Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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Collusion in clergy sexual abuse is the conscious or unconscious collaboration of two or more individuals to protect those engaged in unethical practices. Persons who collude may do so actively - the fighting mode - or passively - the flight mode. In the latter case 'they walk by on the other side'. In both cases those who collude practise DIM thinking: DENIAL, IGNORANCE AND MINIMISATION.


Active Collusion

After hearing of the allegations being investigated against a Brother, the Province Leader manages to find out the alleged victim's name, then phones around key people in the community to make certain they realise that the accuser is 'a drug addict', 'a male prostitute', a 'loser' or 'has a history of immoral and untrustworthy behaviours.'

The Bishop(s) tell victims there is little money to assist, yet these same leaders take millions of dollars each year for missions and other causes to help oppressed people around the world. In addition, they have no difficulty announcing that they have a fund to assist priests who have been laicised or sent for treatment after they have molested children or otherwise abused their position as religious leaders.

There are common strategies in collusion:

  • Role Reversal. Speaking, writing and thinking as if victims as perpetrators and perpetrators as victims;
  • See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil. The leader attempts to shame or silence others who dare to think or speak about the abuse;
  • Pass the buck. This can become an endless game which allows persons at every level of an organisation to rationalise that the work of investigating and then holding a perpetrator accountable belongs somewhere else. Almost invariably the buck repeatedly gets passed back to the victim, who must either ignore the evidence of DIM thinking or search for the energy to once against speak out.
  • Lets Pretend. The bishop goes about all the activities of the church while refusing to acknowledge the ELEPHANT issue of which most members are already aware on some level - an issue which is managing to impact the church in virtually everything it does.
  • Let's Make a deal. The church leader offers the victim or advocate something, either tangible or intangible, to keep quiet, e.g. 'If you will just go quietly to another congregation we won't tell anyone that you had an affair with the priest.' Then there is the case where hush money is offered in exchange for the victim's agreement not to take the perpetrator or denomination to court.

Those with a vested interest in preserving the system or profession at any cost are much more prone to keep secrets. When one's life revolves primarily around the activities of the cloistered 'protection' of the institutional church, it is much easier to ignore the realities about both the outside world and those of the institution of which one is so much a part. The theology of many religious communities encourages followers to see the outside world as 'evil' and those within its circle as 'good'.

Members of religious communities like to see themselves as the 'special' children of God. Their sense of being exceptional makes it easy to justify collusion for many people...religious leaders are exempt from accountability. The collusive world demonises anyone who would call their behaviours into question.

  • The Family of God. If we think of the church as a family we are far more prone to give solace to deviants within the group.

The Tolerance of a Sexual Underworld

There is much tolerance all-around of clerical shortcomings by other clergy and of fraternal indiscretions by other monks. The church authorities have been more concerned with protecting their own images than with seeing justice done.

I am keenly aware of ambivalent feelings among priests when we hear of a colleague who stands accused of sexual abuse. Priests are very defensive of one another; I have heard brother priests say of an alleged abuser: 'We must forgive and forget.' They mean 'forgive the abuser; forget the abused.' The needs of the priest come first and the suffering of the victims hardly counts.' (Elder, D. 'Scars of sexual abuse', The Tablet, 27 September 1997, p. 1225.)

The churches give lip service to the needs of victims. It is the victims who are subject to intense questioning, whose motivations are suspected, who are told they might be fantasising, that they are unforgiving or vindictive, that they might be "ruining" the career of a minister or priest, that they are causing scandal. On the other hand, there seems to be a marked resistance to confront the minister or priest who is in the same clerical club.

(Pallister, J. 'Speak out on abuse', The Tablet, 2 August 1997, p. 1070.)

