Religious Life Without
The Sexual Abuse Crisis in
the Catholic Church
By Barry M Coldrey
20: SYMPATHY FOR THE CHURCH
The reader who has been prepared to wade thus
far will have gathered that this exploration tends to place the
institutional church/churchmen in a pejorative light. The tone is
criticial — consistently so, and the reason is plain, the church i.e.
churchmen and church leaders have done the wrong thing or made the
inadequate response. Therefore they are criticised. On this issue, the
church has been so often in the wrong.
However, is there any heading under which one
can sympathise with the harassed churchman in the turbulent world of the
1990s, as the church and some of its religious congregations are pounded
by unsavoury revelations and grim media scrutiny?
There are a few. Many churchmen who have to
respond to these allegations are (only) men of ordinary ability who have
spent long years outside the mainstream of society in seminaries, church
schools, parishes and diocesan offices. They did not enter religion to
deal with the secular-protestant middle class society where law, public
life, media and the tertiary education world intersect.
They are often out of their depth in unfamiliar
territory. Intelligent, yes !; tertiary-trained, normally ! but often less
intelligent and less trained and much less experienced than the men with
whom they must deal in legal affairs, media and the secular-protestant
middle class world generally.
On the other hand, such churchmen bishops,
diocesan staff, school principals have to deal with many ordinary
Christians, people in trouble, even in meltdown - men and women with less
intelligence, less education and less training than they have themselves.
They are under pressure to keep the church
services functioning. Therefore, they cannot practically and decently,
accept readily any allegations about other clergy members who come to
them...and some of the flock can be so disorganised, muddled, irrational
Moreover, many ordinary parishioners have
levels of knowledge fixated at gossip, 'pub talk', anecdote, reminiscence
and scatalogical stories. In some areas they may have only vague ideas on
sexual abuse except in the extreme situations. An investigation into the
Anglican diocese of Tasmania, Australia found that 'abuse' could cover
much behaviour which is certainly not legally relevant.
It is clear from the submissions that the
phrase 'sexual abuse' or 'sexual misconduct' is seen to cover a wide
variety of behaviour. It includes physical contact from the person in the
ministerial role, such as sexual touch and apparent accidental touching or
brushing up against sexual areas of the body; tickling and playful
aggression which is uncomfortable to the parishioner. The examples of this
include a variety of sexual contacts ranging from the giving of
inappropriate gifts, a prolonged hug, pressing against the parishioner's
body when hugging, kissing on the lips and sexual intercourse. The conduct
encompasses verbal behaviour initiated by the minister, example of which
include: sexual talk or innuendo, suggestive comments, tales of sexual
exploits or experiences, questions about the parishioner's sexual
relationship and the seeking of sympathy for problems occurring in the
minister's own relationship with spouse or partner. Crowley, M. and Kohl,
T. 'Not the Way of Christ': The Report of the Independent Pastoral
Inquiry into Sexual Misconduct by Clergy or Officers of the Anglican
Diocese of Tasmania with particular reference to Paedophilia, March
1998, p. 21
Perhaps a hypothetical example might help to
understand the point being made:
'It is Tuesday morning and 'Mgr. John Carroll'
V G, (Ph D) is sitting down to his crowded desk, the day expanding before
him: a morning at the paper-leaded coalface; lunch with the bishop; a
reception at the Town Hall at five; a meeting of the Episcopal Committee
for Peace and Inter-Faith Brotherhood at 8 p.m; a thoroughly normal busy
There is just time for a glance at The
Age (Melbourne, Australia) and an agitated secretary walks in:
'...a middle-aged woman and her daughter are in the parlour...it is one of
those sexual abuse things...girl weeping...'Father Morrie Battler'. There
goes the morning and the day realises the Vicar-General. 'What the hell
has 'Morrie' been up to ?'
He goes to the parlour...the mother talks
angrily; the 24 year-old woman sobs...'That Father Battler ! What he did
to my daughter ! He should be castrated.' The V-G thinks she is referring
to something that happened yesterday, this week, recently...he asks, but
no, she is referring to something seven years ago (or seventeen or
twenty-seven) when 'Mollie', the sobbing daughter,was just seventeen or
The Vicar gapes ... seven years ago! Why the
hell come now ? Why today? It will be only one person's word against
another! Why are people so crazy? The mother has an answer...not a true
answer, but an answer... (the girl keeps sobbing).
In fact, unbeknown to the Vicar-General, 'Uncle
Harry' called over the weekend and the family talk turned to 'them priests
who can't keep their trousers on and the chance for ordinary decent people
to make a few $$$$$$$ out of the bastards' and this advice prompted mother
and daughter to pluck up courage to front the church
'Yes ...' the V-G thinks, 'so the girl was
17...no virgin, I'll bet' Enough, the story could be developed
indefinitely ... but the point is that many people with whom church
authorities have to deal act on the spur of the moment, for low motives
and appear silly and irrational to the well-educated, well-organised sort
of person. They are hard to take 100% seriously.
The problem is that such people are also
citizens of the secular state with the same right and duties as the
Vicar-General - and in Christian terms are also redeemed and loved by God
as is the Vicar-General (to an advanced degree !!!)
