Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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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. 70.

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 by this.

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 sex.

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 their beliefs.

- 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 being made:

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 serving;

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).

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