Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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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. Much less.

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 and silly.

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 day.

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 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 seven.

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 authorities.

'Yes ...' the V-G thinks, 'so the girl was 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, p. 15)

'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 Priests/Brothers

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)

Professional Investigations

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 conduct.

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 criticism.

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 past.

Hence the media exposes, substantially accurate, have the effect of giving scandal to the work of the church.

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