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The darkest of the dark side: the Catholic hierarchy and clergy sexual abuse.

CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE OF MINORS AND VULNERABLE adults constitutes a dark and recurring theme of church history. The earliest legislation passed by bishops to counteract it dates from 309 A.D., the Council of Elvira. Since then, there have been recurring attempts by popes, bishops and church councils to deal with the sexual deviance of clerics and the destructive violations of mandatory celibacy.

Although church authorities had advocated clerical celibacy from the earliest centuries, it was not until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that it became mandatory. Throughout the centuries, celibacy violations have occurred in three areas: sexual abuse of minors, casual or forced sexual encounters with age-appropriate men or women and clerical concubinage. There has been a consistent effort by the church hierarchy to deal with violations by mandating penalties for errant clerics. The church has not always enshrouded such clerical malfeasance in a blanket of secrecy, and there is solid evidence that during some historical periods (e.g., 15th-16th centuries), the church actually collaborated with civil authorities in prosecuting clerics who abused the young.

Parallel to the church's official actions, unofficial sources also considered sexual abuse abominable. Perhaps the most famous single effort has been St. Peter Damian's blockbuster work, The Book of Gomorrah. Written at the beginning of the 11th century, the book is shockingly prophetic of what has happened in our own era. The author wrote in detail of priests who took sexual advantage of children, but what is most remarkable is that he leveled harsh condemnation at superiors who condoned their subjects' evil actions. In the end, Peter Damian's stringent recommendations to the pope were watered down by the church's highest authority.

Sexual solicitation of penitents by priests during sacramental confession served as a major focus of church legislation from the 17th to the mid-20th century. In the years before it was shut down, the Inquisition was actually a church court system, with operations in Rome and elsewhere. Scholarly investigations into its records in Spain and Mexico revealed that 3,775 solicitation cases were completed between 1723 and 1820. The figure represented a small minority of the actual number of cases brought forward, the majority having been abandoned or never completed by the tribunals. Anti-solicitation legislation usually amounted to special judicial procedures to be used in the investigation and prosecution of reports. The Holy See issued several separate legislative pronouncements between the 17th and 20th centuries, including the widely publicized 1962 document known as Crimen Sollicitationis. The 20th century legislation explicitly included sexual abuse of minors in its scope, reflective of a perceived concern by the Holy See.

In reaction to the contemporary exposure of the church's consistent bungling, bishops and other church supporters assert that this is a new problem. They say they are on a steep learning curve, only recently realizing that sexual abuse is a highly destructive form of sexual dysfunction. In fact, it has long been considered criminal by civil and canon law. Files turned over in the many civil cases since 1985 have revealed that church authorities have been concerned about sexually dysfunctional clerics since the early 1940s. Perhaps the most shocking documents have been a series of letters written by the late Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a small community of religious men whose sole mission has been the care of clerics with serious emotional and mental health problems. Fr. Gerald founded several facilities, the most famous of which were located in New Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s he wrote letters to bishops who had referred sexually abusive priests to him for treatment. His theme was consistent throughout: Such men cannot be cured and present a very real danger to the church. They should be laicized with or without their consent. At the request of the Congregation of the Holy Office, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was known then, he produced a bluntly worded report that expressed these sentiments. In it, he said that for every 10 men sent to him for treatment, five had alcohol problems, two had sexual issues with women, and three had sexually abused minors. In 1963, he sent a letter, similar in tone and content, to Pope Paul VI, at the pope's request.

There is other evidence, equally compelling, that shows bishops were aware of the serious nature of the sexual problems of the clergy. Sincere efforts were made by some to find treatment methods, but the more common response to individual cases was the geographic solution of a quiet transfer, preceded usually by an admonition to cease and desist from all such behavior. The church received significant input from such prominent experts as psychologists Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler and psychiatrist Conrad Baars in the early 1970s, as well as the prophetic voice of Fr. Gerald. But the church's leadership remained stuck with an archaic and unworkable misunderstanding of human sexuality and an obsession with an erroneous vision of church that seemed limited to the clerical establishment.

