Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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The Invitation to the Underworld

'A weeping young American priest struggled to absorb an experience that threatened his idealism and tells his story: "I had completed graduate schools and was flattered when my bishop asked me to accompany him to a high-level meeting attended by a large number of the hierarchy. During my time there, I was approached and asked for sex by a bishop from another diocese. I declined, and the bishop remarked: 'You know, Father, if you want to progress in this organisation, you are going to need friends.' The young priest was to find out later that some men on the bishop's staff were themselves connected sexually to the gay network...he witnessed priests who won promotions based on sexual involvement, was offered pornography and endured sexual advances from a number of highly-placed fellow clergy.' (Sipe, A.W.R. Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York, 1995, p. 173.)

There are four key features of a sexual underworld in a religious organisation:

  • a shared guilty secret
  • based on illegal or immoral sexual activity in breach of either criminal law or a priest's vows of celibacy.
  • mutual support in seeking positions of responsibility; in good-mouthing one another; bad-mouthing perceived critics and supportive friendships
  • permitting a toxic cone of silence over mutual shortcomings, more profound than the mafia code of omerta

Church leaders have an extraordinary inability to connect with the sexual abuse allegations. What made it more difficult to confront was the church's usual moral righteousness. It had been caught out. The document does not confront the basic problems associated with priestly loneliness, jealousy, dissatisfaction, incompetence, conceit and diminishing social status. - Murray, J. 'A Strange Document Indeed', Australian, 14 January 1998, p. 10.


Sexual Inconsistency

It is easy for priests to view themselves as select. Men in Holy Orders (and professed in Religious Congregations) can accept and tolerate behaviour which is condemned and found intolerable in the general population. A review of the history of the celibate/sexual system and an examination of how it functions reveal clearly that people pledged to a power system enjoy a latitude of understanding, forgiveness and tolerance of behaviour - from masturbation to abortion - which is condemned vigorously in the general population.

It was believed widely that priests or vowed Religious who has serious problems with their vows, especially the second, left their calling, normally to marry. This has always been true for many; not however, for all. Priests or Brothers with public problems can wish to stay with no special intention to address their problems. Scandal does just not matter.

The Grim hard truth is that faith has diminished among the clergy...But they are not going to quit their jobs because what are they going to do ? Moreover, why should they quit membership of a gilt-edged club which assures them dignity, stature, privileged, money and lifestyle. (Joughin, M. 'The Church Response to Clerical Corruption', In Fidelity, No. 10, March 1996, p. 1.)


Bad Day at Black Rock: The Guilty Secrets

The following could be the sequence of growth of a sexual underworld in a province of a Religious Order or diocese.

(a) Occasionally, a rogue staff member of a training college, juvenate or seminary (or a Vocation Director) has used his position to molest student(s), as occurred on a wide scale in the now-suppressed 'Brothers of St. Gerard Majella'.

'In...during my second year of training (aged 17), at the...near Melbourne, I was molested by one of the Brothers at this college. While I was drying myself in the shower block, alone at the time, Brother X came up behind me and without saying anything, startled to fondle my genitalia.'

(b) More often...and sometimes quite often...some seminarians get involved in peer sexual activity. These activities are not criminal but are extremely embarrassing when viewed from the vantage point of later life.

'"I" finally succumbed to a consenting sexual relationship with another Brother of my own age over a period of six months. I felt guilty about this but was driven by sexual desire and experimentation. I was sorry about it afterwards.'

(c) Occasionally (some) seminarians show one another porno-movies, visit brothels or gay bars...maybe seek an affair or a 'one-night-stand'. The stated motive is along the lines of 'seeing what it's like before signing on the dotted line.'

'"I" confiscated a 'Playboy' magazine from a child and kept this magazine under my mattress. I would often read it and masturbate.

