Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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By now bishops and Province Leaders are stomping on the floor and pawing the ground desperate for answers.

However, some two or three years have passed since the first version of this exploration was prepared and sent to a few interested parties. Within the Australian church and some of its Religious Congregations further priests and Brothers have been convicted; more old wounds have leaked into the present; more layers of toxic silence have been peeled back; more seething resentments of (some) former students in Catholic schools have leaked into the media. This situation has forced leaders to seek answers, without reading such material as this !!!

There have been responses from the church, some bishops, some Province Leaders; and on some matters reforms are in place. Hence the suggestions below may be realized and look rather worn - as suggestions.

However, there is still denial among many 'ordinary' priests and male Religious as to the extent of the abuse problem which had festered, largely unchallenged, until the mid-1980s - and many of those in positions of responsibility, and 'in the know', remain silent on occasion to protect the atmosphere of denial. Worse, the latter often lied to protect the illusion that so much of what has occurred was no more than a media (or other) conspiracy.

In screening candidates we need to explore - as we said we did - the family, school and parish backgrounds of any aspirants. We are modern; we add psychological testing and professional interviews.

'Cradle snatching' with teenage candidates in junior seminaries or in 'Juveniles' of Religious Congregations is a thing of the past throughout the Western world. Seminarians commence their studies in their twenties with their teenage upheavals well in the past.

However, the screening process may now need to address matters which did not seem relevant in the past:

(a) Within the psychological testing and interviews, it maybe relevant to explore the candidate's sexual experience to date since it is usually harder to abandon firm habits than to give up what one has never experienced.

When candidates were teenagers, often young teenagers, it was presumed perhaps incorrectly that they had no sexual contact with others, merely the grotty fumbling of adolescent masturbation. There were many warnings about this, often couched in opaque language.

This might be so especially with gay sexual experience which has become more socially acceptable in recent years, especially in more educated circles - the young university crowd - from which likely aspirants to religious communities might come. When last in the UK I remember reading a newspaper article which claimed that gay sex had achieved fad status on the (British) university scene. How true ?

(b) Within the psychological testing, it is relevant to explore whether

the candidate has been abused sexually as a minor; and

whether the candidate has been abused sexually as a child by a priest, Brother or church worker.

whether the candidate is HIV positive or has AIDS.

Anyone likely to read this will have heard of 'the cycle of abuse', i.e. that those who are abused as children go on to molest other youngsters as adults.

The aspirant to the consecrated life who has been abused sexually as a child is (statistically) more likely to molest as an adult. He may require professional therapy to dissolve the hurt of his abuse, if otherwise suitable. This is more important if the original abuser was a priest, Brother or church worker.

It does matter whether the abuser was a priest, Brother or church worker - rather than the classic 'dirty old man in a raincoat'.


'I think I would have coped better in my life if a dirty old man had jumped out from behind a bush and done these things to me. But the fact he was a priest - a man of God - who was so important to my family has been totally devastating.' (Riggert, E. 'Former priest jailed for child sex offences', Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 11 December 1998, p.5.)


During my research two young men crossed my path who were in case (1) already well along the way in seminary training; and (2) considering a priestly vocation after emerging from a winning battle against youthful alcoholism. Both claimed to have been sexually abused or propositioned - they were vague as to details - as young men by a priest or Brother. Both were outraged when they recalled the experience.

Case 1. The young seminarian appeared to have many of the qualities ideal for his calling and, as the years have passed, he may be nearing ordination. However, he had been abused/propositioned as a young man either in his Teacher's College or senior high school and he was angry and vengeful when he remembered the incident's). There was never a sense that anybody at the seminary had picked up the pain during the selection process or during the seminary process or would have responded professionally if the matter had been drawn to their attention. I had and have the sense quite improvable that this unresolved pain will cause this man trouble during his priestly ministry or he will cause trouble to someone else because of the painful experience.

Case 2. The second young man - let us call him 'Bert' - had experienced a difficult childhood and stormy adolescence and had ended up on the street with a severe alcohol problem. He had come into contact with Mother Teresa's Sisters (and had met the lady herself) and over time he had been rescued and dried out by them, and by assistance from Alcoholics Anonymous. 'Bert' had some vague Catholic background, but under the influence of the Sisters of Charity he had returned to Catholic practice. Gradually he developed an idea that he wished to try for the priesthood and had done the preliminary interviews. The Vocation Director had wisely suggested that 'Bert' update his education for three or four years, keep in touch, pray and God's calling might well become clearer.