Who is totally pure ? Who is not a sinner ? You must make distinctions between events of twenty years ago and something that's happening now. Priests are rarely excommunicated following convictions for sex crimes because of the money the church has invested in them. It costs around $250,000 by the time a priest is trained and ordained. If we have invested money in these people, we've got to see if something can be corrected and looked at.' (Fr Frank Morrisey, Professor of Canon Law, Chair, Committee on Sexual Abuse by Clergy, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992).

These may be other reasons why clergy/ male religious are so tolerant of the sexual misdeeds of their vowed brethren.

"I" am diminished if it is admitted that this confrere has offended. There is the denial that someone in a holy vocation could be living so at variance with the ideals of celibacy.

'There but for the grace of God, go "I". If "I" say or do anything about him, who knows that in such-and-such time, I might be in the same boat and then I'll want sympathy at that time.

No-one will thank you if you bring even well-founded suspicions about a colleague to religious authorities. They are busy people; they want to enjoy their 'first seats in the synagogue'; they don't want the additional trouble. They will suspect your motives; they will spread rumours that you are unreliable about colleagues; you can expect trouble in return.

There is the 'feel silly' factor. If "he", my priest/Brother colleague is guilty, "I" feel silly as one of his kind of whom the community expect so much.

There can be the sense of disbelief that someone "I" knew could have been living a double life. 'All those years he used to say he was visiting his aged mother on Tuesdays and Fridays but now it's clear that he was also visiting his girl/boy friend for more than tea and sympathy.'

There is a sense of disbelief that 'Brother Augustine' or 'Father O'Leary' could have been living a double life because their religious/priestly lives seemed so routine and their speech (even) betrayed that shade of ignorance and slight sense of reserve - even prudery - which, in my view, are common in the consecrated life.

Thus, while there can be intense loyalties within a diocese or religious order to a Brother or a priest in trouble, even where the Brother or priest has committed quite horrific crimes, this sympathy has a number of unfortunate side-effects.

(Fr Maurice Healey, spokesperson for Archbishop W Levada, San Francisco) 'For the most part the great majority of priests are talking the talk and walking the wak ... Sure there are some affairs with women ... or a gay priest acting on a homosexual inclination. These guys aren't saints, but we pray for them and hope they repent ... Sure, there's a brotherhood of priests and some secrecy but the bad eggs are marginalised' However, the fact is that the 'bag eggs' are as likely to be promoted as marginalised ! (Lattin, D. 'Sex scandals bare Church's sordid secrets', San Francisco Chronicle, 14 August 1999, p. 3)

There is no sense of scandal being given to the wider people of God; no sense of the hurt being suffered by the victims. The victims are confronted by sympathy fatigue.

In the case of crimes against children, undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Brothers or priests are a bit more blaze about child molestation is that clergy and religious are not usually parents and do not possess that visceral hostility to child molesters that parents possess.

If there is a sense of disbelief it requires to be dispelled. The case of (former) Bishop Roderick Wright, late of Argyll and the Isles (UK), should dispel one and for all any automatic acceptance that a priest, vowed Religious or bishop could not be living a double life. Wright's double life went on for nearly twenty years and he was never even questioned about his extracurricular activities for most of that time.

Thus, public confidence in the priesthood is whittled away; vocations suffer; morale lowers and the image of the consecrated life is tarnished.

'Pedophilia remains a cross for religious leaders to bear. So far, all the churches have carried it gracelessly...From what I've seen on this beat of broken lives and empty rhetoric, one of the only way to force the churches with the pedophiles in their midst is to make them face the financial consequences of priestly that they stop playing musical parishes with sermonising sex criminals and call the police.' (Harris, M. 'Just try a little remorse', Toronto Sun, 6 April 1999, p. 9)

Andrew Greeley (US priest/author) and others point to 'a culture of the priesthood' with its strong internal loyalties when he explains the church's tendency to cover up sexual crimes. "Good priests don't tell on other priests', Greeley says. (Sheler, J L, and Surke, S, 'The unpardonable sin', US News and World Report, 16 November 1992)


The 'Poor Ted' Syndrome

In Newfoundland, Canada in 1992, Brother T.E. was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment (reduced on appeal to ten years), convicted of fifteen assault and molestation offences against children. These were specimen charges; there were originally, scores of plausible allegations.

