Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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There is a presumption with ordination and final profession in a Religious Congregation that a permanent life commitment has been made.

In fact, as everyone knows, many priests resign from the active ministry, and in some Congregations, final profession is honoured in the breach.

However, despite heavy resignations from the priesthood - well over 100,000 worldwide since Vatican II - and the constant attrition from religious orders, the current crisis has seen priests and religious convicted of serious crimes wish to remain in the consecrated life...and the same with those who have breached their vows of celibacy in a persistent way - not criminally and/or not caught.

'In the novel, Fall from Grace (Andrew Greeley), the bishop who is so reluctant to believe or investigate tales of clergy abuse has himself been involved in a sexual relationship with a man who proves to be a member of a paedophile ring.'

- Jenkins, P. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, OUP, 1996, p. 104.

The way of dealing with this situation has become fuzzy. Canon law exists; internal disciplinary measures used to be plain, but since the 1960s have fallen into disuse. Why is this ?

the sway of personalist philosophy which glorifies the wishes of each separate priest or male religious with less sense of the whole - the Congregation, the diocese, the church. Scandal does not matter.

the desperate shortage of priests and male religious in some countries; and the insistence that the church must be seen to forgive the offender.

the existence of specialised treatment centres and therapies to assist religious with sexual problems.

the existence of a wide variety of missions in which a man can be placed, some of which are said to give no access to minors. There is a good deal of illusion on this score.

the sympathy that for so many years, young religious were thrown into complicated ministries in residential care institutions and boarding schools with little or no knowledge of the law on abuse towards minors, the harm that sexual molestation could cause; or the pressures that relentless, unremitting hard work would place on their ordinary human resources. Most of the worst abusive molestation cases concern the residential care institutions.

the fact that most of the graphic abuse cases concern events of many years ago; the convicted priest or religious is well into middle or old age and has (literally) nowhere else to go.

the replacement of the association, club, organisation model of a religious congregation with the family model. In an association there are rules; and breaches of the rules have penalties; extreme breaches bring expulsion from the association. On the other hand, in the family one remains a member no matter what the conduct; 'Joseph Carruthers' children remain such no matter what their circumstances; they are stuck with Joseph as their father; he is trapped with them.

It is the stance in this exploration, that the family model has been taken too far in Religious Congregations, and a situation where any priest or religious can resign legally over a couple of months, but the congregation can never remove a religious no matter what his conduct if he 'digs in his heels' seems unbalanced.

The membership rules need to be rewritten.

The writer has membership of a sporting club which has some status in this part of the world. In 1996, there was a very public case of a member who breached the rules. The football was savage; the umpiring desperate; the member furious; and as the opposing team left the field through the race, he spat at one young gentleman to whose conduct he took exception. Unfortunately for the irate member, his action was caught on a video monitor. The club committee were unimpressed; he was called to answer a charge of 'conduct unbecoming a gentleman'. He was reprimanded; mercifully it did not involve 'suicide or Australia' in Oscar Wilde's witty sally, but the member was warned that any repeat of such an action would involve suspension of membership. Actions have consequences.

There are five ironclad principles in regard to supervision of former perpetrators of paedophile behaviour among the Brothers or among the priests of a diocese:

There is no clear, confirmed, decisive cure for paedophilia. Recidivism is common.

A Brother cannot be supervised merely by living in community, with the Superior (or the other community members) 'keeping an eye on him'. Once a Brother walks out the front door - or more commonly, drives out the front gate, 'we' have no idea where he's really going; and to suggest otherwise is a dangerous delusion.

It is possible for any priest/Brother/church worker to live a double life. The case of Bishop Roderick Wright, late of Argyll & the Isles (Scotland) who led a varied active sexual life over twenty years is merely one case in point. We have many of our own examples in Australia.

Ordinary Catholic people tend to trust a priest/Brother even if he carries a formal conviction for a sex offence - especially if the clerical/fraternal rumour mill has spread the word that he was 'not really guilty'; 'it's all exaggerated'; 'the accusers are drug addicts' and so on, but at a certain stage the truth dawns.

