Bishop Accountability

Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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Some bishops and Religious Superiors are tolerant or appear to be accepting of the extracurricular sexual activities of their priests, Brothers and (occasionally) nuns. Moreover, a few bishops and some higher Superiors have abused minors or broken their vows of celibacy. Sexual activity by priests is relatively common.

Where this tolerance occurs, the reasons are close to those argued already with a few variations. The subject is too dangerous to touch, too explosive; nobody wants to know.

'So common now is the breaking of vows and so brazen the double-dealing, that Helen Last, Pastoral Response Team, Archdiocese of Melbourne, recently told Broken Rites that 'the expectations of the laity with regard to celibacy are not the same as the expectations of the hierarchy. The hypocrisy that we have encountered in clerical ranks is profoundly disturbing...the continuing cover-up surrounding the sexual proclivities of an ever-growing number of priests and religious is a constant source of scandal for us.'

- Joughin, M. 'The Catholic Response to Clerical Corruption', In Fidelity, No. 10. March 1996, p. 1.

'I am keenly aware of the 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.

Here is an anecdote by way of a parallel illustration:

Once upon a time, some 20 years ago, I was talking to a headmaster about the public shortcomings of some of the lay staff at the Brothers school. They were obviously not living the church's teachings and many of the senior boys were aware of this. There was scandal. Sexual abuse of children, however, was not the issue.

The headmaster was unfazed. He remarked that if he enquired too closely, or worried too much whom the staff were living with, or what they were doing after hours, and did anything about it, he would not be able to open the College on Monday mornings. Rumours abound, but hard evidence is hard to acquire; proof is difficult; and the confronted have friends. With action, there are too many minefields which yawn for the high-principled.

In a similar way, a bishop may reason likewise when he worries if he will be able to open the churches for Sunday Mass. Life looks different at the sharp end. The bishop does not want to readily have doubts about his priests, many of whom are engaged in stressful work with seriously deprived, difficult or disturbed people - 'suicides, drunks, visionaries, dropouts, conmen, naggers and cranks' - life's victims all of them. (Campion, E. Rockchoppers: Growing up Catholic in Australia, Penguin, 1982, p. 189)

Moreover, some of these deprived, difficult or disturbed people can lie, fabricate evidence and reconstruct from the past.

The Province Leader's Dilemma

I am not unmindful of the failure (to reform) of others when given a second chance. The whole business (child molestation) seems almost an incurable disease and the possibility is that only a fraction of the cases ever reaches us and then they are usually denied. On the other hand, malicious accusations can be, and have been made. We must do our best and try to be just to everyone.

- Province Leader (Religious Order, Australia) to Superior-General, Rome, c. March 1950.

In the following recent case which has occurred ten years after the sexual abuse crisis engulfed the English-speaking church, there is a strong sense that the church authorities knew of Father R.J. Deal's alcoholism and (seemingly active) homosexuality and did little about the matter until the crisis. Moreover, he was not charged with molesting a minor, but an older young man, over whom he had something of a power relationship. (Pellegrini, S. 'Priest guilty of attack on man', Herald Sun, 22 July 1999, p. 5)

'A Catholic archbishop's former private secretary was yesterday convicted of indecently assaulting a young parishioner. (Father) R.J. Deal, 51, of Thornbury, pleaded guilty in Broadmeadows Magistrates Court... three counts of indecent assault against a man in his twenties. The priest was sentenced to four months gaol, suspended for two years, and placed on a bond...the attacks occurred between December 1998 and March 1999... the victim had been working under Deal as part of court-ordered community service... three separate incidents occurred at the presbytery... Deal was clearly homosexual and an alcoholic. (Deal is suspended from active ministry)

The reasons why there was a poor response to sexual abuse failures in the past seem active in the present despite the ten years of apocalyptic media revelations, the endless meeting within the church to find solutions and the proud release of Integrity in Ministry and never-again media statements by church leaders. These reasons were (and apparently are)

The inability to comprehend or accept that a priest or religious could offend in this way and a consequent dismissing of the complaint as untrue;

