Religious Life Without Integrity
The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic
By Barry M Coldrey
21: CLERICAL AFFAIRS
After the second Vatican Council, the tight binding of the Catholic world
in general and the clerical world in particular began to unspool like the
winding sheet of Lazarus. The first large-scale result was that of priests
choosing marriage and resigning from the active ministry. Although many
of these were branded as failures or as derelict in their duty, they may
have represented what reasonably normal people do when liberated from the
punishing social and ecclesiastical controls and penalties that once contained
The second-wave phenomenon was the breakdown of large groups of priests
who remained in ministry but lapsed from celibate practice in various ways.
While the clerical culture was secure, they could maintain themselves without
much conflict at pre-adolescent levels of functioning. Once the clerical
culture weakened the grasp that offered both control and comfort, they found
themselves confronted by their own needs, unprotected, naked literally and
metaphorically and drawn towards sexual activity that expressed their once
masked and managed level of growth.
More than 100,000 men worldwide have left the priesthood since the 1960s.
In the United States, the number of priests has fallen to 48,097, a 17.3%
decline since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the
Apostolate, a Catholic research center at Georgetown University. By the
year 2000, according to estimates from Catholic reform groups, there will
be more married former priests than active priests. Reed, C L, 'Unfaithful',
Mother Jones, Vol 22 No 6, Nov Dec 1997, pp 45 55.
A friend told me that he overheard the following in a Spanish (Barcelona)
hotel. The English clergyman had just registered 'as the Lord Bishop of
Chichester and his lovely wife' and one of the Spanish staff muttered: 'At
least our bishops are a little more discreet.' The story may be apocryphal
'You'll probably find that I'm the horniest guy you've ever met' - Father
X in a letter to his girl friend. The missive ended 'Yours devotedly in
'About 20% of priests vowed to celibacy an estimate gleaned from all
sources are at any one time involved either in a more or less stable sexual
relationship with a woman, or alternatively, involved with sequential women
in an identifiable pattern of behaviour. They are living a public lie. (Sipe,
A.W.R. A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy,
Brunner/Mazel, New York, 1990, p 74.
'Up to eight priests have been accused of engaging in sexual relationships
with consenting female parishioners...Archbishop George Pell revealed that
none of the priests facing recent sex allegations had been stood down. (Johnston,
D. 'Clergy sex investigated', Herald Sun, 5 March 1997, p 7.)
Archbishop Sanchez, (Sante Fe) was revealed as a man too busy with his
own sexual acting out to deal with the sins of his priests. He admitted
that his own sexual activity with eleven women, all in their twenties, over
a period of eighteen years increased when he became Archbishop. The permissive
society got the blame. Nelson, J, The Secrets
of Archbishop Sanchez, Missing Link, Fall 1996 -Winter
1997, p 1.
We have dozens of informants who were told by a bishop that if they had
a problem with celibacy, they should take a woman as a housekeeper or a
mistress. Any arrangement that was private and did not give scandal was
seen as a preferable alternative to resignation from the priesthood.' (Sipe,
op. cit., p.75)
Priestly relationships with women can be placed loosely in six categories:
Those who manage to sustain chaste friendships over lengthy periods;
Those who are in the experimental, adolescent stage of sexuality, dating
Those who are in a more or less stable sexual relationship with one
the priest/Brother in a succession of affairs with separate partners;
those who marry either openly and leave the priesthood, or (rarely)
'Seven-Eleven' is a support group for women involved (Britain) with priests
which the Church, in some dioceses, tries to pretend does not occur. All
in the support group wanted to be open about their relationships, but could
not, because of what they and the priest stood to lose: in his case, job,
salary, pensions rights, home - together with the loss of identity, status
and purpose; in hers, maybe her job if she worked within Catholic education,
social welfare or pastoral systems. She could also lose her good name because
many Catholics would view her as a Jezebel. She could perhaps lose family
Twenty years is a long time to hide the most important adult relationship
in your life. To pretend that you're single, keep a vital part of your life
secret, timetable it around clandestine meetings, look over your shoulder.
