Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

A Discussion on Faith and Culture

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A View from Australia

October 29th, 2013 · 3 Comments

Patrick Parkinson AM, Professor of Law, University of Sydney recently gave a lecture,  CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE AND THE CHURCHES: A story of moral failure? He stresses that his observations are based upon incomplete data, but that he has observed and fought sexual abuse for many years. he is an evangelical who once studied in Czechoslovakia where be observed the brutal repression of the Catholic Church and admired the courage of Catholics. He says “I regard myself as a friend of the Catholic Church” and wants it to overcome this corruption.

From the evidence he has examined it appears to him that sexual abuse is more prevalent among Catholic clergy than among the clerical and lay workers of other denominations and among the general male population:

Prof. Des Cahill identified 378 priests who graduated from a particular seminary in Melbourne and who were ordained between 1940 and 1966. Of these, 14 (3.7%) were convicted of sex offences against children and, after their deaths, another four were acknowledged to have abused children. That is, 18 priests or 4.8% of the total who were ordained between those years, sexually abused children. Taking a later cohort of seminarians, the 74 priests who were ordained between 1968 and 1971 from that seminary, 4 (5.4%) had been convicted of sex offences against children.

In fact, I think it is higher. In the United States I think that between 7% and 10% of Catholic clergy have been sexually involved with minors. But even the lower percentages that Parkinson cites are alarming. Parkinson asks

Is this level of offending higher than for men in the general population? There is no reliable baseline data on levels of offending in the general population in Australia. Peter Marshall’s study in England found some indication of population-wide conviction rates (Marshall, 1997). One in 150 men over the age of 20 had a conviction for sexual offence against a minor. Lifetime propensity figures will of course be higher than those derived from a snapshot of the adult male population at a given moment in time. Based on his data of various cohorts of these men, Marshall estimates that between 1% and 2% of the male population would be expected to be convicted for some form of sexual offence over their lifetime (including sex offences against adults). If those figures are similar for Australia, then Prof. Cahill’s research would indicate that the rate of convictions for Catholic priests who studied at the seminary in Melbourne is much higher than in the general population (3.7% of those ordained between 1940 and 1966 and 5.4% of those ordained between 1968 and 1971).

How do  Catholic clergy compare to church workers in other denominations? Parkinson notes that

The figure for the number of victims in the Catholic Church was exactly 10 times that in the Anglican Church. This is only partially explained by the greater size of the Catholic Church in Melbourne. The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne lists 287 parishes on its website. The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne contains 203 parishes covering greater Melbourne and Geelong (Anglican Diocese of Victoria, 2012). That is, the Anglican Church is about 70% of the size of the Catholic Church in the two Archdioceses as counted by number of parishes. In addition to parish ministries, the Catholic Church also ran schools and children’s homes in which priests and brothers worked, and this would add significantly to the tally of sexual abuse incidents which might involve members of religious organisations. There is not the same tradition in Protestant denominations of clergy or other people called to religious vocations running schools and children’s homes. Such institutions tend to be run by lay people. For these reasons, Catholic priests and religious have had a much greater opportunity for abuse than their counterparts in other denominations.

On the other hand, Anglican churches, like other Protestant churches, would also have many paid youth workers. When all explanations have been offered, the rate of convictions of Catholic Church personnel does seem to be strikingly out of proportion with the size of this faith community compared with other faith communities.

The profile of the victims of abuse also differed from those in the general population. In Australia, about 27% of girls and 9% of boys have been sexually abused. But both the Catholic and Anglican Churches vary from this pattern.

The John Jay College study of child sexual abuse in the US Catholic Church found that 81% of the victims of abuse were male. This is the opposite of patterns seen in the general population, where approximately three times as many females are abused as males.

Lest it be thought that these patterns are unique to the Catholic Church, we found a similar pattern in our Anglican Church study. Three-quarters of complainants who alleged sexual abuse were male.

Parkinson thinks that the difference is caused by the greater access to boys that clergy have:

The greater abuse of boys than girls in both the US Catholic Church and the Anglican Church of Australia is likely to reflect the fact that priests, ministers and youth leaders have a much greater opportunity to abuse boys than girls, given the patterns of their ministry. In the past, at least, it has been more common for priests and religious to be alone with adolescent boys or to have the opportunity to form unsupervised friendships with them, than with girls. Parents were likely to be concerned by too close a friendship between a 30-40 year old man and a teenage girl; but they would have had no such concerns if the priest took an interest in their troubled teenage son.

Little of the abuse by clergy has been true pedophilia. Most of the victims are adolescents:

No doubt some offending priests and members of religious orders have been paedophiles; but this is likely to explain only a proportion of sex offending against children by priests and religious. The loneliness and difficulty of a celibate life with all the demands of the priesthood may lead other men to seek out teenagers to meet their needs without them being paedophiles. Indeed, sexual attraction to post-pubescent teenagers may be, biologically-speaking, within the boundaries of normal adult sexuality.

If adults are sexually attracted to adolescents, male or female, why do the Catholic clergy succumb to this temptation more than other clergy and the general male population do?

One of the unanswered questions about sex offending by clergy is how much of it is situational, or influenced by the culture of a group, rather than the outworking of an abnormal sexual deviation.

And that is where the Catholic Church may have a unique problem.

