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Child Abuse in the Catholic Church - what can be learned?

Child Abuse in the Catholic Church - what can be learned?

04 November 10

Heythrop College, University of London, 4th November 2010, supported by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme with the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology

What follows is a summary of the proceedings of this interdisciplinary workshop co-organised by the Religion and Society Programme. The report may be downloaded from here.

Executive Summary

• Abuse in the Church is a systemic issue, rather than merely one of individual offenders.

• Solutions also have to be systemic as well as individual (therapeutic and judicial).

• Inadequate theologies have had a role to play: the failure of the Church to endorse an adequate sexual ethic is one serious problem.

• Deficiencies in clerical formation need to be addressed, including lack of life-long formation.

• Interdisciplinary perspectives allow us to see the interlocked causes of abuse including power inequalities, state-church relations, cultural commitments, theologies, legal systems and their application, the nature of institutions including ‘closed’ institutions, mechanisms of denial, and lack of accountability.

• Adequate modes of listening to survivors and acknowledging and addressing the wrongs that have been done are still urgently required.

In what follows, some key points are underlined.


This colloquium brought together twenty participants with a range of backgrounds and expertise. Gillian Paterson [research fellow of Heythrop College], as one of its initiators, opened the day. She described how she and others had felt frustrated that at a recent conference about Catholic Ethics in the World Church child abuse had barely been mentioned. Charles Curran had challenged academics to take the topic more seriously, and this challenge had inspired others present at that event (Anna Abram [Lecturer in Ethics, Heythrop College], Julie Clague [Lecturer in Catholic Theology, University of Glasgow], Anna Rowlands [Director of Pastoral Studies and Tutor in Theology at the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Cambridge] and Linda Woodhead [Director of the Religion and Society Programme] to organize this multidisciplinary event. It was an experiment in how to talk about such a serious and sensitive issue around which there remains profound institutional silence and defensiveness. What follows is a summary of the papers presented and ensuing discussions.

Session 1

Brendan Geary in conversation with Julie Clague

Issues of ecclesiastical structure are key to addressing child abuse and the Church, asserted Marist Brother Brendan Geary. Brendan is currently Provincial of the Province of Europe and a trained counsellor who has specialized in working with sex offenders and also worked with survivors and the mothers of survivors. In dialogue with Julie Clague, he outlined how the system has been a contributory factor in the covering up of and failures to directly tackle the problem of abusing Catholic clergy and religious. As an editorial in the Irish Times said about the recent scandal in the Republic of Ireland: it was not a failure of the system, it was the system. Nonetheless, there is a tendency at the highest levels of the Church (including the pope) to be in denial about institutional complicity, and instead to blame individual perpetrators rather than view the institutional structure as part of the problem. The instinct of bishops is to protect and defend the Church. Individual people may know that the behaviour is taking place, but it is difficult to stand up to a powerful system. The options are to (1) conform (2) leave (3) deviate (4) challenge. Clergy who have challenged and spoken out have been variously dismissed, chastised and warned. The option to leave is very hard, as is deviating from the norm which can have high costs such as being ostracised and smeared. Hence, a lot of people conform and turn a blind eye to physical and sexual abuse and neglect, which may even lead to engaging in abuse themselves.

Brendan provided examples of how cognitive distortion often operates in priest perpetrators, whereby religious and theological ideas are twisted and manipulated in order to provide false justifications and rationalisations for abusive behaviour.

An additional element that arose from the discussion between Brendan and Julie was the confused language employed by the Vatican about priest abusers, who are described both as perpetrators deserving of punishment, and as sufferers of illness whose willpower is diminished and who therefore need help. This muddled language is clearly seen in Benedict’s comments to the press on 16 September 2010, and reveals confusion concerning culpability.