A confused loyalty to the institutional church and its ministers (as opposed to the people of God), so that they were believed before others and their selfish interests were placed before those of the faceless and nameless victims;

Seeing a sexual offence solely as a moral failure, to be treated by no more than repentance, forgiveness, perhaps some counselling and then transfer to another position;

Ignorance of the fact that sexual abuse can quickly become compulsive - one cannot assume that it will never happen again;

Failure to appreciate the powerful and lifelong effects that sexual abuse has on the victims, and a consequent failure to reach out to victims in justice and compassion;

Concern for the good name of the church and a consequent concern to avoid or limit legal liability for any harm done to victims.

'I was the first of more than 1,400 male victims to come forward in the early 1990s and disclose the physical and sexual abuse we suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers and lay staff at St Joseph's and St John's Training Schools for Boys in Ontario...The process of reconciliation and healing failed. The victims had to fight every step of the way to receive counselling, educational benefits, financial compensation and apologies. The process was so onerous that many committed suicide as a result of their reabuse at the hands of the reconciliation and implementation committee and their compensation designates. The Ontario courts are being asked to review the reconciliation agreements and award additional compensation for the failure of the parties to honour the agreements. (Mc Cann, D. 'Residential school survivors still struggling to heal', Vancouver Sun, 4 November 1998, p.A 16)


There has been considerably more sexual activity contrary to their vows - and sometimes the law of the land - by priests and male religious than the average, well-informed, practising Catholic realises; than the average priest or male religious realises, not involved himself. If and when the truth dawns, the latter are often quite bitter, though they may wish, at first, 'to shoot the messenger'.

Major Superiors and bishops require some capacity for discrete investigations of allegations and persistent rumours to find the facts - and thereby have the truth either to confront a confrere who has gone astray or to liberate themselves from suspicions

There is a somewhat different problem for some of the pious laity. They fail to realise that a person is not made holy by ordination or religious profession, nor given a sudden infusion of maturity or integrity. Many Catholics thought this was the case (and perhaps many still do !) People still hold on to the extraordinary idea that celibate clergy and religious have somehow been made non-sexual by their professed celibate commitment and that their sexual impulses no longer exist with any force. Clergy and religious must take their celibate commitment seriously, but Catholics must also take seriously the fact that celibacy is a most demanding commitment for people who think and feel in exactly the same way as they do. (Robinson, G. Crisis and Opportunity: the Scandal of Sexual Abuse, Inform, N 57, February 1998, p. 3)

The Dissipation of a Sexual Underworld

A sexual underworld in a diocese or province of a religious order can be hindered or broken up by either (a) light or (b) noise. An explanation may be required.

When I was on the staff of a Third World university I was friendly with the Head of Security who was updating his qualifications and doing two of my subjects. We sometimes talked security. He always maintained that the key elements were noise and light.

When, for example, the intending burglar steps on the front porch and a light switches on, he usually runs away; and when the break-and-enter specialist pushes the window, an alarm rings. He tears off.

Noise and light draw attention. Perhaps there is a parallel situation in the case of sexual networking that can exist in the diocese or the Province of a Religious Order.

If relevant authority makes it clear in various way - hints, explanations to key people - with the idea that the word will spread - then those involved may take the big hint that 'the game is up' and s/he will either regularise his situation or leave the consecrated life.

'Sexual underworld' is a concept which needs to be understood by those in positions of responsibility.

The type of leadership which is relevant in this case was reported in The Tablet, 18 January 1997, p. 91. Bishop C. Budd (of Plymouth) laid down the law as Chairman of the English Bishops Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship:

Priests who father children should admit it, leave the active ministry and get jobs to support their families...consenting adults must be responsible for their actions. The priest's children are as important as his ministry.

This type of forthright statement, followed by appropriate action, will gradually contract any sexual underworld which exists in a diocese. In accord with this attitude, the following will make sense: 'Parishioners left in the dark as priest resigns over child', The Tablet, 26 September 1998, p. 1265.