(d) In due course, Brother is professed and seminarian ordained. However, the heterosexual attraction proves stronger than anticipated in the freer atmosphere away from the college. There a loneliness...a certain bitterness as the priest or Brother observes family life. He drifts into an affair one of the ladies committee, the housekeeper or a woman who comes for counselling.

(e) There can be a parallel development in the case of a gay relationship. The young man may have had some doubts as to his sexual orientation but not pursued the matter.

'(Brother) in the training college, Brother X would talk about the beauty of the male bodies he would see in the showers and remark that a naked female body did nothing to arouse him.'

'Father' may have been ordained still unsure of his sexuality and not giving the matter much thought. However, in the freer atmosphere of the ordinary ministry the truth dawns clearly. Now a variety of emotions might follow: either anger, frustration or a certain acceptance. He (say) realises his gay orientation but decides to remain and lives his vows - and with grace succeeds. After all, the majority of priests and Brothers with heterosexual orientation still have the same vows to live.

This is the happy outcome, the result for some, regrettably not for all. Another priest or Brother confronted with the same realisation feels the need to explore his sexuality...visits gay bars...forms relationships, moves through serial live-in relationships, but for another set of reasons cannot or will not retire from the active ministry.

(f) Then there is, for a small minority, behaviour with sexual connotations: obscene 'phone calls, kerb-crawling, hanging around in the Red Light area for the vicarious thrill of the unsavoury.

(g) Finally there are the 5% to 7% who have really molested minors, i.e. committed serious sexual offences according to the criminal law.

Many priests or male religious who have molested children were themselves molested or propositioned at some stage of their development, occasionally by priests or Brothers.

(a) Between 1964 and 1987, dozens of teenage boys were molested by Franciscan friars at St. Anthony's (Junior) Seminary in Santa Barbara, California.

(b) Between 1968 and 1992, many former students at the Wisconsin (Junior) Seminary of the Capuchins (Franciscan) were molested by six of the friars. (Jenkins, P. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 44)

'A Brother of Charity who sexually abused a thirteen-year-old boy he befriended at a prayer group was jailed for two years yesterday. Denis Qurike was sentenced at Waterford Circuit Court after pleading guilty to seven specimen counts of sexual abuse over three years...the defendant was novice master at Belmont when he came into contact with the boy through a prayer group.' ('Brother jailed for two years for boy's sex abuse', The Irish Times, 14 July 1999, p. 3)

'At Mount St Bernard's (Cistercian) monastery, the St. Mary's Agricultural Colony opened as a reformatory in 1856...staffed by Brothers of a 'Third Order'. In 1858, three of the Brothers were found guilty of sexual misconduct with some of the youngsters. Staffing posed difficulties. (Lennon, D. 'Bishop Turner, the Salford Diocese and Reformatory Provision, 1854 - 1872', Recusant History, Vol. 23. No. 3. May 1997, p. 396.


Special Problem: The Active Gay Priest

The widespread lack of celibate practice is relevant to the central issue of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy because a community that proclaims publicly the sexual safety of its members at the same time that it tolerates sexual activity restricts the ability of bishops, vicars, pastors and priests to properly supervise, discipline and explore the criminal activities of priests who abuse children. Exposure of one part of the system abusive priests threatens to expose a whole system which supports a lack of celibate conformity within the priesthood. The large number of SEXUALLY ACTIVE GAY PRIESTS further complicates the issue because of the potential for public controversy and disapproval of this behaviour, especially since the Church condemns homosexual relations between consenting adults. (Sipe, A W R, 'Preliminary expert report', p. 14)