In spite of centuries of evidence of clergy sexual dysfunction, the church authorities have never taken a long, hard and honest look at the clerical system itself to try to understand why this nightmare never seems to disappear. The church has tried punitive measures against clergy perpetrators, deep secrecy, self-serving public relations campaigns and institutional denial in its response to reports of widespread abuse. None of these measures has made the issue go away, because the basic problem is not sexual dysfunction isolated from all else, but a clerical culture that has prized hierarchical power as the primary value to be preserved. The current wave of sexual-abuse awareness has not been buried in secrecy, nor has it been successfully sandpapered away by forces sympathetic to the institutional church. It has remained in the public consciousness because the media have constantly reported new revelations from the civil law cases and grand jury investigations. The public awareness has provoked debate and close scrutiny of the institutional church. Clergy sexual abuse has served as a catalyst for inquiry and critical examination into several other aspects of church structure, teachings and practices.

Current and historical clergy sexual malfeasance has been studied by scholars from the secular world. Although the church authorities have continued to try to shift the blame to a secular and materialistic culture, lack of fidelity to "traditional" sexual ethics, and anti-Catholic forces, academic voices are coming up with believable theories as to why this nightmare has happened.

There are two separate but related aspects to the issue. The first is the actual sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by clerics, and the second is the complex response of the institutional church. The abusers have not been limited to priests but have included non-ordained religious men and women, and bishops and cardinals as well.

Why have sexually dysfunctional people been drawn to the priesthood or religious life? Does the training for celibacy in some way nurture attitudes or personality development that can result in dysfunctional relationships and behavior? What is the connection between mandatory celibacy and the secretive sexual acting-out of clerics and religious in abusive relationships? These are but a few of the essential questions that demand honest answers.

Clerics and religious have been able to groom and seduce victims because of their exalted status and the trust of the lay faithful. Experience with men and women who have suffered sexual abuse has shown that there is something about the commonly accepted unequal relationship between religious professionals, especially priests, and lay people that sets up the less powerful for abuse. One can carry this even further and seriously ask if the entire sacramental system, as it is lived out, does not foster dependent relationships that can lead to domination and abuse.

The contemporary institutional response has probably caused more anger, shock and true scandal than the actual acts of sexual abuse. The most glaring deficiency has been the callous disregard for the victims. Throughout history there is no evidence that the church's leadership ever extended consistent, compassionate care to the victims of its own religious and clerics. At no time in the past or in the present have church leaders mandated or even encouraged a concrete pastoral outreach to victims and their families. The public, generalized apologies and liturgical "healing" services that have been favored in recent years have only served to insult and further anger victims and their supporters. The clerical and hierarchical establishment has been confronted with a need for painful and intense pastoral healing on the part of victims and their families, and has with very few exceptions been incapable of an authentic response. This glaring deficiency, and the overall response of the hierarchy, have led to scholarly speculation that there is something systemically awry in the hierarchical governmental system. Critics have accused the bishops of being concerned only for their image, power, prestige and financial security, to the obvious detriment of the victims.

The church's legal system, canon law, is intimately tied to its system of governance. Although canon law contains procedures for investigating and prosecuting clergy sexual abuse against minors, these have never been consistently used. Rather, the bishops have bypassed the due process assured to all church members and substituted a subjective approach that served themselves and the church as they had defined it.

For centuries, sexual deviance has been erroneously thought to be a purely moral issue. This has been especially true in traditional Catholic teaching. Human sexuality is a separate and optional aspect of the person that is two-dimensional in nature: cognitive and volitional. We know it is there, and we can and should will not to act out sexually, except in very restricted circumstances. The church's sexual philosophy has been controlled by celibate male clerics, the very ones who are supposed to lead lives devoid of any sexual expression. The church's sexual offenders and those who respond to them are all mandated celibates with a highly restricted emotional and intellectual understanding of sexuality. This has a variety of consequences, including an inability to appreciate the complex damage caused by sexual abuse. Since bishops are not parents and have never been involved in certain truly intimate relationships, they are incapable of comprehending the devastation experienced by parents who learn their children have been physically and spiritually raped by the most trusted people in their lives, priests.

In spite of the lofty rhetoric that surrounds the church's defense of celibacy, the history of clergy sexual abuse reveals a sexual underground that is not only hypocritical but also highly destructive to those living it and those violated because of it.

If there is a hope that has emerged from the shocking revelations of the past two decades, it is this: For the first time in history, the church's leaders are not in total control of the corruption in their midst. Thanks to a society that is slowly maturing in its view of organized religion, the outcome of the revelations of this terrible scandal rests with the victims themselves, their supporters and a secular society that appears in many ways to have a better grasp of integrity than most professional religious leaders.

THOMAS DOYLE, J.C.D., C.A.D.C., is co-author of Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse (Volt Press, 2006).
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Author:Doyle, Thomas P.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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