Brendan said that Pope Benedict XVI had already done more than any previous pope to address the issues, but the question remained: what is he going to do about the system? Brendan advocated bringing in an external, international team of experts, including women, to investigate the Vatican’s handling of the problem, because one can often see a system more clearly from the outside. The power of ‘group think’ is not to be underestimated. He welcomed the attempts by churches in England and Wales and the US to bring in outsiders with professional competence to investigate the crisis of child abuse leading to the production of official reports. Official comments describing paedophilia as an illness in which perpetrators have no will power were unhelpful. There are some clergy who feel sexually attracted to children, but do not commit abuse and seek help: that there is the ability to stop the behaviour. The medical model can become a get out clause. Even with ‘chemical castration’ (the administering of a drug to reduce testosterone) there has to be the desire to stop.

Helen Costigane

Why is there sexual misconduct? asked Lecturer in canon law, Christian ethics and pastoral theology at Heythrop College, Helen Costigane. She presented different answers to this question. She outlined different scholars’ models of priesthood and theologies of priesthood, and cited Conway who claims any of them may be implicated with sexual abuse, but that they have varying relations to risk factors such as isolation and attitudes to authority. Helen raised and dismissed the causal link drawn between the discipline of celibacy and inappropriate sexual behaviour, but did assert that celibacy has to be freely chosen in order to be lived successfully. She queried the quality of seminary training. Helen has found that, until very recently, child abuse was not even recognized as a possible sin in Church manuals. She then drew attention to literature showing that a significant percentage of sexual offenders were themselves abused as children and so raising early experiences of abuse and neglect as a causal factor. Offenders often share characteristics such as lack of empathy and being manipulative. There is a theory that abnormal brain development is involved in forming offenders. John Money describes abusers as having ‘vandalized love maps.’

What consequences do these varied ideas have for reducing the possibilities of clergy sexually offending? Helen advocated effective screening of candidates without violating their privacy, seminary formation which encourages dialogue, drawing seminary teachers from a cross-section of the Church, including women, taking the notion of lifelong formation much more seriously, and developing more effective systems of accountability.


John Money’s theory of ‘vandalized love maps’ was further elaborated – it is when a person’s erotic landscape – sexual attractions and fantasies – has been damaged. There appears to be a pattern that boys (and girls?) who experience sexual inappropriateness aged 8 and above then develop damaged erotic landscapes.

It was pointed out that there are medieval monastic codes which assert the need to protect young boys in seminary dormitories with startling frankness; and a 1946 diagnostic spiritual manual includes a guide on what to do in the case of encountering paedophilia, all suggesting that this is not a new problem within the Church (or society). One participant suggested that it was the Catholic Church’s narrow idealization of sex as between married men and women for the purpose of procreation which renders any other form of sexual activity equally sinful, and hence closes down the possibility of making meaningful ethical discriminations between different kinds of extra-marital sexual behaviour. The failure of the Church to support a meaningful sexual ethic may be a contributory factor.

There was further discussion of the problem of current forms and staffing of clergy training, but also of reinforcing the negative image of all priests and increasing anxiety about sex, thus reducing priests’ ability to discuss issues in this area. Putting child abuse at the centre of seminary training could compound the problem; there also need to be positive visions of what the priesthood can be.

Stephen Pattison

The issue of shame was brought to the fore in Anglican practical theologian Stephen Pattison’s [Birmingham University] work presented by Anna Rowlands (as Stephen was unable to attend). He sees theological and religious language as too often embedding abuse and failing to address dysfunctional shame. Theologians are called to be ‘honest witnesses’, honest about the ambivalence of their traditions – the traditions’ shadow side – and to use insights of transactional analysis to check the temptation to become ‘rescuers’ in the theological response to abuse.

According to Stephen, theology has struggled to deal with the topic of shame which has been almost invisible in theory whilst a dominant form of practice. Bonhoeffer highlighted the dialectics of shame: it is private and concealed, but healing and restoration only comes publicly, through confession before God and other human beings. There is the losing and gaining of face. In relation to the victim, Stephen sees practical theologians as having the tasks of investigating the relationship between theology and abuse, especially soteriology and atonement, and thinking about what kinds of practices and teachings – pedagogies of faith - children should be exposed to and how. He argues against over-emphasis on teachings of self-negation and the culture of the cross, because they do not furnish children with theological resources for lifegiving resistance. Stephen’s recommendation for dealing with the profound ambivalence of Christian theology is starting from the resurrection, first choosing life and truth, and then gaining a deeper understanding of crucifixion, rather than vice versa.