What follows is to place the Religious Order's executive gloss (lies) over the criminal offences, and contrast this with the judges plain outline of 'Poor Ted's" crimes at the sentencing; to contrast the two and show the stark disparity between Christian ideals and plain reality.

The 'official view' of the Congregation's leaders

In 1994, there was a Province Leaders Conference in Rome after which many of the executives of this Religious Congregation passed through London where I was on their way back to the UK, Eire or North America. It was fascinating that each appeared programmed to give a certain official version of the "poor Ted' story, i.e. that 'Poor Ted' was 'a great monk' who had, unfortunately, made one or two errors, serious errors of judgment; he had been 'foolish', but he was 'a great monk'; 'prayerful'; 'keen in school'; 'boys appreciated his concern for them'; 'popular with the monks'; 'good in community' - altogether an Alice in Wonderland approach.

This can be contrasted with the above

(E.E. V. R. Newfoundland Court of Appeal, Goodridge, C.J.; O'Neill, J. and Steele, J.A. Judgment, 20/7/1994)


'The accused committed serious crimes and there were no mitigating circumstances. In a two-and-a-half year period, he wreaked havoc on the lives of his charges. There was a flagrant breach of trust...the offences against R.O. involved indecent assault and gross indecency. While the boy was in his bunk in the dorm, E.E. fondled his genitals and placed his penis between the boy's legs, ejaculating after motion simulating intercourse. The other incident involved Brother E.E. grabbing the boy by the neck and hair and attempting to have anal intercourse...A third incident occurred when Brother grabbed the boy by the crotch and pressed his genitals against the boy's behind...fondling the boy's genitals on many occasions over a six-month period...the boy was forced to place his hand between the Brother's naked buttocks...fondling was constant during his entire stay at Mount Cashel...oral sex on the Brother in a parked car at the Basilica after a religious service.'


In more formal language, the weakness of the 'Poor Ted' syndrome are:

Since it is not true; it is lies; it is going to involve serial lying in trying to maintain the initial position;

it ignores the victims;

it ignores the scandal to the whole people of God by the abusive behaviour;

it is likely to be exposed by the media;

and if 'Poor Ted' comes to believe the myth himself, he is (statistically) likely to re-offend.

'The church knows what's going on but they bury it and continue to bury it.'

- Canadian Press. 'Priest says clerics wouldn't end abuse', Calgary Herald, 4 March 1997, p. A11.

'The church has undergone a phenomenal learning curve in relation to sexual abuse and now understand that sexual abuse of children is a crime.'

- Editorial. 'The Church and sexuality', Age (Melbourne), 2 October 1996, p. 11.

However, the 'Poor Ted' inadequacy was planned and articulated in 1994 - four tumultuous years ago. Since then, in Australia, Eire, the British Isles and North America many more priests, Brothers and church workers have been denounced, and a number have been convicted. The 'phenomenal learning curve' means that this exercise would not be repeated.

In late 1998, in one Province of a Religious Congregation, after the Province Leader and three other Brothers or former Brothers were brought into the criminal process after sexual abuse allegations, one of the executive included these remarks in an address to a large congregation in the metropolitan cathedral:

'The existence of child abuse in the Christian Brothers congregation is a reality and a truth. We have apologised and continue to apologise and seek reconciliation with anyone who has been abused.

'To say that the Christian Brothers congregation is depraved is a travesty and a lie - no matter who professes it. Over recent years, we-I-have felt a variety of emotions - perplexed, angry, shamed.

'We have begun to doubt our own truth...and the truth is this - that we are a Congregation full of human frailty -

  • with individuals who have to deal with loneliness or addiction;
  • with leaders who have struggled with a response to circumstances of abuse;
  • as a people of our time who lacked knowledge and for whom certain topics were taboo.'