So far so (very) good. However, while sharing the same hostel two additional facts became clear. 'Bert' was gay and engaged in an active sexual life elsewhere and discreetly and had not reconciled this with the Church's teaching, and more disturbingly that he had been assaulted/propositioned by a priest after he had returned to the church and was hostile when he recalled the experience. 'They're all at it' he remarked angrily one evening, his outburst the more interesting since overall 'Bert' came across as the classic great guy who made friends very easily.

When in this mood he gave the impression that he was attempting to enter the priesthood out of revenge; or to get someone or even, (once) that his gay association was attempting to plant him in the priesthood....However, to end what might become too long a story...Time passed; the Catholic hostel life showed many priests and Religious who were obviously not 'all at it'


(Fr. Sean Fortune, Wexford, Eire) 'In his suicide note... The dynamics that went to making him a man that people describe as evil are not known. Tragically, his mother committed suicide when he was a teenager, and his father apparently died an alcoholic. It is believed Fr Fortune may have been abused by clerics when he was a vulnerable teenager with a troubled background.' (O'Connor, A. 'Many lived in fear of priest who caused pain' The Irish Times, 20 March 1999, p.3) However relevant questions are:

What was the mentality of the Vocation Director who let a young man from such a troubled background enter the seminary ? - without specialized treatment ?

This does appear to be a case where a disturbed young man entered the seminary with a diffuse desire to get his own back in the next generation from his own trauma and abuse during his upbringing.


(Interview, ABC TV 'Compass', Geraldine Doogue talks to author, Morris West, a former Christian Brother, 1930 - 1941) 'He was a Christian Brother for twelve years after being placed in one of the Order's seminaries at the age of thirteen. Doogue asked adroitly: his family had sent him to the seminary ? West replies: His mother had no option. Her marriage to West's father was in ruins. She was responsible for five other children. West is bitter. 'I was robbed of my childhood'. (Devine, F. 'A best-selling fisher of tales', Australian, 29 April 1999, p. 26)


One might think that no young man would hurry to join a congregation if he has been abused by one of its members. However, it has happened; and it appears to have happened reasonably often. Only recently, yet again, and 'out of the blue' a confrere remarked to me that he had been abused by "P.S." in the 1940s as a schoolboy, and unbeknown to this confrere "P.S." was high on the list of known (habitual) sexual abusers in this congregation.

If this factor is revealed during interview or psychological testing it is even more important that the young candidate have assistance because his desire to enter the seminary or consecrated life may hide a diffuse element of revenge; he will repeat the abuse and try to injure someone in the next generation.

(c) An aspirant to the priesthood or consecrated life should sign a document that he has done nothing for which he is at risk of prosecution (e.g. sexually abused anyone), when he was a youth leader, a teacher, a camps supervisor or prominent in local parish affairs. If the aspirant lies at this stage, the document should provide some protection for the diocese or Congregation against a civil claim for negligence should this young man be accused of a sexual crime, and especially if convicted.

(d) The aspirant should be asked to state and sign a document to say whether he has been abused sexually by a priest, Brother or committed church worker ? Such abuse need not disqualify a candidate from proceeding, but one who was so abused may require therapy to dissolve the hurt, so that he does not seek revenge in the next generation. If the aspirant lies at this stage, and the worse comes to the worst later on, the document would be a useful precaution in any future civil proceedings.

In fact, much effort has gone into reorganizing the recruitment phase of entry into the priestly or consecrated life. It is not before time.


The Past - Recruitment

There was little wrong with the recruitment process IN THEORY before the age of specialist psychological testing and careful professional interviews: the previous process emphasized the solid family background; the testimony of parish and school leaders, the medical examination.

In the case of the Religious Congregation with which the writer is most familiar, a lot of problems would have been avoided, if the simple recruitment policy had been followed closely, but often it was not.

There was the pressure for men - combined with the Vocation Director's desire to show results, and results were the numbers of young men he placed in the training house's) each new year.

In August 1998, in Brisbane, Australia, Dr T.A.Simpson, a former Christian Brother was convicted of molesting two students at a Brisbane college in 1962. His conviction came despite Herculaneum efforts by his counsel, Dr. K. Tronc who described the young teenager who in the late 1950s had gone from 'a wretched and desperate family life with a violent, alcoholic father' to the 'evil grip of the Christian Brothers'.