Father Patrick Morrissey of St Bede's in South Shields left the parish on Monday, 7 September 1998, saying that he was going on a holiday...he had resigned...statement from Bishop A Griffiths of Hexham and Newcastle. The parishioners discovered from local newspapers that he had left because of his affair with Christine Fox who has three children from a previous marriage, and his responsibilities to his son. He said:

I am very sorry when I think of my former parishioners. I feel I have betrayed them, but I have a son and have to stand by him. I just wish people knew how much anguish I have suffered. I have been leading a double life. Now the pressure is off. I hope people can find it in their hearts one day to forgive me. The way I see it now is that St. Bede's will always have a priest, but my child has only one father and I have to be there for him. People do not realise how lonely it is to be a priest. I respected my commitment to celibacy when I was ordained and I took the commitment honestly, but I have found it difficult to live with and have struggled over a long period of time to be faithful.

Theory and Practice

'The expectations of the laity with regard to celibacy are NOT the same as the expectations of the hierarchy.' Helen Last, Pastoral Advocate, Archdiocese of Melbourne. - Joughin, M. 'The Catholic Response to Clerical Corruption', In Fidelity, No. 10, March 1996, p. 1.

'It is clearly unethical for any professional person to sexualise the relationship with someone is their care.' - 'Church refuses to act on priest sex charge', In Fidelity, No. 10. March 1996, p. 9.

'Towards Healing', a policy document from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, 1996, is full of tough-minded rhetoric such as the following:

'If church authorities are satisfied that an accused is guilty of sexual abuse, they shall take such action as the situation and the seriousness of the offence demand. In relation to serious the case of a cleric or religious, it means that they will never be given back the power they have abused; and it can include a request that the person concerned apply to return to the lay state or even the commencement of a canonical penal process in accordance with Canons 1717 - 1731.

'It is unfair to hold out to an offender any hope of a return to ministry when it is clear that this will not be possible.'

- Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Towards Healing: Principles and Procedures in Responding to Complaints of Sexual Abuse against Personnel of the Catholic Church in Australia, December 1996.

This is fine. However, such frank and determined resolution has to run counter to long years of cover-up in some sections of the church - 'the misguided, although fierce loyalty to the institution whose image can never be tarnished.' This is from the Victorian Parliamentary Committee Inquiry and refers to the Catholic Church.

'In addition to this, there are the often unwritten rules of the church which may contradict the official policy...What does concern the Committee, however, is the number of cases which come to the attention of the clergy outside the confessional and which are never reported to the relevant authorities. The Committee has received evidence from victims and their families suggesting that there may be more offenders which church leaders maybe aware of, but where little action has taken place.

'Many victims are told when making an official complaint about sexual assault to church authorities that is an isolated incident and that the priest was going through a rough time in his life and should be forgiven even when the Church is aware of multiple allegations against the same priest.'

Sometimes internal investigations have followed with perhaps internal disciplinary action and perhaps a move for the alleged offender. The victims become disillusioned resenting the feeling that they have been ignored or silenced, while in some cases the offences were allowed to continue while the offender was apparently protected by the church.

- Parliament of Victoria, Crime Prevention Committee, Inquiry into Sexual Offences against Children and Adults, First Report, May 1995, p. 308.

It is the weight of the past which has to be over come if the church is to regain integrity in these matters.

'Father J. Mulvihill wrote to Bishop MacKiernan, Kilmore, 1 November 1974. "Since 1964, I have known that a member of the community is misbehaving...molesting sessions...I have brought the matter to the attention of the Abbot but to no avail.' Pollak, A. 'Bishop informed of complaints', Irish Times, 20 October 1995, p. 5.

'When Brother R. Gordon confessed in 1971 to the Provincial of the Marist Brothers that he had indecently assaulted four boys...he was told to put it all behind him...none of his later school appointments would have taken him if they had known...No one in the (Catholic) education system was notified.' Cooke, J. 'Marist teachers sex assault secret out', Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1998, p. 5.

