Religious Life Without Integrity

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Barry M Coldrey

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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 them.

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 Christ'.


'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 and necking;

Those who are in a more or less stable sexual relationship with one woman;

the priest/Brother in a succession of affairs with separate partners;

the promiscuous;

those who marry either openly and leave the priesthood, or (rarely) marry secretly;

'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 and friends.

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. cit., p.99)


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 of service.


'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 confused.

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 lapses.

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 or closeness;
  • 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., p. 121

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 priest.

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 child !

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 1998, p.1


'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 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 partner.


'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 her) role.

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 will.

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 our peers.

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, p. 7


The Dedication

On the one hand to dedicated priests; on the other hand to complicit priests.

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 ?'


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