Some priest-offenders rationalise their abusive behaviour on the basis that sexual activity with boys is not a breach of their vow of celibacy whereas sexual relations with a woman would be. Different levels of sexual contact falling short of intercourse may also be excused in this way. Some support for this thesis emerges from the survey conducted as part of the research for Towards Understanding, the discussion paper on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. Respondents noted that offenders within the Church dissociated their abusive behaviour from their commitment to celibacy. Indeed, a high number of respondents described offenders they knew as having a strong commitment to celibacy (Towards Understanding, 1999, p. 44).

This cognitive distortion may well be an important factor in sex offending against boys. If priest offenders have a strong commitment to celibacy, then sexual relations with adult women or girls will not be permissible. If these men rationalise sexual contact with men or teenage boys as either not being a breach of their vow of celibacy at all, or a sexual peccadillo which may be both tolerated within the Church and forgiven by God, then they may well be as prone to situational same-sex activity as men in prison or in other confined, all-male environments. Teenage boys in children’s homes and boarding schools, and boys in parish contexts with whom the priest or religious may find good enough reason to be alone, may disproportionately become victims because of their accessibility and vulnerability, not necessarily because of a paraphilic sexual attraction to boys of that age.

What this means is that it is impossible to end abuse by screening out men with abnormal sexual desires, because their abuse is not caused by abnormal sexual desires.

I would add that a flattening down of sexual sins is part of the problem. Traditionally, theologians have taught that there is no light matter involving sexuality. Therefore any sexual sin, a voluntary fantasy, masturbation, fornication, adultery, and child abuse, are all mortal sins that lead to damnation. Although it was not taught tat they were all equally serious, the differences among them were less important than the fact that they were all mortal sins. But they could all be forgiven by going to confession and saying a few prayers.

Clericalism has long afflicted the Catholic Church and is deeply ingrained in canon law.

There has long been a culture within international Catholicism that in some way the Church is its own jurisdiction, its own legal system, and that the proper place for judging clergy is within the structures established by Canon Law. Canon Law provides that clergy or religious who abuse children under 18 are to be “punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state” (Canon 1395(2)). However, it is no part of canonical thinking that child sexual abuse is a crime that ought routinely to be reported to the police and dealt with by the criminal courts.

Priest thought they were beyond the reach of the police and the courts.

Another was the culture of clericalism. The 2011 document puts it succinctly: “The bishop has a duty to treat all priests as father and brother” (Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei, 2011).

That was interpreted, in some quarters, as involving an obligation to protect priests and religious brothers from the criminal law. In 2001, Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for not reporting Fr René Bissey, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2000 for sex offences against children. It appears that the bishop indicated at his trial that the admission of guilt by the priest had not been in the confessional. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, wrote to the Bishop, congratulating him on not denouncing a priest to the civil authorities. He was said to have acted wisely in preferring to go to prison rather than denounce his priest-son. Cardinal Hoyos advanced a theological reason for this position. He explained that the relationship between priests and their bishop is not professional but sacramental and forges very special bonds of spiritual paternity. He drew the analogy with rules of law in various countries which excused one close relative from testifying against another.

The letter concluded that in order to ‘encourage brothers in the episcopate in this delicate matter’, a copy of the letter would be forwarded to all the conferences of bishops. The Cardinal said at a conference in 2010 that he wrote the letter after consulting Pope John Paul II, and that it was the Pope who authorised him to send this letter to all the bishops.

Pope Francis plans to canonize John Paul in the spring of 2014 – will Francis follow the example of his sainted predecessor in the way he handled sexual abuse?

Parkinson also notes the chaotic structure of the Catholic Church as a source of the failure to deal with abuse:

People think of it as a highly structured and hierarchical institution; but actually the opposite is the case. Each bishop is the prime authority in his diocese, subject to oversight from Rome. Each leader of a religious Order is responsible for his or her members subject to direction from the worldwide leadership of the Order, if there is one.

The management structure made sense in the Middle Ages, when the fastest mode of transport was a horse and authority even within countries, was highly decentralised. All that has changed now. To address these issues in future, the Church needs to find a way of throwing out its rotten apples, publicly rebuking or removing leaders from their positions if they have failed egregiously to do the right thing. It needs, in other words, to modernise and to create an authority structure with power to deal with the recalcitrant and the obstructive in its midst. I have no reason for confidence that this leadership will come from the Vatican or from the leaders of the worldwide religious orders, some of which are also based in Rome.

I would add that the laity are the only possible source of reform, but except for a handful of people, the laity don’t want to think about abuse or actively blame the victims for making it public. Only pressure from the police and courts will control the corruption.

Tags: Anglicans · Australia · Moral Theology · clergy sex abuse scandal

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Vickie // Oct 30, 2013 at 5:32 am

    Regarding the percentages of clergy that abuse children/adolescents, I would think it higher than that because it is so under reported.

    I could give the bishops a pass on the “bishop - son priest relationship if they had at least removed preditors from contact with children and reassigned them to nursing homes etc. Really it just sounds like rationalizing doing nothing.

  • 2 Father Michael K // Oct 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I agree with you Vickie.

    We’re so careful now in Canada, that I’m not sure situational pederasty, as the study describes it, can occur any more. I sure am hoping it cannot.

  • 3 Anonymous // Oct 31, 2013 at 11:20 am

    It is good to hear that steps are being taken in Canada. Also for me to remember that even if the percentages are much higher, most priests are not that way.

    What is distressing is how most bishops are fine with lying to laity.

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