If we leave aside counsel's nonsense about 'the evil grip of the Christian Brothers', it is just possible that his comments about Simpson's home life might have some grains of truth in which case someone was less than cautious when he accepted Simpson for training as a young teenager from that sort of dysfunctional family.

The second example is from personal experience, and the Vocation Director is dead. However, it illustrates the problem well - the pressure for numbers; the drive for success. The Vocation Director was, in all obvious ways, a very sincere and spiritual man.

While the recruiter was at the College, young sixteen-year-old 'John X' presented himself as interested in joining the Congregation, and the Vocation Director asked around the staff for their comments. Everyone thought 'John X' unsuitable, especially at this stage since he was immature, no apparent interest in studies, and so on. However, the lad was accepted for admission to training. So, I asked the Vocation Director why he took 'John' against the informed opinion of apparently all his teachers. His reply: 'The kid wanted to's up to the novitiate people to sort them out.' I remarked that he was a very immature, scatty teenager and the reply was: 'It's a pretty odd family he comes from.' Indeed. Well, to cut the story short: 'John X' did enter and stayed some three years, and then left of his own accord. A few months later, a mutual acquaintance, asked what had happened to John, laughed: 'He's shacked up with 'Suzie' and works as a clown in a circus.' So things had a happy ending !!! But the Vocation Director had ignored the contemporary guidelines on admission of candidates on two basic counts; there were only three - and he was a spiritual man. It gave food for thought.

In the case above, there were no (apparent) unfortunate results for the Congregation. However, consider the devastating results of the following stupidities when Rudolph Kos was admitted to the seminary in the Archdiocese of Dallas, USA - and in more recent years.

'It appeared Rudy Kos had friends in high places, who bent the rules, broke their own policies, helped him get an annulment of his marriage, rushed him into the seminary, and then when all of the abuse started to happen, the same people turned their backs on the complaints...a reasonable investigation by church officials at the very beginning would have revealed that the seminary applicant was unfit for the priesthood. Kos had spent a year in a juvenile detention centre for molesting a young neighbor. His brothers claimed that the had molested them both and would have told diocesan officials that he was unfit for the priesthood had they been asked...his former wife told diocesan officials that Kos was gay and attracted to the seminary Kos was reported for having made a pass at another seminarian just prior to ordination.'

- Nelson, J. 'Showdown in Dallas', 25 August 1998.

However, in the wake of disasters such as the above, there have been a number of attempts to address recruitment for seminaries and the consecrated life, such as the Conference, 14 August 1998 in Melbourne organized by the Encompass organization: 'Integrity and Responsibility in Formation: Human development and sexuality as it relates to selection, training and formation'.

In the wake of their own disasters at St. Anthony's (Junior) Seminary, Santa Barbara, California, the Friars Minor (Franciscans) tried to put in place some sophisticated procedures to deal with the selection of candidates for their seminary:

'In the past five years we've made more changes, so that there is a fairly thorough review of psychosexual history and what we call the background of socialization. There's a whole battery of psychological examinations and interview techniques that are used. There's an independent review process of the candidates, i.e. the vocations office, which deals directly with the candidates, is separate from the admissions process, which reviews the conclusions of the vocations people. We view the candidates both in the personal context of interviews and also in a group context as we gather them and see how they interact. We take all the information and make a decision as to admission of candidates...there's a further review at the end of the first year, before a candidate even goes on to become a Franciscan novice. Chinnici, J.P. 'One Pastoral Response to Abuse', America, Vol. 170. No. 2., January 15 1994, pgs. 5-6.

If all this is done as comprehensively as stated, all reasonable care would have been taken with the admission of candidates for the Franciscan seminary.

It does have to be remembered that it is not unknown for Vocation Directors to molest those they are trying to interest in the priesthood or consecrated life.

(Vocation Director, Fr Gus Griffin, Holy Ghost Fathers, 7 years, sexual offences) 'One victim was abused in Kimmage Manor, Dublin, after the boy expressed an interest in joining. Griffin had invited him to see what life in the Order might be like. The buggery offence happened when Griffin invited the victim to his home in Limerick and got into bed with him. The victim recalled being sore afterwards and feeling he wanted to die.' ('Priest gets 7 years for abuse of two boys', Irish Times, 16 July 1998, p. 1).


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