Even more matter-of-fact is the following taken from a document issued by a Province Leadership Team in December 1998, the document entitled 'Protocol for individual members of the Religious Congregation after a complaint/allegation has been made'. This mentions that 'over the past five years there have been considerable developments in the best practice for dealing with these complaints' and finally admits that (indeed) 'the options for some of the accused may well be to depart from the Congregation, or (alternatively) the Province Leadership Team may have to follow Canon Law to remove the accused from the Congregation.

'Some guidelines for the Province Leadership Team in this matter are:

Each case to be treated individually.

The Brother concerned is unable to adhere to the structures set up for him to live out his commitment to Religious Life.

The Brother shows a pattern of continual behaviour, which is either a criminal behaviour or considered as professional misconduct.

The Brother's lifestyle is not congruent with the public witness he professes as a Religious Brother.'


Plainly there is a movement here from the 'Poor Ted' syndrome.


The Broken, the Dysfunctional

In the rich, but broken tapestry of human nature, some people apparently functioning normally, can be dysfunctional, especially in the area of sexual behaviour.

In the Training College of a Religious Congregation (novitiate) around one Holy Week, the novices went through the full Easter ceremonies as a group, and after midnight Mass early on Easter morning, a group of the trainees went off for some sort of mutual sexual experience.

Obviously, poor instruction, poor formation or a serious dysfunction were operating in this case.

On the other hand, some priests in relationships with adult women argue that in due course compulsory celibacy will become optional and they can then regularise their situations.

Freeman, C Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilisations of the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 55.

After death, the deceased met with Osiris who presided over the trial which decided his future in the afterlife. The trial is described in 'The Book of the Dead' from the Middle Kingdom. There were 42 judges before whom the dead man had to plead his case. High standards were expected and covered every area of moral behaviour. He had to prove he had not killed or stolen, committed adultery or had sex with a boy.

The Bible on Sexual Morality

The writers of both the Old and New Testaments enjoined on the Chosen - later Christian - people a more exalted morality than was common among contemporary pagans - from the dawn of Divine Revelation:

I am Yahweh your God. You must not behave as they do in Egypt where you once lived; you must not behave as they do in Canaan where I am taking you. You must not follow their laws. You must follow my customs and keep my laws; by them you must lead your life...You must not lie with a man as with a woman. This is a hateful thing. You must not lie with any would thereby become unclean.

('Priest has fatal heart attack during private strip tease show', Ottawa Citizen, 11 February 1998, p. 2) Father Jean-Paul Snyder died last Wednesday in the Champagne Room in Le Mandarin, a strip club in Mont Laurier, about 125 kilometres northeast of Ottawa. He was aged 71 years.

The same point is made in the following dramatised scene in Sodom with the planned assault on Lot's guests (Genesis 19, 4 - 8.)

When the two angels reached Sodom in the evening, Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. 'My lords', he said, 'please come down to your servant's house to stay the night and wash your feet.' They had not gone to bed when the house was surrounded by the townspeople, the men of Sodom both young and old, all the people without exception. Calling out to Lot, they said: 'Where are the men who came to you tonight ? Send them out to us that we can have intercourse with them.' Lot came out to them at the door and, having shut the door behind him said, 'Please brothers, do not be so wicked. Look, I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you, for you to treat as you please, but do nothing to these men since they are now under the protection of my roof.'

(O'Murchu, D. 'Past repression makes sex overt', Irish Times, 10 March 1998, p.11) 'A Dublin priest died of a heart attack in a Dublin gay club in 1994...The priest was only one of a coterie which frequented the club.'

