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The climate which favoured clerical sex abuse

30 November, 1999

Desmond O’Donnell OMI, a registered psychologist, identifies features of Church culture which have made it possible for clerical sex abuse of children to thrive.

Thanks to the media, we all know what has taken place in the area of sex abuse of children by priests. But why it could have taken place, and for so long, deserves investigation. It is not enough just to ask why a bishop or religious superior failed to report it. The answer to this question is also very complicated. Before attributing blame to anyone, a study of the climate which made these crimes possible is useful. Whatever helps to eliminate the circumstances favourable to a continuation of this activity is beneficial. I have already outlined the personality type from which priest paedophiles emerge.(1) This article is a contribution to the search for the many social factors that created a climate favouring sex abuse of children by priests.

Abuse of trust

Connected with this is our failure to build up people’s – even children’s – confidence in their own moral judgements. I recall being told by our moral theology lecturer in the 1950s that if conscience told us to join the Jehovah Witnesses we must do so. This centrality of an informed conscience did not filter down to lay Catholics. It was an easy fatal step from believing the error that the Church is always right to believing that Father X is always right too. The claim of papal infallibility sometimes lamentably leaked down to priestly moral guidance on the parochial level. For this reason people did not trust their own conscience even when it was obviously accurate in condemning clerical misbehaviour. As Vincent McNamara puts it, ‘We need to make friends with the criticism of authority and tradition because there is moral concern hidden in it’.(3)

Injustice of sexual abuse

Christ was clear that we should not lead others – especially little children – astray. The Church too stressed that we must not scandalise others by what we say, do, or divulge. Perhaps this teaching was used as an excuse for not divulging that some priests had acted criminally. After all, if the people heard that one of their priests had sinned seriously they might be shocked or scandalised. Rather than trust the moral maturity of most people, it was then deemed better to hide Father X’s failures and, perhaps, punish him privately. The time has come to recognise that people’s faith does not always depend on priests’ moral behaviour.

Predictably, institutions defend themselves against threats to their image of integrity. We have only to look at how boards and councils rush to defend themselves against claims of neglect by their members. All institutions do it either by denial, by delay, or by spin-doctoring. The Church as institution has often fallen for this way of defending its image. It would be ideal if the Church was always perfect; but Jesus said that good seed and weeds will be part of it until the end. Trying to keep the Church looking perfect is always a temptation for its leadership. This leads to hiding the failures of its leaders – as we have recently witnessed. In the effort to hide one serious failure, a still greater failure has become transparent. Can we learn from this?

The attitude behind the sin

Is it time to stress that morality is an attitude and that it has its own existence even without religion? Certainly faith can clarify, deepen and motivate morality but moral attitudes and behaviour are human imperatives independently of religious commandments. The sex abuser who thinks only in the ‘sin’ category and who receives sacramental forgiveness has stagnated on the journey into adult morality. Perhaps it is time to recognise that many of us have done the same.

A similar confusion can exist when someone stays with the notion of sin and fails to recognise some actions as criminal. It might be expected that until very recently the first reaction of a bishop and religious superior to abuse of children would be that it is sinful – which of course it is. But sex abuse of children was always also a crime, and now we know that it must be dealt with at this level first and only then as sin or on level of conscience. Failure to take the first step to obey the civil law about criminal behaviour is serious unless the revelation of the sin is done in the confessional.

This, of course, brings up the delicate matter of confidentiality between bishops, superiors and their priests. It is time that this matter was clarified despite the great difficulties involved in doing so. If one of his employees confidentially tells a bank manger that he has stolen bank money and that he will repay it, does the manager bring the matter to the police?

Consulting the faithful

Parents’ understandable reluctance to go public has contributed also to the climate that favoured the continuation of priestly child sex abuse. Bishops’ and superiors’ action was often limited on account of this. It is also not unknown that mothers were unwilling to have their husband’s or a relative’s criminal behaviour brought to police notice.(5) In many cases mothers did not believe their children when they complained about their father’s or relative’s misbehaviour. This situation is unlikely to change.

Allied to this is the fact that it is difficult for a celibate to understand well the feeling of a parent when one of their children has been sexually abused. When a priest acknowledges to a superior or to a bishop that he had abused a child, the listener would be shocked as well as being sympathetic. But he would almost certainly lack the anger and powerful indignation which a parent would justly feel in the same situation. A Church leader might assess the misbehaviour in terms of scandal and of sinfulness rather than in terms of a healthy human revulsion before the crime. This revulsion would be a strong motivator for stronger action that we have seen.