In the modern world, while priests or Brothers may live a double life for lengthy periods, the truth tends to come out eventually. The longer the successful deception, the deeper the humiliation of the Catholic people, the church, the Congregation. In the modern world you can't keep it secret for ever.

The Hidden Defender

The reason why religious executives and diocesan bishops are slow to tackle members who have clearly scandalised the Congregation or 'God's people' in more than a tissue of platitudes, is that the 'sexual underworld' in just so pervasive that the diocese or Province may be torn apart.

If even ten or fifteen percent of a province or diocese have had public difficulties with their vows, a move against even a spectacular offender will seem as a threat to all. Each has friends. The province could be torn asunder with recriminations. This is the fear.

Hence the executive paralysis and the savage character assassination directed at anyone who might care to point out unpleasant realities.

'The church authorities were ignorant of the incorrigible nature of paedophilia; the priest would present his case as a moment of weakness...the church would offer forgiveness. If he showed repentance and promised not to do it again, he would be offered counselling and a fresh start...(This) does nothing to assist the victim. Indeed, it seems to confirm that the spiritual needs of the priest come first, and the suffering of the victim hardly counts.'

- Longley, C. 'Control abuse, sex abuse', The Tablet, 2 August 1997, p. 974.

Sexual Abuse: the Legal Defence

There is much criticism of the institutional church's management of the civil cases which have followed in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. Some of this criticism comes from 'survivor groups' and can be classed as self-serving, but some carries conviction. The whole issue has so often placed the institutional church in the wrong.

The arguments presented by the Church - in court, in negligence cases - run along the following lines:

(a) The Church - in English common law - from the time of King Henry VIII - does not technically exist;

(b) The trustees of a diocese or a Religious Congregation are only responsible for management of church plant and other assets and are not responsible for negligence;

(c) The (offending) Brother or priest is not a servant or agent of the provincial or bishop and is responsible only to God;

(d) The bishop or Province Leader is not responsible for the actions of a previous bishop or Province Leader. In the case of the Christian Brothers, Province Leaders change regularly and it is therefore argued that they have no responsibility because the past Province Leader is no longer the present Province Leader.

(e) The Church/Religious Congregation was not aware of the abuse or the extent of the abuse. (Forster, D. 'Battle for justice continues', The Needle, Spring 1998, p. 7.)

The general framework of the above points was expressed in a different way in the following summary. Church officials pretend to be concerned for victims, but they use the following tactics:

They keep lay Catholics ignorant of the extent of sexual abuse by clergy;

They keep responsibility away from the (Arch)bishop(s) as far as possible;

They confine payments of compensation to the minimum and are smug about this;

They allow suspected offenders to remain in parishes;

They pay for expensive legal counsel to defend perpetrators in court;

They employ every legal tactic to avoid responsibility;

They interfere with the legal process by approaching the victim/accuser after the priest or Brother has been committed for trial at a Magistrates Court and offer to pay compensation if the accuser will drop the criminal charges. (Mac Isaac, C. 'A Trust Betrayed', In Fidelity, No. 10. March 1996, p. 4.)

In January 1998, ABC TV aired a two-part series on the Catholic Church in Australia called 'The Shifting Heart Revisited'. It followed a previous 1996 programme, 'The Shifting Heart' which addressed the sexual abuse issue in the church.

The presenter, Geraldine Doogue, claimed that she - a practising Catholic - had not wanted to present (in 1998) the sexual abuse issue to any extent, but found it impossible not to do so. She found:

'an institution in turmoil' over sexual abuse by priests and teaching Brothers and denial by church authorities;

the enormity of the sexual abuse problem;

a lot more frustration and anger in the laity from '96 to '98;

parishioners disturbed by the reaction of church authorities when phone calls from loyal parishioners were not returned from the bishop's office;

criminal files being 'pulled' from police stations;

church officials interviewed for the programme refused the face the sexual abuse issue square on. (Vickery, C. 'Parish the thought', Herald Sun, 28 January 1998, p. 5.)

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