Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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Our responses to sexual molestation of minors are informed by our general beliefs about human behavior; its motivations and how it is changed or transformed.

Sexual abuse can be viewed as a sin, an illness, a dysfunction or a crime.

Christians, especially active church attendees, are likely to view sexual abuse as a sin; their reaction is to show compassion and forgiveness to the sinner. The focus is on the sinner; the victims can be ignored or marginalized.

It was easier once, to forget that child abuse is a crime and has been for a long time in the English-speaking world (if not-so-often prosecuted before the last fifteen years). This penal approach presupposes that individuals are responsible for their actions...the abuser is answerable to the society for his behavior in the same way as for any other form of criminal behavior. The abuse itself is the focus of criminal prosecution; the victim may be ignored.

In contrast to the penal approach, the medical view does not regard abusers as responsible for their actions, but instead is concerned to identify the causes of the actions, seen as beyond the control of the sexual abuser. Abuse is an abnormality; a disease which can be cured. The aim of intervention will be the treatment of the abnormality to prevent the recurrence of the abuse.

In common with the medical approach, the social welfare stance presupposes that behavior is determined. Therefore the main aim of intervention is seen as the treatment of the abuser as opposed to punishment. However, this approach takes a broader view than the medical focus and does not attempt to identify one major cause of behavior. Many factors contribute. Attention is focused on the abuser who is regarded as socially, emotionally and psychologically inadequate. Intervention takes the form of counseling and rehabilitation; the abuser may himself be the victim of society's ills.

Traditionally, police officers tended to adopt the penal approach; social workers the welfare, while medical practitioners were drawn to the disease model of abuse. All need to be aware that abuse is a crime.


'A man killed his child molester father after brooding for years about his father getting away with attacking children, a jury heard yesterday. A blood-covered James Foley, 25, told his mother after the stabbing, 'I'm sorry, mum, but no little kids can be hurt anymore.' (Ross, N. 'Son killed child molester father', Herald Sun, 25 May 1999, p. 15.)


'Everybody knows...'

In the general community, it is commonly believed that where sexual abuse has occurred over an extended period, 'someone' (in authority) must have known and - reprehensibly - done nothing about the problem...and similarly where non-criminal breaking of celibacy vows is concerned.

In fairness, and in view of professional integrity, it does have to be said and stressed that abuse can occur, and affairs progress where other members of the Province or the diocese do not know what is going on...and even where there are suspicions it is a nice point to know at what point even a committed individual attempts to make something known. Suspicions can be mistaken; mistaken allegations can give great - and permanent - offence.

The writer had an interesting example of this when he was working a year or so back in the British Isles.

Brother M, an academically-gifted man, was returned hurriedly to his home base from a third world country after it was discovered he had been engaged in gay sex with young trainees for another Religious Congregation. There was no suggestion of illegality; the participants were all over 21 years of age.

Brother was rushed to an AIDS clinic - and a cover story was constructed. Few were fooled. Brother was placed on a specialist course for religious men who had serious public problems with their vows. Time passed...the course finished and the higher superiors tossed around what to do with Brother since he was not deemed ready to return to ministry.

No one appears to have considered seriously with Brother that he might be in the wrong vocation; and some serious discussion along these lines, combined with a generous offer to assist his resettlement might have saved everybody that mixture of heartburn, humiliation and (endless) trouble which can affect some people in the Religious life.

Since leaving the Brotherhood was not on the agenda, Brother was placed on courses at a local Catholic tertiary institution and continued (in theory) regular therapy.

Since he was an energetic, gifted man, humiliated by what had happened, he cast around constantly for action and relevance; visitors and friends came increasingly to the monastery, some young men staying overnight - and staying overnight in Brother's large room since space could be at a premium.

The same situation occurred with young Brothers from the third world staying over. No one seemed to query the unsatisfactory nature of the situation, since Brother had been returned from the third world for having casual sex with just such young men...and we are in a Religious Order with vows of celibacy and sexual activity does tend to be addictive.

Moreover, once the silly situation has gone on for some time, mentioning it to relevant authority gets harder and harder since everybody feels so foolish and becomes so defensive. 'Feeling foolish' is a common reaction in these situations.

Short of a crisis or the incidental reassignment of the Brother the situation could go on for a long time. No one seems to consider the issue of scandal, in its strict meaning: i.e. leading people from God; placing barriers to preaching the gospel; bringing the church and its teachings into contempt.

However - and this is one punch-line: there was no proof that anything untoward was occurring either in the house or in 'the digs' around the college campus; merely a sense that all was not well - the non verbal; the sniggering of the young people at certain planted comments, the looks on the campus.