'Do you not realise that people who do evil will never inherit the kingdom of God ? Make no mistake - the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers...sodomites, thieves...none of these will inherit the Kingdom of. God.' (1 Corinthians 6:10)

('Gay priest dies', Herald-Sun (Melbourne), 7 September 1996, p. 5) On New Year's Eve, Father John Stockdale died in a cubicle at Club Eighty, a gay nightclub in Collingwood. He had an active sex life while purporting to uphold the Church's traditional moral teaching. He was thirty-one years a priest in the Sandhurst diocese.'

'Laws are not framed for people who are upright. On the contrary, they are for criminals and the insubordinate; for the irreligious and the wicked...for murderers, for the promiscuous, homosexuals, kidnappers...and for everything which is contrary to sound teaching.' (1 Timothy 1:10)

(Murray, J 'Sex and the sacraments', Weekend Australian, 9-10 January 1999, p. 24) Homosexual orientation is one of the many weaknesses affecting humanity... we live in a sex preoccupied age where we are encouraged to scratch every itch, fill every appetite and indulge every whim and desire. The idea of self-control, restraint and self-denial must seem like martyrdom...or to believe in something more than self-satisfaction. Homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture. Archbishop Peter Hollingsworth (Anglican, Brisbane): 'The church has a solemn responsibility in guiding the faithful on how they should try to live their lives in the world. One part of that guidance is about sexually responsible behaviour.'

'That is why God left them (the pagans) 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 other men and getting an appropriate reward for their perversion.' (Romans 1: 24 - 27)

Bishop G.P. Ziemann, 57, resigned, 22 July 1999 as Bishop of Santa Rose, California, USA. Bishop Ziemann admits that he had a consensual sexual relationship with one of his priests, Father J.H. Salas - 'inappropriate as both were priests' said Bishop Ziemann's attorney. Father Salas claims that he was sexually assaulted by the bishop. ('Sex-charge bishop quits', Catholic Leader, Brisbane, Australia, 1 August 1999, p. 6)

Religious Order priests or Brothers may argue that they are 'working through their sexuality' and will return to the celibate state in due course.

In these cases, there is no sense of the scandal to other Christians and to the broad society among those who come to know of the situation.

In the case of the rarer gay relationships, the active gay priest, Religious or seminarian may argue that in due course the Church will come around to accept this form of sexual expression as moral. This must be wishful thinking in view of the consistent and strong Biblical condemnation of homosexual behaviour.

At Frank Arkell's committal this man who was 19 years of age when Arkell (former Mayor of Wollongong) allegedly lured him to his house and gave him a stupefying alcoholic beverage...(He claimed) 'I was laid down (naked) on the bed. He took his clothes off. He started rubbing me with oil or moisturising cream. He rubbed it all over my back and my body. He had sexual intercourse with me. (Carty, L. 'Victims wanted their day in court', Illawarra Mercury, 29 June 1998, p. 2.)

The justification are based, in part, on a sense of being trapped. Perhaps the young man endered the religious life or the seminary for the wrong reasons, stayed because of peer or staff pressure and was professed or ordained without enthusiasm for the same reasons.

The years pass; inertia replaces piety. The priest or Brother has most of his friends in the clerical or religious life, and among Catholics close to the Church. He may fear (and with good reason) that if middle-aged, he cannot get another job; or at least one as prestigious as the one he has. The priest is a member of a caste with a certain status.

The bitterness of being trapped is one of the emotions which can lead some to seek consolation where ever it may be found.

'A priest who faced 29 charges of sex abuse against young boys was found dead in bed at his home in New Ross, Co. Wexford, last Saturday morning. Beside the bed of Fr Sean Fortune were his rosary beads...It is understood that the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast has established links between Father Fortune and other priests convicted of child sex abuse, and intended to request his extradition to face allegations of sex abuse after he had served his time in the Republic. (The Tablet, London, 23 March 1999, p. 208).