Why do women get involved in such a no-hope relationship ?
The Church likes to say that these are isolated cases which need to be
dealt with on an individual basis rather than regarding them as symptomatic
of a widespread disorder which needs proper, organised investigation. (Jenkins,
C. A Passion for Priests, Headline, Hodder & Stoughton PLC, London, 1995, pp. 4 - 9.)
'In the mid-1960s, a deep and meaningful relationship with a woman because
de rigueur for a bright, young, restless cleric. It was a kind of adolescent
rebellion within the bounds of the law, but the "third way" was
a treacherous ideal to maintain. Many left the priesthood.' (Sipe. op.
They stood among the snowcapped peaks of the French Alps last summer
and exchanged gold bands, a private ceremony that marked a secret relationship
two decades old. Before leaving they knelt down and prayed that God would
bless their relationship and their chosen careers: He is a Catholic priest;
she is a nun. "Spiritually, I feel like I'm married", explains
Father Michael, a priest for 27 years, and pastor of a parish in the Midwest.
The pair's hidden life resembles that of a modern professional couple. They
spend their vacations together, traveling recently to Europe with his parents
... when possible, they enjoy a healthy sex life ... "I wrestle with
it," says Father Michael, "In my case it's always been a consistent
theme. I'm always on the edge of leaving. I stay for the people." Reed,
C L, 'Unfaithful', Mother Jones, Nov-Dec 1997, pp 45-55.
'I stay for the people'
Why do they stay ? They believe they could never make it on the outside
... with good reason. Many have watched colleagues leave in order to pursue
a relationship, only to wind up behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant
or on welfare. The anxiety becomes more acute the longer a priest stays
within the church ... most Catholic dioceses refuse to offer any type of
pension to a priest who resigns. Former priests can be penniless after years
'If it is consenting adults we look at things differently' - Spokesman,
Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia. 'No one else appears to be at risk in
this case. However, Broken Rites spokesperson said that it is clearly
unethical for any professional person to sexualise a relationship with a
patient.' (Giles, D. 'Church cool on claim of affair', Sunday Mail
(Brisbane), 19 February 1995, p. 36)
It took Brett Schott (St Louis, Missouri, six years a priest, resigned)
several years of struggling (and losing) with his vow of celibacy before
he decided ultimately to leave. "I found myself entering relationships
and then running from them because I wanted to be a priest," he says.
One relationship lasted nearly nine months. He ended it when he realised
it was nothing but physical attraction. "In seminary they talked about
celibacy, but it was always that Jesus would be everything for you. I didn't
understand what I was going to surrender. Once Brett became a priest, the
sacrifice seemed enormous, especially when he counselled 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, Nov-Dec 1997, pp 45-55.
(Bishop Christopher Budd, Plymouth, England) 'When you have relationships
and somebody is still in priestly ministry, the truth must come out and
the priest concerned must actually accept the truth and move out of the
ministry and do what he can to support either the woman or the woman and
the child(ren). After all, if a priest has fathered a child by a woman,
in some ways he is personally responsible, and that means he may have to
leave the ministry and earn sufficient to support the child and the mother.'
(Mc Donagh, M. 'Let's be honest', The Tablet, 18 January 1997, p. 62.)
Relations between ministers and congregants are governed by professional
ethics, not 'sexual impropriety'. Those in the 'helping professions' have
privileged access to the inner world of their clients. Professional standing
gives them an authority and power which they are required to use in the
best interests of their clients. Apparent consent can involve emotional
coercion. A trust can be violated. In many professions such a violation
of trust would lead to some form of professional suspension. A proven offender
could be 'struck off'. Yet in the churches such professional misconduct
was often viewed as a minor matter. There were no serious sanctions; the
woman victim was seen as the problem. She led him on; she threw herself
at him; her complaints are just vindictive. ..and, of course, women can
pose as victims when they are supposed to be grown-up too. There seems to
be no good reason why priests should be protected by the church from the
consequences of their actions.