'...we have dozens of (priest) informants who were told by a bishop that if they had a problem with celibacy they should take a woman as a housekeeper or a mistress. Any arrangement that was private and did not give scandal was seen as preferable alternative to resignation from the priesthood..' Sipe, A.R.W. (1990), p. 75.

'Many parents used the (teaching Brotherhoods) to get a cheap education for their sons, pledging that they would enter the order. Bordom and frustration followed. Celibacy , to such young men, was like drip-feeding a caged tiger... Frustration was released in anger against the boys...they acted like tormented, frustrated young men...they had too much power...the rod was never spared...They often acted as though they were untouchable as God's chosen men.' - Touher, P. 'How the image of CBS was tarnished', Irish Times, 7 October 1996, p. 11.

'Bishop G. Robinson, Sr Angela Ryan and Father John Usher said they were shocked by the extent of sexual abuse by the clergy that they had uncovered...we have listened to experiences far beyond anything we have ever expected...It took some time and adjustment to come to accept the realities facing us.' Glascott, K. 'Church hid sexual abuse: Catholic clergy', Australian, 15 April 1996, p. 5.

(Fr. V.G.Ryan, Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, jailed,30 May 1996, 4 years)'According to documents tendered in court, the archdiocesan office learned in 1974 about Ryan abusing boys...despite the church's knowledge of his paedophilia Ryan was promoted to the position of parish priest in the mid-1980s' ('Church knew about priest's crimes', Broken Rites Newsletter, No. 11. July 1996, p. 3.)

(Archdiocese of Brisbane, Father Rod McKiernan, Deputy-Director of Catholic Education) 'The Archdiocese learned 30 years ago that he was committing criminal offences against children. In 1974, he was sent to the US for treatment at a centre for sexual offenders. From 1975 - 1995, the church continued to give McKiernan access to young people...he was part-time chaplain at St. Laurence's, CBC; he lived for some years at the Christian Brothers Training Centre at Indooroopilly and in the 1990s, at Xavier Hospital for crippled children, Coorparoo. People who spoke to the diocesan authorities about Mc Kiernan were told that the hierarchy would act only on written complaints. The complainants, however, were reluctant to write for fear of retribution in their jobs. This enabled the hierarchy to dismiss the allegations against Mc Kiernan as 'unsubstantiated gossip'. Several times when people complained to church authorities about Mc Kiernan in accordance with the church's complaints procedure, the authorities tipped off Mc Kiernan about the complaint, including the name of the complainant. This enabled Mc Kiernan to destroy evidence and to threaten the complainants with defamation.' ('Church hid a priest's crimes for thirty years', Broken Rites Newsletter, Nos 15 & 16, Summer 1998-99, pp. 3-4.)

'Six young men have come forward and signed statutory declarations detailing sordid behaviour of Br Michael Evans and Fr Peter Commensoli. parish priest of Gwynneville...The distressing aspect of this case is that the Catholic Church appears not to have taken any action to investigate the allegations, even though the church authorities were well aware of them.' ('Time for the church to act', Illawarra Mercury, 27 October 1993, p.4.)

Strong and insistent leadership from the Holy See assists the process of reform. In a recent case, the Pope met 30 Irish bishops during their ad limina visit to Rome and referred to 'priests in Ireland suffering due to the pressures of the surrounding culture and the terrible scandal given by some of their brother priests.' In response, the bishops must offer them 'inspiration and encouragement' and 'a close relationship with them'. Priests in Ireland were challenged 'to reaffirm the sacredness and uniqueness of their calling'.

'I have been close to you in suffering and prayer, commending to the God of all comfort those who have been victims of sexual abuse on the part of clerics or religious', the Pope said. The bishops must 'pray that those who have been guilty will recognise the evil of their actions and seek forgiveness.'

These scandals and 'a sociological rather than theological concept of the church' had sometimes led to calls for a change in the discipline of celibacy, the Pope said. He rejected this call saying 'the difficulties involved in preserving chastity' were not sufficient reason 'for overturning the law of celibacy'. 'Pope encourages Irish bishops in face of scandal', The Tablet, 3 July 1999, p. 925

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