Clerical Abuse: How We Are All Complicit, Part 1

After several stops and starts, with some deviations along the way, I have now almost finished with my series of posts on clerical abuse in the Catholic Church. Today, I want to proceed with my core conclusion: that in one way or other, in manner large or small , we are all part of the problem, we have all been complicit, to some degree, in the scandal.  I expect this conclusion will surprise, even shock some of you, so before I present this conclusion , it will be helpful to review the evidence and argument so far.

Before I ever began with this series, I wrote about a book by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who had been point man for the Australian bishops in investigating the scandal in that country.  In this damning book, Robinson concludes that there are three key causes to the problem:  innate psychological problems of sexual immaturity in individuals, compulsory celibacy, and the excessively concentrated power structures of the Catholic Church.  Since then, as I ahve found that many other writers with expert knowledge have reached similar conclusions, as I noted here. I take these as a starting point, which underpin much of my reasoning.

I began my specific series by relating  my own experience of abuse.  In doing so, I was not motivated by any sense of self-pity or theatrics, but just to establish that I have a vested interest: for me, this is personal.  It has not given me unique understanding, but it has left me following much of the unfolding news with a particular interest.  My response to most public reaction has been that it is often simplistic, ignoring the complexities in favour of platitudes and knee jerk hand-wringing. It was in an attempt to go beyond the shallowness that I undertook this project.

With compulsory celibacy a core ingredient in Robinson’s recipe for abuse, I began by looking at some of the facts of so-called priestly celibacy – and concluded that to a large degree, it simply does not exist (The Myth of Preistly Celibacy).  Of course, there are individual priests who respect their vows, but many who do not – sometimes quite openly. This led me to consider the parallels with closeted homosexuals, and undertook a digression into the psychological and spiritual virtues for gay men and lesbians of coming out publicly, leaving the closet behind.  This led naturally to discussion of the damage done when priests who are unable or unwilling to maintain celibacy, become locked in a clerical closet.  These dangers firstly carry the usual psychological and spiritual damage familiar to closeted queers, but also extend the  harm to others –  as Robinson and others have clearly shown. These victims are not just boys – there are twice as many girls abused.  Nor are the victims only children.

Frequently, these are adults in religious houses, male and female, who feel unable to resist the power of priestly sexual predators – nuns in convents, young men in seminaries, junior priests under the sway of bishops and cardinals who are unable to practice natural sexual lives more openly. There are also willing partners, again of either sex, who can be regarded as victims also, because their partners’ priestly secrecy forces them, too, to enter unwillingly into the priestly closet, unable to rejoice publicly in their love, or even children unable to acknowledge their fathers.

So the direct victims of compulsory celibacy certainly include physically and sexually abused young children, but there are many more victims, and many more varieties of abuse.

The second ingredient in the mix is the unhealthy concentration of power in the Catholic hierarchy.  Some of this has been alluded to above, and results in power being abused for sexual predation by religious superiors over their juniors, but it also directly affects all of us in a different way (“How we are all victims”). In asserting the absolute right of the church professionals to formulate rules of sexual behaviour, even though these professionals can have no more than minimal experience of these matters, the church has formulated a sexual theology which is fatally flawed. This is clearly shown by the simple fact that most of these rules are simply not widely applied: taken collectively, I would guess that those conscientiously attempting to follow all the regulations, avoiding  masturbation, pre-marital intercourse, contraception, or forms of intercourse “not open to procreation”, divorce and same sex relationships, must surely be a small minority.  I suggest that most practicing, sincere Catholics, routinely contravene at least one of these. The associated insistence of the church that contravention must be followed by  repentance, confession to a priest, and penance, simply leaves many Catholics with enormous burdens of guilt.  Some will simply become habitual penitents, repeatedly confessing the same actions and pointlessly promising not to do it again;  some will go through struggles of conscience, reaching a position of informed and conscientious dissent; and still others will simply walk away from the Church, describing themselves as “recovering Catholics”.  But many will have been damaged by this struggle with guilt.

And even those who have not been so infected are also victims:  they are victims simply by being members of an organisation so tainted by the scandal of disrepute.

And so I move on to my conclusion – how we are all complicit, but first one more detour.  Back in South Africa, during the hearings under Bishop Desmond Tutu of the Truth & Reconciliaiton Commission into the atrocities of apartheid and those of the freedom struggle, I was struck by the realisation that in one way or other, big or small, we were all victims, we were all responsible – but we were also all part of the solution and remedy.

It is in that spirit that I have shown we are all victims.  How, then are we all complicit?

In a word, by acquiescing.  We have tolerated or approved the insistence on clerical celibacy, we have failed to resist the theological bullying that has entrenched the clerical power grab of the last few centuries, and by reacting to the scandal emotionally rather than rationally, we have fallen for the scapegoating con trick, which has deliberately diverted attention from the real causes deep in the institutional structure of the church, to the much maligned gay priests.  By falling for the lie that the best way to end the scandal is by keeping well -adjusted, out of the closet gay men out of the seminaries, we are pretendig that the best way to end the problem is to perpetuate the conditions that casued it.  This logo becomes ever more appropriate as a symbol of the contradictions in the church’s stance:

1973 design for the Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission

1973 design for the Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission


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