'Women parishioners find it totally confusing that he can act as a priest
in public and yet to act in direct contrast in private. How can the church
condone the actions of priests who avoid their responsibilities by remaining
active in the priesthood and denying the child's right to a father.' (Mac
Isaac, C. 'A Trust Betrayed', Broken Rites Newsletter, No.
10, March 1996, p.4.)
Studies conducted by the National Conference of Catholic bishops (USA)
have determined that 10% of priests in the United States leave the active
ministry within five years of ordination; 25% of them leave within 25 years
of ordination - most of them to marry.
However, some men stay in the priesthood and seek sexual relationships
of varying permanence with women of their acquaintance. These affairs are
not illegal; but often involve boundary violations with parishioners and
breach professional ethics. Sometimes the relationships are abusive, where
there is a clear power imbalance; sometimes transitory and leave few scars;
and some happy and satisfying to both parties.
Women in relationships with priests are abused in significant numbers
by men who maintain their status and privilege within the celibate system
while they relegate their women to the status of a backstreet wife.
Priests use women to prove their masculinity, to comfort their loneliness
and to relieve their sexual needs. Most priests sexual relationships with
women are determined by the priest's opportunism, selfishness, immature
exploitiveness or character defects which leave the women traumatised and
The point here is that in popular myth the woman, characterised as a
'blacktracker' seduces the priest and leads him astray, while the reality
is that in most cases - not all - the priest (male) is the pursuer. In the
case of some women, the priest's chastity might appear as a challenge.
Priests often view their own sexual involvements as necessary periodic
If repentant, the priest or Brother is forgiven, with great compassion,
for his human failing. The woman has often been treated badly; the church
taking the view which includes one or more of these elements:
- she is to blame for the priest's dalliance;
- she should be silent and grateful for the privilege of such selection
- t is part of the special grace and gift of a woman to be able to save
a priest (for his future ministry) by her love.
The Pregnancy, the Abortion and the Priest
The abortions of children fathered by priests is one of the lethal time
bombs ticking within the American Catholic Church. (Sipe, op. cit.,
In the case of women who have abortions of children fathered by priests
or Brothers, their stories tend to follow a similar pattern:
1 The priest/Brother presents himself as a man tired of his vocation,
worn out by its demands, one who requires assistance and understanding.
2 There is an affair, a courtship. None of the victims is a casual encounter.
3 Over time the priest and the woman develop a working and sexual relationship
... they meet at certain regular times ... have serious talks about their
futures together ... discuss the possibilities of his leaving the priesthood
and their eventual marriage.
4 In spite of their sexual relationship, the pregnancy is usually
unplanned by both parties and comes as a genuine shock, especially to the
5 The Brother/priest is horrified at how far he has become involved.
He wallows in self-pity ... 'Poor me' The woman is isolated; the priest
is threatened with exposure and the loss of his job, security and social
status. He is very concerned, but it is not for the woman and not for the
6 'You have to do something'. The Brother's attitude is clear: 'It's
all your fault ! You should have been on the pill.' He now has little to
do with the problem.The way out arises: have an abortion. He sometimes
offers to pay, or the matters are arranged through lay friends. Sometimes
she does; sometimes she refuses.
7 Either way, the pregnancy has terminated their relationship. No matter
whether the Brother stays in the picture for a few days, a few weeks or
some months, eventually he comes to the stage when he says: 'Bye, bye,
baby' or words to that effect.
8 He appears before his bishop/Province Leader. He is contrite, or scared
and appears contrite. He is forgiven and reconciled with the system; she
is abandoned. If she approaches church authority for some kind of compensation
or serious financial support to assist with raising the child (in the cases
where she refuses an abortion), it only proves her motivation all along:
she is greedy as well as impure.
(Father Kevin Cox, 68, Irish, Cistercian, Tarrawarra Abbey, 1954-75.