The Drift into an Active Gay Lifestyle

There could be many ways in which a formerly celibate priest/Brother drifts into an active gay lifestyle which the Bible and church-teaching abhor. This particular drift is taken from the observations of a couple of cases in one Religious Congregation. Father X or Brother Y is an ordinary valued member of his Order but has few, if any, personal friends and or close involvement in its activities. He suddenly comes to experience a crisis - of health, of faith, of realisation of problems in his Congregation, of mental troubles, of getting older. He drifts into friendship with another priest or Brother who has for years in his diocese/Province been involved in active gay relationships and gay bars. The latter invites Brother X to one of his haunts, not mentioning or stressing that it is a rendevous for active gay lifestylers. Everyone appears warm and friendly; there is the thrill of being involved in a somewhat secret world which mainstream society does not approve fully...and one thing leads to another over a short time...then there is the shared (guilty) secret and the implied backmail capacity.

What is the moral of such a (not entirely) imaginative account:

(a) As a senior army officer told me some years ago, when gay sexual activities are detected in the military, sure its consenting adults, but there is always (in his experience) a dominant leader on one side, and a compliant follower on the other, in these gay affairs in an institution.

(b) In the church, bishops and/or Province Leaders bear responsibility in cases where priest(s)/brother(s) around whom rumours and evidence abound of involvement in gay sex, are permitted to continue for years without explanation, confrontation or investigation.

Such gay activists in Religious Congregations or in dioceses are likely to draw other men into their activities. There is, after all, safety in numbers. Moreover, such men will always have around vulnerable characters who for one reason or another are 'down on their luck' and easy prey for genuine or apparent kindness and interest, even if the one offering the friendship has a quite different agenda.

This drift to a gay lifestyle may be accentuated by the fact that many of the seminarians in a given seminary at a specific time maybe of gay orientation. Gay orientation does not mean sexually active homosexuals.

This reality was not understood until fairly recently and when first realised was desperately covered up as a taboo subject. One of the reasons why the traditional seminary was isolated, often secluded in pastoral serenity, was to separate heterosexual candidates from the presumed temptation of female company. 'All' the seminarians were presumed to be 'normal', i.e. heterosexual in their orientation even if few adverted to the fact. All had chosen to be trained for the priesthood which involved taking a vow of celibacy.

What were taboos until quite recently were a cluster of interrelated facts with which the church now must come to terms:

Some seminary staff in the past (not many) have molested or propositioned students; (more commonly) there has been sexual activity between certain seminarians. This can form the basis for a sex underworld in a diocese or Religious Congregation.

If the number of men in the community whose sexual orientation is gay are around 10-15% of the age cohort, the percentage of such men in the seminary is higher than in the population as a whole. Studies overseas seem definite.

In some seminaries at some times, men of homosexual orientation could be in the majority. While many men with gay orientation can, and do make excellent and celibate priests, there can be extra problems if many or most of the men training in a given seminary are of gay (orientation).

There is a strong strain of homophobia in the community, and the Catholic church teaches that all homosexual behaviour is morally wrong and reprehensible, clearly and definitely and repeatedly condemned in scripture, tradition and church teaching.

Thus a covert gay sub-culture can develop in a seminary. This does not mean that all such seminarians are sexually active, but if some are, and some are predatory (i.e. actively seeking partners) they can subvert the goals of seminary training, especially if the active gay seminarians are the humanly-speaking strong personalities.

The modern seminarian is normally older than was customary and usually commences training in his early twenties. It is likely that some seminarians are sexually experienced. The mix of the sexually experienced, gay and straight, the virgins (gay or straight orientation) and the merely confused does provide problems for the seminary staff. These need to be recognised by staff.

There are many fine students and staff in the seminaries, but it is hardly surprising that I sometimes used to wonder whether the aim to which my work for five years in the seminary as pastoral director was devoted, namely trying to help prepare students for the reality of the contemporary church, was absolutely the last thing on their minds. (Cosstick, V. 'Is the priesthood in crisis ?' The Tablet, 29 May 1999, p. 747)

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