One old Brother did rage one evening to the writer about sodomy going on in the house but he did not claim that he had actually seen anything untoward. So what does one do in a situation such as this ?In such a situation, people do say and said in this case, 'Brother is so popular with the students'. Well yes - but if the popularity is based on provision of free accommodation, free food, free beer and some casual (free) sex, it is hard to see what such popularity is worth in terms of the gospel. Moreover, if the sex extended to the young Brother's) who called regularly at the monastery.


Celibacy not for everyone

O so true! Celibacy is not for everyone. Yet when problems of a sexual nature surround some priests and vowed religious over years, few in authority appear to face this fact. Father/Brother may have entered religion in good faith very young quite possibly and is simply unable to live celibacy. He thought he could; but, in fact, was hardly old enough to know whether he was 'Arthur or Martha' when he entered. However, the experience of life is such that he finds he cannot maintain the standard.

Celibacy is a gift given to only a few individuals (out of the vast pool of human beings in the world). Marriage is the expected style of living for the majority; it is not a second-rate choice for those who would not be celibate.

People, in general, cannot and should not be expected to deny the legitimate expression of their sexuality indefinitely, and should therefore, seek expression of their sexuality within the fulfilling structure of marriage. Over 350 years ago, the Westminster Assembly stated: 'No man may vow to do anything ... which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God ... vows of perpetual single life ... are ... sinful snares'. (Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), Free Presbyterian Press, Glasgow, 1994, pp 98-9)

This is plainly protestant phraseology from an impeccably Protestant source. A Catholic man thinking of a vocation to the clerical or religious life does not have to take such rhetoric as a definitive guide. However, where bishops or superiors are dealing with colleague's) who have for an extended time has displayed problems in the area of sexuality, they are well to remind themselves of the obvious: Father or Brother may simply be unsuited to celibacy; the vast majority of humanity are. He is in the wrong place. Admonitions, retreats, courses, psychiatrists, changes of ministry and venue are all refusing to face the obvious. An example may assist understanding:

Brett Schott, St Louis, Missouri, six years a priest; left the priesthood after a number of affairs. It took Schott several years of struggling with his celibacy vow before he ultimately decided to leave. 'I found myself entering relationships and then running away from them because I wanted to be a priest,' he says. One relationship lasted nearly nine was purely a physical attraction. 'In the seminary they talked about celibacy. But it was always that Jesus would be everything for you,' he says. 'I didn't understand what I was going to give up.'

Once he became a priest, the sacrifice seemed enormous, especially when he counseled young couples for marriage. 'I was envious. They had what I wanted. After the wedding, I'd stay until the end of the reception. I was avoiding going home.' (Reed, C.L. 'Unfaithful', Mother Jones (US), Vol. 22 No 6, Nov/Dec., 1997, pp. 45-55)


The following is an interesting recent case (Austria) where Father Sebastian's Superior seems determined to 'save' his vocation, but even the short account might suggest that Father Sebastian was not intended for a life of celibacy if he says 'he has never been able to cope with his sexuality.

Fr Sebastian L (Salesian), (33), was one of five men taken into custody in the first week of August for being involved in an internet child pornography ring. He has since confessed to abusing 12 boys between the ages of 10 and 12, who were in his charge at a Salesian boarding school at Dachsberg; and to using the school's computer to order pornographic photographs of young boys; and to logging onto sex chat lines.

The diocese of Linz in Austria has apologized for the 'deeply reprehensible' behavior of a priest and housemaster at a Catholic boarding school, after he admitted to sexual misconduct with pupils and to purchasing more than 3000 pornographic photographs of young boys over the internet. The Church has promised to assist the victims. He said he had never been able to cope with his sexuality. If this is so, the Salesians (in Austria) should ask:

Under what criteria was Sebastian L recruited in the first place ? During the long 7-9 years of training was nothing noticed in a man who says now 'he had never been able to cope with his sexuality' ? Was he having sex with fellow trainees ? outside the monastery(ies) ? or (really) did he first start having sexual experiences only after he was appointed Boarding School housemaster ? Why was he not discovered over six years in the position ? These are tough questions, but seem reasonable in the circumstances.

He was housemaster at the school where he also taught religious studies. He was considered a specialist in dealing with emotionally disturbed children.

His superior, Fr Stefan Leidenmuhler, said he was shattered by the news. His colleague was a very sick man; he would be given assistance and not suspended from the order. (In fact) Fr Sebastian has already been charged and is currently being held on remand in a Vienna jail. Father was in his early thirties and will still be in his thirties when released from jail. At first sight it seems wonderfully charitable to say that Father will he kept in his Order and assisted, but the first mode of assistance might be to question whether he is capable of maintaining celibacy. ('Austrian priest admits abusing schoolboys', The Tablet, 14 August 1999, p. 1119)


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