Complicated Clerical Affairs

'When "I" was in my teens, a priest whom I admired and in whom I had confided my adolescent struggles with sexuality, took me away on a holiday and sexually abused me throughout our ten days together. Although it was not my first sexual encounter, it was my first with an adult, and what he asked me to do was new to me. It became obvious that I was not his only sexual partner when I contracted a venereal disease from him. My priest was not an evil man. He was, and is, an outstanding and beloved pastor. He has told me that I was by far the youngest person with whom he ever had sex and I believe him. But the doublethink in his life at the time he abused me was extraordinary. As we travelled, he would by day discourse on theological and ecclesiastical matters, share clerical gossip, celebrate Mass for the two of us in mountain meadows. He was, and remains, a fierce defender of the traditional model of priesthood with all its burdens and its privileges. He venerated the Roman Catholic church and its hierarchical structures, but by night he expected me to service his sexual needs. When I told him, after our holiday, that I was considering the priesthood he warned me that because I was attractive I had to be careful of people who might prey upon me sexually. Now I too, am a priest....'


Another priest (one of my patients), when he was a fifteen-year-old (junior) seminarian, once experienced anal intercourse with a twenty-five-year-old priest. He, along with other seminarians, was on a summer pilgrimage to a religious shrine. The sleeping arrangements were haphazard and he was assigned to a bed with the older man. Years later he recalled with both excitement and regret his one and only sexual contact with another person.

- Sipe, A.W.R. A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, Brunner Mazel, New York, 1990, p. 126.

'There are consistent reports that 20% of seminarians experience homosexual contact during the years of their training...a vast number of sexual contacts can be shielded under the cover of systemic secrecy.' (Sipe, op. cit., p. 132)


(Fr. Eric Taylor, Warwick Crown Court, 16 victims, 7 years jail) 'A Catholic priest told a court yesterday how he was sexually abused as a boy by the priest in charge of his orphanage...Fr. Eric Taylor when he was in charge at Father Hudson's orphanage, Coleshill, Warwickshire, 1957 - 1965.' 'Priest tells of abuse at home' The Independent, London, 17 April 1998, p. 5)


There is one thing that needs to be stressed: no matter how the document reads to this point, there is no suggestion that all of, or most of, a presbyterium or brotherhood, are part of a lewd underworld.


On the other hand, a sexual underworld can be supported by:

(a) friends of offenders who won't, or can't bear to hear a word against "my little mate" no matter what the evidence;

(b) religious executives who feel guilty that they did not act appropriately at some former time;

(c) training college personnel who feel guilty that they did not act appropriately at some former time;

(d) working class loyalties and priestly/fraternal caste loyalties. 'He's a sick/evil bastard, but he's our sick/evil bastard'.

Illegal behaviour is shielded in a sexual underworld but the key feature of a sexual underworld is not illegal behaviour.


'Say it ain't so'

'Say it ain't so' was the anguished cry from a once hero-worshipping lad when he read of a hero baseball player accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. He wanted to believe his trust was well placed.

It was because of a mix of this sort of thinking that the Church and kindred bodies were slow to acknowledge the clergy sexual abuse problem. They adopted responses which were quick to minimise its extent or seriousness, and to offer assurances of good intentions and of a decisive change with the past. These reasons included:

ignorance in matters of sexuality, and the lack of any ability, particularly by older members of the clergy to understand or accept the fact of sexual misbehaviour by their brethren;

ignorance of the fact that paedophile activity is strongly compulsive and recidivist in nature; and therefore it is impossible to dismiss an apparent indiscretion as a one-off event;

confusion over loyalty to the Church and its own community support base;

confusion between forgiveness and trust towards offenders, and the duties which the church owes to the wider community. There was a tendency to place exaggerated reliance on counselling. Counselling can go only so far.

concern to avoid or limit legal liability for the actions of priests and ministers;

confusion in relation to the limits of confidentiality concerning matters disclosed or learned outside the confessional; and

uncertainty as to the appropriate response where the complainant does not wish the matter to proceed to police action.

The above explains the waves of conflicting emotions which seem to flood over church personnel when abuse is revealed. In the revelations of the 1990s, there were common features in most abuse stories:

repeated rumours of molestation;

increasingly troubled parents;

church authorities who ignored warning signs;

offenders shuffled from parish (or school) to another.


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