Flawed decisions

Unlike earlier codes of Canon Law, the present one justly gives a lay-person or priest a clearer right to an unbiased court hearing before condemnation. Like most other legal systems, it also grants the accused the right to appeal. I know of one case where the governing body of a religious order took seven years to expel four priests who had cut themselves off from any contact with the order. An accused priest can appeal against any ecclesiastical court by going right to the top Vatican court, the Signatura, to have his defence heard. I know of a two cases where this court reversed decisions by lower Church courts. Of course, an accused priest can be forbidden to exercise his ministry while his case is being heard, and even this is problematic. Justice, whether resulting in his condemnation or his acquittal, can take many years to arrive. Parents or grown children who have been abused can wonder impatiently why it takes so long to condemn the person whom they consider guilty. It seems that lay-people need more information about the ecclesial justice system in dealing with accused persons – lay or clerical.

Although it will not solve the immediate problems facing the Church, dialogue about the climate which seems to have facilitated criminal behaviour and which has aroused the anger of so many people against the Church, must continue.


1. ‘The Paedophile Personality’, The Tablet, 26 October 2002.

2. Doctrine & Life, vol. 50, no. 10, December 2000.

3. ‘Challenges to Christian Moral Theology’ in Doctrine & Life, April 2001.

4.. Ibid.

5. ‘Would You Have Reported a Paedophile in Your Family?’ by Mary Kenny (Weekend section of the Irish Independent, 2 November 2002) is interesting in this regard.

This article first appeared in Doctrine & Life (Dec. 2002), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

It appears that the decision-making process in the Church at the moment allows one man to come to a conclusion about acting or failing to act in many circumstances. He alone – no matter what a lay person, a provincial counsellor or an auxiliary bishop might say – has the onerous and dangerous freedom to reject advice and to make a final, sometimes disastrously flawed, decision. The man at the top has the doubtful privilege of not having to explain or to defend his actions to anyone unless he wishes to do so. This is unfair to him and favours seriously flawed decisions even if they are motivated by kindness.All cultures have boundaries. Some, which sociologists call thick cultures, are more closed than others. Like many other professions, the clerical culture of the past was closed, even secretive. This could favour paedophiles. If active parish councils had existed as they now do, decisions would not have been secretly biased in defence of criminal members in the clerical culture. Can we imagine any parent on a parish decision-making body permitting a man against whom there was a sheaf of accusations, to remain in contact with children? Would the average parent have consented to moving an admitted paedophile to another place where he could continue to abuse? However tolerant men might be of this behaviour, women on a parish council would certainly not have remained silent. This is only one example of how impoverished the Church is without the influence of women in its decision-making process.Religious people risk confusing human morality with what they have been told is sin. They may forget that many unbelievers who have no concept of sin are just as moral as are believers. Likewise, sacramental forgiveness can be seen as erasing not only sin but the harm done to oneself and to others. But sin is rooted in an attitude, and each sin deepens that attitude. The sexual abuser of children thinks he can deal with each criminal action by going to Confession, forgetting that his lack of a moral attitude towards children is the real problem. The healthy non-religious person knows that he must deal with his failures, not just as immoral actions but as immoral attitudes as well.In the seminary, text books told us that all sexual sin was serious: that there was ‘no parvity of matter’ was the phrase used. As always, one big inaccuracy can easily lead to minor ones connected to it. It is for this reason that unclarity and moral confusion abounded around the morality of anything connected to sex. Perhaps it still does. We forgot that many so-called sexual ‘sins’ were wrong, not primarily because they were genitally focused, but because they were unambiguous exploitations of another person. McNamara writes: ‘Morality issues from one of the most intimate perceptions of the human spirit – the recognition of the value of the human person in the whole cosmos’.(4) Overlooking the element of exploitation caused many perpetrators and victims to miss the massive infringement of human rights involved in the abuse of minors or of vulnerable adults. We were unable to name sexual abuse of children as deep injustice before we called it sexually sinful.The majority of priests earned and received high trust from people in the past and, as the recent Greeley-Ward survey showed, a great deal of this remains.(2) This trust gave power which insecure priests misused in many ways other than by abuse of children. It was this very trust which prevented children and their parents from believing that a priest could harm young people. Maybe we priests contributed to this mind-set by claiming the high moral ground instead of speaking tentatively when we preached about sin and human weakness. Perhaps we should have risked intimating that a blanket trust of any group is dangerous.