The clergy sexual abuse scandal

With the child sexual abuse scandal continuing to get headlines in the press and with the Royal Commission about to begin its work, I offer here an expanded version of my recent question-and-answer column in the Catholic Weekly to give readers a sense of perspective on this issue.

In the face of the child sexual abuse scandal and now the Royal Commission into it, I have frankly sometimes felt my faith weakening, above all when talking with friends who are very critical of the Church, some of whom no longer go to Mass. How should I respond?

The following observations may be of help in facing up to this most serious problem.

First, we must acknowledge that child sexual abuse is always a great evil, but especially when carried out by a member of the clergy. It is a deplorable act with devastating consequences, especially for the victim but also for many others. Among the “victims” are some priests who have been falsely accused, or accused of very minor offences, who have been sidelined from their ministry and sometimes suffer psychological damage as well. We should have the greatest sympathy for all those involved and affected by this lamentable situation.

Second, while the media are fond of highlighting the sexual abuse carried out by priests and others in the Catholic Church, the problem is very widespread and includes clergy of other denominations, teachers, sports coaches, scout leaders and many others. There is no reason to believe that Catholics were any more involved than those in other institutions. The Royal Commission is looking into abuse in all institutions, not only in the Catholic Church. And it is not investigating child sexual abuse in families, where the immense majority of cases occur.

Third, we should remember that priests too are human and that they carry the effects of original sin as much as everyone else. While they have a commitment to live chastity, they are still subject to temptation and they sometimes fall. It is consoling in this sense to look at the twelve men chosen by Christ himself as his apostles. One of them denied Our Lord and betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, the “Prince of the Apostles” denied three times even knowing him, and they all ran away in fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Weakness among the ministers has been with the Church from the beginning, but the Church has continued to go forward steadily, bearing abundant fruits.

Pope Pius XII was not afraid to describe the situation in his encyclical Mystici corporis (1943): “And if at times there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her juridical constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each individual, which its Divine Founder permits even at times in the most exalted members of his Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the Shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith. For, as we said above, Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from his Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to her members” (MC 66).

Fourth, we should never forget that it is a very small percentage of priests who have abused their ministry. The second report of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the U.S. reported that in the period 1950-2010 there had been accusations of sexual abuse against only 5% of priests, and that less than 4% of these involved paedophilia. The report acknowledged that the rate of abuse by clergy is lower than that in comparable professions. While figures of abuse by clergy in Australia are not available, it is probable that they are similar to those in the U.S. The immense majority of priests have been faithful to their ministry.

Fifth, at the time that most of the offences occurred, many years ago, neither the Church nor people in secular society understood, as we do today, the seriousness of paedophilia as a mental condition that is not easily treated. The tendency then was to regard it as an isolated case of sexual weakness, for which the perpetrator had repented and was resolved not to commit it again, and so the priest was simply moved to a different parish where he could begin his new life of chastity in different surroundings. This was gravely mistaken but those who responded in that way were usually acting in good faith and cannot be judged by standards that have changed in the light of new findings. Obviously, when it was clear that a priest had offended multiple times drastic action should have been taken, and this did not always happen.

Sixth, once the nature of sexual abuse of minors became more clear the Church responded vigorously, setting up protocols and institutions to deal with it. The national Towards Healing protocols for dealing with complaints were first published in 1996 and then revised in 2010. In addition, the document Integrity in Ministry sets out a code of conduct for those in ministry and the National Committee for Professional Standards oversees the procedures in response to complaints.

Seventh, the Church is now far more careful in vetting candidates for the priesthood, so that it is highly unlikely that a man with a tendency to sexual abuse would be admitted to the seminary.

With all of this, we should acknowledge that there has been a serious problem and we should pray and make reparation for the great harm that has been caused. We should support our priests and show appreciation for their fidelity and generosity in serving us. We should pray very much for all priests, and we should have great faith in and love for the Church. Our Lord is still the head of his Mystical Body, the Holy Spirit is just as active as on that first Pentecost and Our Lady is very much Mother of the Church. The Church will move on from this crisis purified and renewed.