Something of the above syndrome may be
operating in the recent charging of Monsignor James Murray, Parish Priest
of St Mary's, Geelong, Victoria with indecently sexually assaulting three
times in six months a woman in her (then) twenties, a woman whom he did
know well. The events are alleged to have happened 26 years ago. The
following is from a newspaper columnist: he questions the police decision
to lay charges in such a case 26 years after the event. (Bolt, A. 'The
case of Monsignor James Murray', Herald Sun, 5 August 1999,
'There is the difficulty of proving an alibi
twenty-six years after the event. Or of proving the accuser's state of
mind at the time, to explain why she might have misinterpreted or
exaggerated an accidental contact. Nor could a man prove easily his
accuser had had other stresses which might have caused the hurt she now
blames on the alleged assault.
Malicious (or Idiot) Accusations against
Archbishop John Ward of Cardiff has publicly
forgiven the woman who accused him of sexually abusing her when she was a
child. In a statement read before his homily at the Charism Mass in St
David's Cathedral, Cardiff on Maundy Thursday, Archbishop Ward said: 'I am
nothing as a Christian, religious, priest and bishop if I cannot forgive.
This has not been easy, especially given the pain and anxiety caused to so
many people.' He added that he was looking forward to resuming and
continuing his full ministry.
The archbishop, who was applauded by the
congregation as he processed into the cathedral, had been the subject of a
police investigation after a woman had alleged he sexually abused her when
he was a parish priest in Peckham, south London, in the early 1960s.
Archbishop Ward was never charged with any offence and on 24 March the
Crown Prosecution Service recommended that the investigation should be
dropped for lack of evidence. ('Archbishop forgives his accuser',
The Tablet, 17 April 1999, p. 541)
At this point, some religious leader may say
(or scream): how do you know whether Father X or Brother Y is living
grossly at variance with his religious commitment ? It maybe granted that
Father X is seen regularly pairing with Sr Mary Begonia but so what
? - or Father X is the subject of endless rumours around the parish — and
beyond — over the 'cousins' or cousins he has staying regularly at the
parish house, but who is to say that anything untoward is occurring
This is written — 15 December 1999 — and the
revised document 'Integrity in Ministry' has been made widely
available to priests, Religious, the laity and the media for some time.
General impressions are favourable.
However, this writer noticed that there was
nothing by way of the need for investigation on occasion to find the truth
where rumours and/or unsigned allegations coalesce to focus on one priest,
Brother or church worker.
Investigation, leading to the truth, can
liberate as well as provide the evidence by which a priest or
Brother is confronted with the reality of his unsatisfactory
Religious Congregations and Bishops require the
capacity for professional investigation to find the truth where rumours
swirl around a colleague - or where his external conduct over a period
gives reasonable cause that all is not as it should be.
Over the last two months, Providence provided
the writer with a classic case how an investigation should NOT be
conducted. The writer sensed that he was the subject of a ridiculous,
amateur investigation by certain older Catholic men, whether coming
from the Knight of the Southern Cross, Catenians, St Vincent de Paul
Society, National Civic Council or whatever.
He was not being followed in the street, but
individuals — looking out of place — were hanging around the writer at the
Melbourne Cricket Ground, a professional Institute, or a (very
respectable) youth leadership foundation...and the individuals were not
merely investigating, but evesdropping, spreading lies, attempting
pathetic entrapment schemes.
All members of the Province Leadership Team
were simultaneously confronted with what was occurring and while nothing
was admitted the "investigators" within a few days appeared to be backing
off and looking very foolish.
However, may we draw good out of evil and sense
out of this silliness. (My "party joke" among secular friends is that "I'm
one of the few virgins among the "celibates" in the Archdiocese of
Melbourne"... followed by (universal) laughter and then a suggestion that
despite its troubles, the situation is not quite that unsatisfactory in
the Archdiocese of Melbourne)
What the above showed was that amateur
investigations (complete with rumour-mongering and entrapment efforts) are
nonsense. However, investigation maybe necessary and therefore it has to
be professional investigation.
Professional investigation may cost money but
the process implies discretion, secrecy, registration, code of practice,
written reports, accountability — and payment.
It may have been too harrowing to discuss
investigation in Integrity in Ministry, but without the
capacity to move to abort problems.
Bad media publicity: does it matter
During the last ten years, the Catholic Church
in many Western English-speaking countries has had something of a
battering over the child abuse scandals and related matters which vary
from country to country.
However, life goes on. Priests and Brothers
wear civies, their public reputations (collectively) are downsized, but
life does indeed go on. One thinks of the childhood refrain of many years
ago: 'Sticks and stones....'
It is the point-of-view here that bad
publicity does matter, when linked to the issues of scandal and clerical
hypocrisy which have been mentioned already. An example may assist in
understanding the point made.
Consider the post-World War II 'church of
silence' in many communist countries of Eastern Europe: the church was
attacked regularly in the state-controlled media, but committed Christians
and many ordinary citizens would take the state - controlled media with a
'pinch of salt', because the media was state-propaganda. In major Catholic
countries, the church probably lost nothing from media
However, the situation has not been this way in
the English-speaking world since 1985. The reason is clear: in spite of
exaggerations, the plain fact is that many priests, Brothers and church
workers have done the wrong thing; and church authorities have often done
the wrong thing in trying to cover up the infidelities of the
Hence the media exposes, substantially
accurate, have the effect of giving scandal to the work of the