Thereafter a diocesan priest in various Sydney parishes) 'Mandy', 35, was
one of five daughters of a devout Sydney Catholic family. Until 'Mandy'
was 16, the abuse always stopped short of sexual penetration, but at age
sixteen, it progressed to penetration, and at seventeen she became pregnant.
The priest then told 'Mandy' to have an abortion ... and paid $200 in cash
toward the cost of the abortion, which was performed at a clinic in inner
Sydney when 'Mandy' had finished her Year 11 studies at a Catholic college.
'The priest and the schoolgirl', Broken Rites Newsletter, Nos
17&18, Summer 1999-2000, pp 1-3.
It is especially galling to some women to witness the promotion and advancement
of the priest abortionist within the church power structure, while the women
struggle with their emotions and financial insecurity.
The Catholic Church has been stunned by accusations that they tried to
force a young mother to have an abortion. Brother DS, 57 years old, teaching
at a Catholic College in Port Hedland (WA) has a nine year old son. 'Kylie'
first met Brother D. in 1984 when he was a 43-year-old teaching Brother
visiting her school to conduct a religious retreat. In 1986 a sexual relationship
started and in 1988 she became pregnant. In January 1989, Brother D informed
his Province Leader that his child would soon be born. He told them he wanted
to leave the order but the Marists persuaded him to dump me and stay in
his Congregation...On 16 May 1989 when I was six months pregnant two men
came to my door...they said they could help me have an abortion. I believe
these two men were from the Marist Brothers. (Taylor, N. 'Mother claims
Marist Brother fathered son', Sunday Times, Perth, 9 August
'Don't Fuck the Flock'
A dedicated Melbourne pastor told me that this was a slogan among some
when he was in the seminary many years ago, which suggests that there was
a certain adolescent coarseness among some of his classmates.
There is a difference between the following two scenarios though both
involve a priest breaking his vow of celibacy:
1 Father Jed Smythe likes his night out after his day off and dons his
best civies and heads for a bar in a suburb many kilometres from his parish
and where he is unknown. There he chats up an unattached lady, 'Mandy',
squatting on a neighbouring stool. She does not know that he is a priest;
he does not know anything about her background...Time passes...it reaches
the stage of 'my place or yours'. Well 'not my place' Jed thinks (giggling
inwardly) 'so it's yours'. And over time, an affair develops...well yes:
they are simply two adults in a relationship...!
2 The other case becomes obvious: Father Mike Albright after a solid
two years counselling course 'in the States' and clutching his PhD, in
Psychology becomes a widely sought after psychologist/counsellor in his
parish and way beyond as his fame spreads. 'Mary', one of his parishioners
and her father still takes up the collection at the 10.30 Mass comes to
him deeply distressed after her marriage breakdown ... Father becomes involved
emotionally and over time... sexually with her. Here, while they are both
adults, the scene is not as above: there is a professional relationship
between them; they are not equal partners in the relationship; there is
a power difference. 'Father' is in the wrong even if 'Mary' is a consenting
'It's not an affair !'
Language is important. The choice of words that we use to describe something
influences how people think, feel and act. Consider the difference between
'affair' and 'clergy malpractice'.
The word 'affair' suggests that two adults chose to enter a sexual
relationship. It appears as if both individuals are responsible equally.
This is not true of ministerial relationships; there is a difference in
power. A ministerial relationship is one in which a religious professional
exercises pastoral care, spiritual directions, teaching or counselling with
another person. The roles of pastor/counsellor and lover are not compatible.
Religious professionals are supposed to act in the best interests of those
they serve. The words 'clergy malpractice' refer to a religious professional's
failure to adhere to an ethical and legal standard of behaviour. There is
no question of who is responsible for clergy malpractice; the religious
professional is to blame for misusing the power and authority of his (or
Congregants, employees, students, counselling clients and others in
a ministerial relationship are never responsible for boundary violations
by religious professionals. Adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse frequently
see themselves as consenting. They blame themselves. However, it is
not possible for someone in a ministerial relationship to give meaningful
consent to sexual activity with a religious professional because of the
power difference. The ministerial role includes the symbolic power of a
representative of God and the religious community. Religious professionals
have access to vulnerable people. People come to religious professionals
for help when they are in trouble. Religious professionals are trusted as
respected authority figures.
