-going Catholics are rattled.
Catholics are being confronted with the 'secret
system' nakedly revealed; and the anger at being let-down by many
of their religious leaders can be white-hot. As an Irish
Times report of 1997 revealed in one celebrated case:
A crowd of some 200 people screamed
abuse and obscenities at the Norbertine priest, Father Brendan Smyth,
after he was released from Magilligan prison in Derry last week where
he was serving a four-year sentence for molesting children over a twenty-year-period
in West Belfast.
Charges of sexual exploitation against
priests, Brothers and church workers have come with draining regularity.
Church leaders have lost credibility. If community anger and the sense
of betrayal are reflected in savage media reviews of clerical sin and
celibate shortcomings, should anyone be surprised.
There are other perspectives on this hostility,
one from Ireland: Duffy, J. 'Backlash against the clergy inevitable',
The Irish Times, 14 September 1999, p. 13
Lynch mob attitudes have demonised priests
and nuns in recent years ... it is no mere media conspiracy; it reflects
genuine public anger. Power corrupts. In thousands of ways, some small
and trivial, some massive, the institutional church and its clergy have
hurt people who, because of its power and because it claimed to have God
on its side, felt powerless to defend themselves. Unchecked, the church
(sometimes) trampled upon those with whom its leaders disagreed, leaving
a legacy of hidden but bitter resentment that was guaranteed to come to
the surface. There was so much arrogance among churchmen in the past.
'If the sexual abuse allegations, charges and
convictions tell us something about the church, it is the lack of confident
fellowship among its members. Facing the loneliness of upholding a way of
life no longer the visionary ideal in society-at-large, the clergy are now
targets...they are identified by many Australians as untrustworthy. It matters
little that others have failed and many professions are as culpable. What
the wide revulsion towards the clergy indicates more is disappointment in
an ideal. Even if the faith which motivates such vocations is now discounted,
the expectation remains that ministers of a given faith will live up to
- Murray, J. 'When old assumptions break
down', The Australasian Catholic Record, Vol. LXXVI, No.
1, January 1999, p. 38.
In the United States, Mr.A.R.W.Sipe, possessed
of formidable qualifications has conducted an on-going thirty to thirty-five
year study of the state of the American Catholic clergy to their vows
of celibacy. His work appears authentic: a large sample: 1500 subjects;
a long period of observation: 30 to 35 years. He asserts, without apparent
fear of contradiction, that 5% to 7% of US priests have molested children;
20% are, or have been in, sexual relationships with adult women, and 12%
- 15% have had gay sex. His input into the celebrated civil action against
the Archdiocese of Dallas (Texas) by the victims of Father Rudolph Kos
appears among the appendices to this article.
No comparable studies exist for English-speaking
countries such as Ireland, the British Isles, Australia or Canada. Impressionistic
and anecdotal evidence suggests that Sipe's research is broadly not precisely
relevant to the state of the church in these countries on this matter.
In June 1997, in Canberra (Australia), the
executive of the Eros Foundation, the sex workers trade union,
called for a full public enquiry into the selection and training of Roman
Catholic priests. The Eros Foundation noted that in recent years, one-third
of all those convicted in Australia for sexual crimes against children
were Christian priests or ministers, most of them Roman Catholic. The
Eros Foundation stressed than none of its male or female members was a
convicted sex offender; the Eros Foundation added that it would not tolerate
convicted child molesters among its members. It is a case of 'Mary Magdalen'
laying down the law to the 'Pharisees'.
In all of this, certain assumptions are
The actions of priests and church workers
are judged through a narrow prism; much is expected of them;
Sexual networks and the more amorphous
sexual underworlds have exited in (some) dioceses and religious orders;
A few decisively bad actions will undo
much good - by the individual and by his organisation;
In due course, in a more educated, and
media-hungry world, the misdeeds of religious men will be exposed;
This gives scandal in its strict meaning
of leading people away from God; some people faced with clerical shortcomings
find it hard to separate the man from the God he serves, or should be
There has been a sense that some religious
leaders, vocal on all manner of issues, strict and decisive, are strangely
unwilling to discipline offenders in spite of the exceptional pressure
to do so;
At a certain stage of infidelity, withdrawal
from the active ministry, or dismissal from it, is preferable to the
scandal of church officers trumpeting moral values publicly, while not
practising them privately.
There must be an end to the 'Looking-Glass
world' where simple but unpalatable truths are wished away - 'He was a
little foolish'. (The famous comment of a Provincial one of whose men
was sentenced to six years imprisonment for sundry sex offences).