The discussion arising from Stephen’s paper included reflection upon how some priests who abuse may distort theology in order to justify their behaviour, e.g. it is God’s will, manipulating the faith system and minimizing their own sense of shame. It makes it easier psychologically to draw upon theological reasons to justify crime. Others compartmentalize.

The case of the abuse of women within marriage frequently not being recognized as wrong or sufficient grounds for annulment by the Catholic Church was given as an example of an abuse of the theology of suffering: it is a woman’s fate and she must bear her cross. This was compared to the former Bishop of Limerick’s comment that survivors of sexual abuse within the Irish Catholic Church were somehow ‘close to Christ.’ Viewing suffering as having purpose and meaning and to be offered up to God has made it much easier for the Church to emphasize reward in the afterlife than address abuse. Comparison was then also made to guidance relating to HIV and theological teaching colluding with its spread by saying ‘you suffer [with HIV] for Jesus.’

Another participant pointed out that Catholic theology has failed to deal adequately with childhood as a subject at all, generally assuming that the ‘human’ is a fully formed adult. This is part of the disconnect between Vatican II’s teaching on the person and the Church’s inability to address the variety of personhood. ‘Poisonous pedagogy’: telling stories, for example, where children are seen and not heard, are present throughout the Catholic tradition. Yet, there was warning against imposing the current category ‘childhood’ historically as it has been differently conceived in different periods.

Session 2

Susie Hayward

Denial structures, the aporias of language, and issues in the formation of priests were the three areas covered by Susie Hayward in her paper. Susie is a trained lawyer and psychotherapist who has 25 years experience of working with priests and religious. For the past decade she has also, worked with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and with sexual abuse offenders (priests and religious). She is a working member of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) and her work includes facilitation with survivors’ groups. Susie asserted that child abuse is endemic and has always been so, but has been hidden in society until 10-15 years ago. Statistically, it was likely that people in the room had experienced abuse as a child.

Susie described how abusers are in denial about the reality of their actions, as ‘knowledge’ would lead to vulnerable and shameful feelings of such intensity that it would be impossible to live with them (suicide would result). At one level they know in precise detail what they have done; but they do not admit the full, emotional reality and impact. Their lack of empathy for their survivors and inability to feel full guilt is a strategy of personal survival as the truth would be too great to bear. Denial is also an issue for church leaders if a friend or trusted colleague is labeled a sex offender. It is easier to deny than to accept reality, and there is the risk of being ‘tarred with the same brush.’ Hence, the culture of silence and denial rather than open discussion.

The twenty-first century Church has to become far more sexually savvy than ever thought necessary in order to overcome its disgraceful and ongoing acts of defense and protection in response to the exposure of sexual abuse. Pope Benedict XVI has praised the NCSC’s actions, but there is a gap between theory and practice: words to survivors are governed by litigation and liability. The Church has still not acknowledged survivors’ pain and has protected its own, and anger is growing. The movement for compensation is creating a community of survivors of abuse. In the survivors meeting as part of the pope’s visit to the UK, Susie found no language adequate to address their feelings and experience, because what they had been through had been so damaging. For survivors, the abuse is never historic, it is always a present reality; and no apology or expression of understanding is ever enough. Language is insufficient. There is often great anger on the part of survivors and this is directed at the Church as well as the perpetrators.

The Church needs to take responsibility and develop a truthful, transparent theology and allow sexuality to be explored in seminaries, providing a forum for safe conversations. Getting rid of mandatory celibacy will not make the problem go away and spiritualizing sexuality is not helpful. Failure has first to be fully accepted in order to improve the situation.

Brendan Callaghan

The way our culture focuses on the physiological rather than affective dimension of sex makes us unable to see celibacy as an experience of an integrated sexuality, only as an absence, claimed Brendan Callaghan SJ Master of Campion Hall Oxford. Staying with the theme of denial, he suggested that the widespread use of this was an example of “parallel processing”, where some aspect of pathological functioning is reproduced in the behaviour of those attempting to deal with or respond to the pathology. Abusers and the abused both make use of denial, and so do those surrounding and working with them. This blocks the emergence of the truth, taking away the chance of dealing with the reality. The ‘therapeutic community’ has procedures for discussing and tackling such mechanisms, but the Church does not and the culture reinforces denial. We ‘the whole Church’ have colluded: allowed this culture to survive and so have to accept responsibility in order to tackle the problem. Collusion has to be owned in order to act against dysfunction and clericalism in the Church.

Brendan agreed with Susie that forums for safe conversations need to be created and that it is difficult to create an adequate narrative when faced with such deep human experience.


In a recent paper on seminary training Pope Benedict XVI recommended turning to Canon Law and liturgy, but in the discussion an open and honest response and a forum for restorative justice for survivors where they felt listened to were rather advocated. The absence of clergy at meetings with survivors was a block to openness and honesty, as was the fear of litigation, and the demands made by dioceses’ insurers. The link between celibacy and abuse was again questioned and it was pointed about that the abuse of minors by actively heterosexual males is also prevalent. The culture of secrecy in the Church, however, enables abuse to go undetected and some argued that mandatory celibacy sends the message to the world that sex is tainted and to be avoided. A participant pointed out that celibacy was originally made mandatory in a large part because of financial concerns. It was also noted that the presence of married former Anglican clergy may be changing the dynamic in Britain.

Some argued against the idea of corporate responsibility for abuse. If the male clerical hierarchy will not share power, then why do lay people have to share responsibility, especially when some people have been trying to change the institution for years? This emphasis can become another form of denial if not carefully qualified. There has to be change at the top for improvement and it should be remembered that many survivors still consider themselves part of the Church- they are also to be considered and protected, not blamed. It was pointed out in the edited volume Responding to the Ryan Report about the sexual abuse crisis in the Irish Church, Marie Keenan argues that abusing clergy do not constitute a homogenous group. Susie Hayward did not accept that there was a distinction in terms of responsibility or culpability amongst abusers as important, but it was agreed that abusers can be ‘treated’ and some do not re-abuse. It is a myth that recidivism is inevitable, though there is always a risk.

The Church’s employment of public relations professionals to ‘talk about’ the issue rather than drawing upon its own resources concerning sorrow, guilt repentance etc in order to respond publicly to the crisis was criticised. However, the discussion closed on a positive note: at least the system has now been broken open and there are official reports to draw upon to call for change.

Session 3

Roger Bird

Retired District Judge Roger Bird is a specialist in family and children cases, former member of the Children Act Committee and member of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC). He spoke about the British situation whilst stressing that these were his personal views.

There was a realization in the late 1990s that the Church in England and Wales’ structures and ways of investigating abuse needed to change. This led to structures for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults being implemented from the Nolan Report amended by the Cumberlege Recommendations, including a safeguarding officer appointed in every diocese to manage allegations and complaints and volunteers trained in each parish. The NCSC’s main task is to lay down policy and coordinate implementation. The system is viewed as a success and model, but there are problems and tensions.

Roger discussed the problem of what to do with priests who are convicted of a sex offence. It is sometimes said by Vatican officials that this leads to automatic laicisation, but this seems not to be the case in England and Wales. Some clergy offenders continue to be priests and are supported by their dioceses. Opinion is divided as to how to deal with them. There is a school of thought that it is best for them to remain priests so that they are ‘in-house’ and the church can keep an eye on them, even though they cannot exercise any ministry. Others say that they are ‘dead weight’ and that they should be cut loose. There seems to be no agreement on this.

As to the question of a ‘culture of safeguarding’, Roger’s view was that more was needed, and a new culture of what it means to be a Catholic is required. We are in the present mess because of clericalism, secrecy, and, on the part of the laity, subservience. While Catholics accept that there must be authority and a magisterium, this does not mean that all decisions must be taken by people who are not suitably qualified.

Monica E. Herghelegiu

The similar and contrasting situation regarding sexual abuse in the German Catholic Church was presented to us by senior lecturer in Canon Law and judge at the Tribunal of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Monica E. Herghelegiu. She highlighted how allegations of sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic clergy in Germany have been going on for several years and affected the highest levels of leadership. For example, former Bishop of Augsburg Walter Mixa, Pope Benedict’s first appointment, was accused of physical and sexual abuse of children and resigned, though only stealing money and intimidating orphans in an orphanage 30 years ago have been proven. Influential German periodical Der Spiegel published a map illustrating the spread of allegations against clergy across Germany.

Since the public scandal around these cases and allegations, the German Church has been discussing and analyzing the causes of the sexual abuse. In August 2010 the Conference of Bishops published guidelines providing a new definition of abuse, appointing independent people to deal with cases in dioceses and a permanent mixed gender team of experts to respond. This is an improvement, however, the first question asked is whether the allegation is plausible and the authorities are only informed of abuse if it is deemed to be plausible, and if the victim desires this – and pressure may be placed on them and their family not to bring charges. An abuser will be dismissed from his duties and banned from work with children, but only potentially leave his work place: there is ambiguity in the guidelines. Canon Law struggles with state labour laws in this context, and is actually ‘tougher’ than the latter. Priests are classified as civil servants and therefore entitled to high compensation if sacked, even if convicted of abuse. Hence there are cases of dioceses delaying investigations of abuse until the accused priest is going to retire in order to avoid bankruptcy. The German statute of limitation for a case of child abuse is only up to five years after the victim’s 18th birthday, whereas the Church’s is 20 years. Therefore, it is only the Church and Canon Law which can act in older cases.


Discussion very much focused on the problem of how to deal with offending and accused clergy in differing national contexts. It was pointed out that in England and Wales insurers impose strict rules about what the Church can and cannot say about cases of abuse e.g. apologise. A priest may escape conviction not necessarily because he is innocent, but because the prosecuting officers think there is little chance of a successful prosecution. In such cases the Church in England and Wales undertakes its own investigation and thus makes recommendations e.g. this priest is not to be allowed back to active ministry. This can cause controversy and make the NCSC very unpopular if a priest is disbarred without a criminal conviction. Some survivors in England and Wales have expressed anger at some convicted abusers still appearing listed as active priests in the Catholic Directory. In some American dioceses bishops are apparently no longer sending abusers for treatment, but just laicizing them and letting them go in order to save money. The very term laicization was critiqued as disparaging of the laity.

Session 4

Gordon Lynch and Linda Woodhead

Gordon Lynch [Professor of Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck, soon to move to the University of Kent] was unable to attend the day, hence Linda Woodhead presented his paper as well as her own points. The resulting paper was a sociological and cultural analysis of child abuse, using data from the Ryan Report of 2009. This concerned industrial and reformatory schools run by religious orders in the Republic of Ireland between the 1930s and 1970s. The Ryan Report (‘Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse’) draws upon over 9 years of work and interviews with over 1000 survivors. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse had been uncovered as well as neglect. Abuse had taken place at institutions run by female religious orders, but sexual abuse by nuns was rare. There the abuse had been more emotional and neglectful, and sexual abuse committed on the premises had usually been perpetrated by males, whereas in male orders all forms of abuse had taken place, and been most common at institutions run by the Christian Brothers.

Linda argued for regarding the various forms of abuse that had occurred as a form of violence (a different and perhaps more productive lens than ‘sex’), and thus utilizing theories which explain how violence both produces and reproduces inequality between the more and less powerful. Violence is vital to the production of gender, class, age and ethnicity inequalities. And in the case under consideration religious/lay status also becomes a fault-line of inequality. It is important not to deny the strongly gendered nature of sexual abuse. This is inseparable from wider masculine domination in society, which has always been supported by a whole range of practices, many non-violent, but with violence an important element. It is common to all societies that around 40% of women will have experienced some form of male violence: this is not confined to the Catholic Church. The institutional form is also important in any analysis. In any unaccountable institution abuse is much more likely to occur and continue unchecked.

