After the first wave of revelations over a decade ago, the sexual abuse of children by the clergy was explained away by the Roman Catholic Church by the bad apple theory – that these isolated “sexual acts” were transgressions by a minority of weak priests. In the wake of the Dublin diocesan report, that explanation has been amplified to include institutional failures of decision-making in dealing with offenders and victims, and a culture of secrecy and cover-up.
But tidying up corporate governance and instituting a more transparent culture is not going to resolve the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. That will require the church to face up to a much more profound problem – the church’s own teaching on sexuality.
Consider the list of issues the church has failed to deal with credibly since the 1960s: premarital and extramarital sex; remarriage; contraception; divorce; homosexuality; the role of women in ministry and women’s ordination; and the celibacy of the clergy. All have to do with sexuality.
Very few Catholics are looking to the church for moral guidelines in relation to any of these questions anymore. And why would they? After all, the church’s teaching on sexuality continues to insist that all intentionally sought sexual pleasure outside marriage is gravely sinful, and that every act of sexual intercourse within marriage must remain open to the transmission of life. The last pope, and most probably the present, took the view that intercourse, even in marriage, is not only “incomplete”, but even ceases to be an act of love, if contraception is used. Such pronouncements are so much at variance with the lived experience of most people as to undermine terminally the church’s credibility in the area of intimate relationships.
The sexual revolution, particularly the development of effective contraception, and the growth of the women’s and gay rights movements, has left the church stranded with an archaic psychology of sexuality. The world has moved decisively away from a view of sex as simply procreation. What preoccupies men and women in the modern world is trying to understand the psychological roots of their own sexuality: how it is formed; how central it is to their identity and sense of self; and probably most essentially, how it can make or break their relationships. Even the clergy cannot put up a credible defence for the insistence on priestly celibacy in the face of the almost complete collapse in vocations and the mounting evidence that many priests have ignored teachings on this matter.
Richard Sipe is a former priest and a recognised authority on celibacy. On the basis of his research in the US and other countries, he estimates between 45 and 50 per cent of Catholic clergy are sexually active. A study in Spain found that of those clergy who were sexually active, 53 per cent were having sex with an adult woman; 21 per cent with adult men; 14 per cent with minor boys and 12 per cent with minor girls. His own research showed 20 per cent of priests were involved in a more or less stable sexual relationship with a woman, or with sequential women in identifiable patterns. Another 10 per cent were in exploratory “dating” relationships that might include sexual contact.
Some of the remaining 70 per cent tried to solve the problems of their loneliness by having a close friendship with a woman that excluded sex. But, predictably, many priests discovered how dependent their celibacy was on the traditional all-male clerical structure of their lives that was no longer available to them as they increasingly worked in a more isolated way in communities.
Sipe estimates the proportion of gay men in the priesthood as between 30 per cent and 50 per cent, significantly greater than the proportion in the general population. About 10 per cent of clergy in the US were involved in homosexual activity. A further 12 per cent identified themselves as homosexual or as having serious questions about their sexual orientation, although not all were sexually active. These men find themselves in a church which views a homosexual orientation as “an objective disorder”, “a more or less strong tendency towards evil”. How can gay men and women in religious life, or those troubled by their orientation, work out their sexual identity in such an environment, let alone minister to their gay and lesbian flock?
All of those issues are institutionally denied or shrouded in secrecy. Hardly surprising, then, that paedophilia can flourish in such an environment. It is important to stress here that homosexuality and paedophilia are two quite separate phenomena. A 2004 study for the American bishops found the percentage of clergy accused of child sexual abuse was consistently between 3 and 6 per cent, and the overall average is 5 per cent.
As the institutional structures of the church have weakened in the wake of successive scandals, it is likely that the proportions of priests who are actively engaged in sexuality of one kind or another may have increased.
Yet, the church has remained unmoved in the face of the mounting evidence of defection from its sexual teachings by both laity and clergy, although in the case of the offending clergy, they seem entirely capable of keeping their doctrinal orthodoxy psychologically separate from their actual behaviour.
It is predictable what will now happen. The church’s “learning curve” will crank up temporarily and its corporate governance on child sexual abuse may improve. And then, it will be business as usual. But no amount of improved decision-making and transparency will enable senior clergy to respond effectively to the church’s crisis of sexuality.
To do that, they must confront the root cause of the problem – that the Catholic Church is a powerful homo-social institution, where men are submissive to a hierarchical authority and where women are incidental and dispensable. It’s the purest form of a male hierarchy, reflected in the striking fact that we all collectively refer it to as “the Hierarchy”.
It has all the characteristics of the worst kind of such an institution: rigid in social structure; preoccupied by power; ruthless in suppressing internal dissent; in thrall to status, titles, and insignia, with an accompanying culture of narcissism and entitlement; and at a great psychological distance from human intimacy and suffering.
Most strikingly, it is a culture which is fearful and disdainful of women. As theologian William M Shea observes, “fear of women, and perhaps hatred of them, may well be just what we have to work out of the Catholic system”. Until that institutional misogyny is confronted, the church will be unable to confront the unresolved issue of its teaching on sexuality and the sexuality of the clergy. Instead, celibacy will continue to be used as a prop to the dysfunctional homo-social hierarchy. The hierarchy will continue to project its fear of women on to an obsessive effort to exert control over their wombs, their fertility and their unruly sexual desires. That is the psychology of exclusion.
It is to be hoped that the Catholic Church in Ireland will resolve this issue. Not just because many of us don’t want to lose the reassuring moral presence of the church, nor because we cannot easily do without the intelligent altruism of devoted religious, but because the great joy and hope of the Christian message was never more badly needed.
Originally published in The Irish Times.
Posted: 02 December 2009