(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 25.)
A recent report on sexual abuse by priests in the United States conveniently lets the Catholic Church off the hook in crucial respects.
Researchers appointed by Catholic bishops concluded that homosexuality, the vow of celibacy and the all-male priesthood were not factors in the epidemic of clerical abuse uncovered in recent decades.
Rather, the researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Research in New York seemed to pin much of the blame on the fact that many offenders were trained for the priesthood during the 1940s and 1950s, a period when Catholic seminaries did not adequately prepare them for a life of celibacy.
They concluded that priests were not equipped to withstand the social upheaval of the 1960s, when traditional standards of morality were overturned.
I’m sure their findings are at least partly right, but I wonder whether their report is a bit of a copout.
Consciously or otherwise, researchers tend to produce findings that satisfy whoever is paying them – in this case, the Catholic Church.
Church authorities would be naturally reluctant to acknowledge that celibacy – the rule that priests cannot marry – might be a factor in the sexual abuse that has scandalised the church since the 1980s. They are probably even more reluctant to concede that having an all-male priesthood might be part of the problem.
Any such findings would challenge traditional Catholic teaching, which is firmly set against allowing priests to marry and even more resistant to the ordination of women. So it seems convenient that the John Jay report ruled out celibacy and the all-male priesthood as causes of clerical abuse.
Phew; no need for the Catholic hierarchy to re-assess its position on celibacy and female priests then. That must have come as a relief.
The conclusion that abusive priests weren’t necessarily homosexuals, as suspected by church conservatives seeking easy explanations, would have been reassuring too, but it’s hardly new. A courageous retired Australian bishop named Geoffrey Robinson, who was ostracised after arguing that forced celibacy was a cause of abuse within the Church, maintains that the reason boys were the victims in the overwhelming majority of abuse cases was simply that priests had greater access to boys than to girls.
In Catholic schools, for example, boys were generally looked after by priests and girls by nuns. Priests also had contact with altar boys, so boys presented more opportunities. (The one case of sexual abuse by a priest that I personally know of involved an altar boy.)
Another factor, according to Robinson, who worked with victims of clerical abuse, was that many abusive priests didn’t consider offending with boys to be a breach of their celibacy vow. They reasoned that they were only in violation of their vow if they had sex with adult women – an interesting rationalisation, to say the least.
One thing seems screamingly obvious, although I’ve never seen the Catholic Church acknowledge it. From a layman’s point of view, what emerges from the research into clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is that it’s all about the basic human need for intimacy.
By being denied the right to marry or form close relationships, priests are deprived of the warmth and intimacy that human beings naturally crave. In theory, they have no need of intimate physical relationships because they devote themselves wholly to God. But priests are still human; ordination doesn’t magically obliterate all their human needs and desires.
I believe that much sexual abuse by priests can be explained as a warped response to the absence of intimacy in their lives. This is consistent with findings that abusive priests who prey on boys are not necessarily homosexual or paedophile.
Anyone with knowledge of the Catholic Church knows that many priests lead lonely lives. Father McKenzie in the bleak Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby, “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there”, is all too believable. (Paul McCartney's mother was Catholic, so the Beatle may have had some insight into life in the presbytery.)
Most priests seem to cope, but it’s hardly surprising that some find an outlet for their sexual desire and longing for intimacy by forming what are euphemistically known as “inappropriate relationships”. Some do it with adult female parishioners; others with minors.
In other times and other places, priests dealt with the challenge of celibacy in a variety of ways. In countries such as France, Spain and Italy, it was not uncommon for the parish priest to have a mistress. Perhaps they took their cue from the popes in bygone times who maintained illicit relationships and even fathered children.
In countries such as ours, previous generations of priests probably coped better with celibacy because society in general was far more disciplined and respectful of authority.
Individual freedom and choice were not the catch-cries they are today. Improper behaviour of any sort was liable to incur severe sanctions. Besides, temptation and opportunity were limited in a buttoned-up, conservative society where people were careful not to step out of line.
Even when people transgressed, it was much easier then than now to keep scandal out of the public eye. People were less inclined to complain about abuse or ill-treatment. “Making a fuss” was discouraged.
Hierarchical institutions such as the Catholic Church were rarely challenged and the generally passive news media were reluctant to stir up trouble. The aggressive style of journalism now familiar to us, which delights in exposing bad behaviour and arousing controversy, was unheard of.
All that changed, of course, with the social revolution of the 1960s, which emphasised personal and sexual freedom and the right to “do your own thing”, in the parlance of that era. Temptation flourished and old disciplinarian codes broke down.
Small wonder that for priests, maintaining the vow of celibacy became much more of a challenge, as the John Jay College findings concluded. In more recent times, the Catholic Church has also found itself in the unfamiliar situation of being subjected to intense outside scrutiny and pressure as previously hidden abuse was brought to the surface.
If the Church hoped that the John Jay report would provide it with some means of identifying and filtering out potential abusers within its ranks, it’s likely to have been disappointed. The researchers found no “psychological characteristics” or “developmental histories” that distinguished guilty priests from non-offenders.
All of which seems to support the contention that sexual abuse by priests is a distorted reaction to an unnatural denial of the basic human need for intimacy. A growing number of Catholics recognise this, but hell would have to freeze over before the ageing male hierarchy that controls the Church accepts the need for reform.