Gordon and Linda argued that in the Irish Catholic Church the violence was both a cause and a symptom of an intersection of inequalities: age, gender, class, clericalism, ethnicity. Also important was ethnic and national identity: a sense of ‘Catholic’ Ireland as sacred, as distinguished by moral purity, and as different from the brutality of British, Protestant identity. Close ties between state and Church in Ireland were an important factor. The education department and the Gardai had been complicit, sometimes not responding when abuse was reported. Gordon proposed that this situation could be understood by way of a cultural analysis which showed how Irish Catholic identity and the Church were the more sacred ‘objects’ in society than the child, despite the fact that ideas about the sanctity of children had been present since the 19th century, and had influenced pedagogy in other countries.

Ethna Regan

Further theological reflection upon the Irish case was provided by Ethna Regan [Head of the School of Theology at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City] especially upon the collusion between the Church and the state that had taken place in enabling the abuse to occur and continue. Ethna said that the Ryan Report alongside the Commission of Investigation Dublin Archdiocese’s Murphy Report [2009] exposing the extent of the abuse and the Church’s handling had been experienced as a ‘national trauma.’ Legalistic and distorted loyalty to the institutions rather than the children has been described by Rossetti as the ‘second injury’ after the abuse itself. Christ said that harming one of these little ones was the greatest scandal. Irish people, the Church and theologians are now picking up the baton of responsibility to ‘overcome’ the past and create hope for the future.

Ethna also discussed causes of the crisis and collusion. She pointed to this not being an exclusively Irish problem and to doctrine and interpretation- to something inculturated in ‘Catholic modernity.’ Political philosopher Charles Taylor has claimed that human rights could not have arisen in Christendom, because of its wedding of Christianity and coercive political structures. The Irish state’s collusion in the child abuse may be viewed as part of the ‘Hiberno-Christendom project’ which the scandal has now ended. Post-1922 the Church had been tied up with nationalism. There was disdain for the poor working class from whom the vast majority of children abused came. Abuser priests had been moved around poor parishes with little influence. Now the situation has changed dramatically in that there is a strong call for the Catholic Church to be silenced in the public square: enforced marginality. This is partly driven by the Church’s initial responses standing in solidarity with the institutions and failing to show solidarity with the survivors. The state, the judiciary and welfare agencies did collude in the abuse: there is broader social responsibility to be taken. Restorative justice now has to be seen to be done and there is a need for a new theology of the Church and the state in Ireland. There is a hunger for authentic Christianity.


There was critique of a church which cared more about the procedure than the outcome of justice and its failure to address male sexuality realistically. The Catholic Church’s history of (debased) sexuality is written on the female body, and in images of the fallen whore versus the saintly virgin. The threat of male violence to maintain power – which has been frequently exercised – is thus masked. The failure to protect the poor and vulnerable despite this being central to the Gospel was also discussed.

Session 5: Reflection

Joe Selling [Professor of Theological Ethics at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven] and Anna Abram [teacher and MA convenor at Heythrop College] had been given the task of listening to the presentations and discussions throughout the day and providing reflections. Joe identified key themes covered: systems, power (especially in relation to sex), ambiguity, limits of language (to penetrate the mind of the perpetrator and communicate with the survivor) and responsibility. The issue of how to address a system where everyone has been through the same training had been frequently raised. Power can and does do good, but is always ambiguous. There is such variation between legal structures and no consistency in the approach of national churches to the problem. Someone from outside of the system does need to look at it and give the voiceless a voice.

The absence of an intelligent language of sexual ethics in the institution needs tackling urgently – how can we talk about sexual abuse if we do not have a realistic perception of what sex is? We need to face the fact that the majority of the laity, at least in Western countries, does not consider the official teachings on topics connected to human sexuality very helpful. It could even be said that sexual ethics in the Catholic Church is dysfunctional.

Though the topic of celibacy had been mentioned, it seemed to Joe that many speakers wished to say that there is little or no connection between celibacy and sexual abuse. In response to that, he suggested that it is necessary to make a distinction between celibacy and the mandatory imposition of celibacy for religious life. Mandatory, as opposed to optional or recommended celibacy, embodies the unwillingness of the institutional church to come to terms with human sexuality in the contemporary world. Regardless of their 'intentions' (rationalizations) making celibacy mandatory sends a message that sex, sexual desire, sexual activity and even to some extent, sexuality itself, are somehow tainted, suspect, to be avoided if one wishes to engage in religious activity (minister), or, in more extreme cases, to consider oneself a 'religious person'. In addition, the valorization of 'consecrated' (mandatory) celibacy largely ignores celibacy that is 'practiced' (voluntarily or involuntarily) by non-religious members of the church.

Seminary training and mandatory celibacy are issues which are associated with sexual abuse by clergy, but distinct. Joe did stress the importance of separating in discussion the sexual abuse itself from the cover up and denial of it by the wider system. There was disagreement between participants over who was responsible for the abuse as well as abusers – who allowed it to happen- bishops, the laity?

Anna then presented 9 questions addressing these themes:

1. How do we bring outsiders in to see what we cannot?

2. How can the systems of power be constructively addressed?

3. How can we create mechanisms for uncomfortable views to be expressed and heard?

4. How can this be done without losing our partners in the dialogue i.e. the hierarchy?

5. How can the abuse be spoken about theologically whilst taking into account the ambiguity of the resurrection and cross?

6. How can sexual ethics be ‘re’formulated or how can the work already done in this area be communicated to the hierarchy?

7. How can focus be shifted from sexuality to wider issues of power, authority, physical, psychological and spiritual aggression?

8. How can failure be dealt with constructively, as well as the stigma of that failure?

9. Do we need an ecclesial ethics?

In the ensuing discussion it was made clear that this is an international problem, though there is great cultural variation and a tendency in the ‘developing world’ to view it as a ‘Western problem’ and deny abuse happening there. A participant suggested that more contact between moral theologians and canon lawyers could help to present the issues to the Vatican in a language that would be understood. The hierarchy first needs to accept the need for it, before an outsider can be brought in. Also, the complexities that bishops are negotiating in this area must be appreciated. The Church has its own resources about the beauty of the erotic which could be drawn upon for a positive theology of sexuality. The book Just Love by Margaret Farley was recommended, it pointed out that the Church currently only knows the agapic, not erotic, god: eros and agape need linking. It was also acknowledged that there are problems with sexual abuse in other churches, though not to the same extent.


Testimonies of Irish Priests

Marist Father Paul Walsh, who is currently rector of Notre Dame de France Church in Central London, offered anonymous testimonies of what it is like to be a parish priest in the Irish Church today. Here we select a few extracts:

* Priests are getting older, fewer in ministry, many are trying to fulfil the duties of 'the many priests of old'. Many are working harder & take more responsibility than when they were young & in their prime. Morale is very low, confidence is fragile, the betrayal of trust by both fellow priests & bishops has been devastating.

* There is a sense of a 'bunker' mentality operative - just keep your head down & try & get on with the job ( with many hoping to retire early!)

* Support from members of the congregation. Most people seem to decide whom they can trust and live accordingly. Recently one mother who brings her child to a local church (they take the young children out during the Scripture readings and they come back after the Creed) said that she accompanied her child to the room the first time, then decided she was being overly cautious and now lets him go on his own - she would hardly have had such thoughts twenty years ago!

* Seldom a week goes by without some mention in the paper - priest (unnamed) found guilty in court yesterday. There is a drip, drip effect that I find depressing - just when you thought it was safe to get back to normal!

* A local parish priest was taken out of ministry two months ago - it hit the national press. We are all only a phone call from the same situation - every so often the thought crosses my mind - and obviously the minds of many priests who feel they have little chance of a fair hearing should it happen. I may never be proven guilty - but how can I prove myself innocent? And if I can't what will it be like for the rest of my life?

* Personally I was devastated, if not blown away, by the extent of the abuse issue & the way it was handled by our leaders - Ryan/Dublin/Ferns reports. It has taken until this summer to 'find myself & vocation again' & to begin ministering more 'freely'. Spiritual Direction & support of a 'mentor' have been very helpful. Also I have more confidence in the Child Protection procedures being implemented throughout the country/diocese/parish - I feel they endeavour to safeguard all parties.

Report written by Rebecca Catto, edited by Linda Woodhead and participants, and made available online on 25th November 2010.

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