It is wrong for religious professionals to betray this trust by verbally,
physically, emotionally or spiritually violating someone they are supposed
to be assisting. Nobody wants to believe they can be abused. Frequently,
survivors ignore feelings of discomfort while boundary violations occur
because they just don't want to believe it can be happening. Abusive religious
professionals usually tell their victims the unethical conduct is God's
The most common response by perpetrators of all kinds is to lie, deny,
minimise, rationalise and blame the victim. Religious professional's responses
to the disclosure of abuse is the same as perpetrators in other occupations.
People do not want their image of religious professionals to be shattered.
Abusive clergy are sometimes charismatic and inspirational. It is easier
to believe the excuses of an abusive religious professional than hear the
pain of the survivors.
It is tempting to believe the lies of abusive clergy because they do
not have to think about necessary changes. Reducing the risk of abuse in
religious communities means accepting that churches, seminaries and other
places of worship, education and training are not automatically safe places.
It means a lot of hard work.
Frequently, religious organisations try to explain away and remove accountability
for clergy malpractice by calling it an 'affair'. The congregation as a
whole may receive a letter which refers to an 'adulterous relationship'.
This encourages the congregation to vilify the victim and forgive the pastor.
The pain of clergy sexual abuse is intensified by victim blaming. Many survivors
are told to leave their religious community, or they do so because continued
participation is very difficult. The way congregations respond to disclosures
of abuse also determines the likelihood that other survivors will be able
to come forward.
Healing processes are affected by the language used to describe what
happened. Picture a festering wound. Victim blaming language is like rubbing
salt in the wound. Denying or minimising the religious professional's responsibility
for maintaining ethical boundaries is comparable to covering gangrene with
a bandaid. Healing comes from creating an environment, both in society and
religious communities, where it is possible for survivors to talk about
their experiences in their own words.
Priests who leave Ministry
Five years after the establishment of the Epiphany Association
and nearly 40 years after increasing numbers of priests commenced resigning
from the active ministry, welcome signs of improvements in the relationship
between these priests and their former superiors and colleagues are emerging.
Australian Bishop's Committee for Clergy and Religious met a number
of Epiphany members for discussions, May 1998 ... many viewed
the meeting as a positive first step to establish a more acceptable standing
for priests no longer in active ministry within the Catholic community.
(Madden, J 'The Epiphany experience Five years on', The Swag,
September 1998, p.6)
Exploration: a defence
Why is this serious sort of exploration necessary? The answer might be
summarised from an article by a well-known Sydney priest writing (in a slightly
different context) in an in-house journal for clergy.
The sad experience of the past ten years of so of numerous allegations
of clerical misconduct, ranging from lapses of virtue to the most heinous
criminal misconduct, ought to prompt serious reflection about the quality
of our formation in our professional life.
We have to face the fact that trust has been eroded. We need to rebuild
this trust, not however, by institutionalising distrust.
If we agree that we need to do better, then we can legitimately look
for some tools to help improve the standard of our professional conduct.
One such tool is an agreed written statement of the standards we set
ourselves. Sometimes such statements are called 'codes of conduct'.
If we argue about the title we do not really resolve the real issue which
is about the content ... we ought to know what we expect of ourselves and
We ought to listen to what others expect of us
The statement of these expectations should not be a legislative document
that restricts or penalises. This runs the risk of institutionalising distrust.
It should be a liberating document that sets out the goals to which we
aspire.Lucas, B. 'Codes of Conduct', The Swag, December 1997,
On the one hand to dedicated priests; on the other hand to complicit
Are we still of any use ? The simple answer is 'Yes'
'We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been
drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense;
experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful
and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and made us cynical. Are
we still of any use ? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or
clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straight-forward men. Will our inward
power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless
enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness