You are herePart 3 - Catholic Church in crisis

Part 3 - Catholic Church in crisis

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Suffer the little children Part 3


Decades of Decline

For decades now the Roman Catholic has been in crisis. The reforms and changes of Vatican II in the mid-1960s sought to make the Latin Church contemporary and more relevant to people in their own languages and cultures. While essential doctrines did not change, many outward forms and structures went through dramatic changes. In many orders the nuns got out of their habits and began to identify with the people they were serving in contemporary dress. More fundamental changes were also made in various orders. In spite of the many changes, however, attracting people to religious orders and the Roman Catholic priesthood has become increasingly difficult, especially in the Western world.Since Vatican II priests, brothers and nuns have continued to leave their vocations, and numbers entering the priesthood and religious orders has continued to drastically decline. The teachers at all Roman Catholic schools at one time were Brothers, Nuns and some Catholic Lay people. There are now many Catholic schools where the majority of staff are non-Catholics. Orders are actively advertising to attract new members. Convents, monasteries and seminaries are continuing to close. Ireland, once a major source of missionaries and priests for numerous other countries, including Australia, North and South America, recently closed its second last remaining seminary for priests. St Patrick’s College in Thurles, County Tipperary, commenced in 1837 but announced in August it will no longer provide training for priests. Since 1993 seven seminaries have been closed, and in the one remaining seminary to serve the whole country the number of seminarians studying for the priesthood has only a quarter of what used to be the standard number of students. Growing numbers of Roman Catholic parishes in Australia and elsewhere are without their own priest.

The crisis of the past has intensified with increasing revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up in the last few decades — and especially in the last few years.

Orphans Abused

In Australia the reality of past abuses came with indisputable revelations relating the Christian Brothers’ orphanages in the 1980s and early 1990s. The civil case against the Christian Brothers involved some 250 plaintiffs and was one of the first big cases of its type. Details of abuses suffered by orphans at places such as Clontarf and Bindoon significantly damaged the order’s credibility. By mid-1993 the Christian Brothers had made a public apology, acknowledging with deep shame and regret that migrant and other children had been sexually and physically abused in orphanages run by the order between the 1940s and 1960s.

In late August 2002 some horrific accusations of sexual, psychological and physical abuse to children at former orphanage, Nazareth House, near Brisbane, Queensland, were made public. Seventeen women and one former male student, lodged claims (covering the period from the early 1940s to the early 1970s) in the Queensland Supreme Court against the Roman Catholic Church’s Brisbane Archdiocese and the Sisters of Nazareth order, which operated the orphanage. James Spence, the Chancellor of the Brisbane Archdiocese, sought to distance the archdiocese from the claims by stating that any responsibility for the children had rested with the Sisters of Nazareth. He said, ’The archdiocese had no involvement in the day-to-day running of the orphanage.’ But he added, ’The archdiocese acknowledges with deep regret the distress felt by former residents of Nazareth House.’ The New Zealand based Sisters of Nazareth’s regional supervisor, Clare Breen, has acknowledged: ’We’re very sad that some of these girls still have these unhappy memories. We have financed a number of girls to have counselling. We feel that is what the girls have asked us to do and that is what we have done.’ But she added that this did not mean that the order accepted that their claims are true. One of the women involved in the claims responded that she had not decided whether to accept $65,000 offered to her. She stated: ’What I really want is for them to admit that it happened and that it was wrong, but they won’t. That’s what we really need for our spirits to heal.’ Legal action for child abuse is also being taken against the order in New Zealand, and in Scotland 420 men and women have alleged abuse at the hands of at least 50 named nuns of the Sisters of Nazareth order — 11 compensation test cases are being processed and one nun, Marie Docherty was convicted of four charges of cruelty and unnatural treatment in 2000.

Between the earlier revelations about abuse at Christian Brothers’ orphanages and the more recent claims of abuses by some of the Sisters of Nazareth there have been many other claims of abuse by Roman Catholic parish priests

Predator parish Priests

Allegations against priests has seriously affected the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of the Roman Catholic Church leadership at almost all levels. In the United States alone the rate of allegations of sexual abuse by priests has skyrocketed in 2002 especially.

There are newspapers in the US that have had almost daily coverage of the problem since the beginning of the year. The crisis became so serious that the Pope summoned the US Catholic leadership to Rome in April to express his personal concern over the issue and the need for them to deal decisively with it.

In April 2002 Associated Press surveyed all States of the US through their own reporters and monitoring of other press reports and then presented a state-by-state summary of the major developments of sex abuse issues in the Roman Catholic Church in America since January 2002. It provided disturbing reading. Virtually no states remained unsullied by the problem. While Boston, Massachusetts, has been described as the ’epicentre’ of the growing sexual abuse scandal since January, there are other states with large numbers of priests dismissed or suspended as a result of allegations [by late April at least 30 priests had been fired or suspended in California alone]. Following discussions with the Pope and pledges of more decisive action by the US Roman Catholic Church leadership, the flow of allegations and the revelations of previously unnamed accused priests continued, almost unabated.

The problem has not been limited to the USA during 2002, however. Sexual scandal was also brought to light in Roman Catholic Dioceses as far apart as Austria, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Mexico and Poland, as well as further allegations in Australia.

It has been pointed out that, in comparison to the general population and Protestant churches collectively [because there are more of them], Roman Catholic priests are no more sexual predators than other men. It is also true to state that the sexual predator priests are very much a minority that have given a bad name to the majority of caring priests who seek to carry out their vocation with compassion and integrity.

Why then the big international media focus on the sexual sins of Roman Catholic priests?

Some have suggested that the Roman Catholic Church is the single largest denomination in the USA and has significant assets, therefore making it an attractive financial target for lawsuits.

Professor of Law, Professor Patrick Parkinson, from the University of Sydney is the author of the book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches. Some of his comments may also help explain why there is such a media focus on the Roman Catholic Church. He has stated: ’It is clear that that there are far more offenders against children in the Catholic church, far more priests have been convicted of child sexual abuse and that the patterns of abuse are different in the Catholic church from the rest of the community. For example, the tendency is when cases emerge in the Catholic church for there to be abuse of teenage boys, 13 or 14 year old boys. In the general community it is more likely that the offenders will target girls, and they’ll be of a younger age. So we’re seeing from the research studies something very different about the patterns of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church.’

One inescapable fact remains obvious: Though sexual abuse occurs across denominations and other religious groups, no major denomination or group — especially in the USA — has had to confront a continuing sexual abuse scandal of the magnitude of that currently afflicting the Roman Catholic Church.

Why Priestly Paedophiles?

Why do some priests abuse children? Numerous possible reasons and contributing factors as to why some priests become sexual predators continue to be debated.

Some have focussed on the enforced celibacy as the major contributing factor (The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former Roman Catholic Church canon lawyer commented earlier in the year: ’I think the future of celibacy is pretty shaky right now.’ He suggested the possibility of ’optional celibacy’ for Roman Catholic priests, and stated: ’Simply taking vows and making promises doesn’t bring about a metaphysical and emotional change within. I do believe that to make it an option certainly would enhance the emotional and psychological health of the priesthood in general, and it certainly would open it up to a lot more men who would be willing to come on board and serve as priests.’); others have emphasised the all-male dominated seminary system (in which some older priests began their high school and priestly training as young as 12) has greatly contributed to the sexual immaturity of many priests; related to this is the view of some that the Roman Catholic Church has a repressive view of human sexuality which underlies its current troubles.

As former priest and retired psychology professor, Eugene Kennedy, stated: ’It tends to make people feel they live in bodies that are going to betray them, and sexuality is some kind of evil that has possessed them.’ A number of researchers have pointed to a Jansenist austere form of piety and rigorously puritanical morality introduced through the Irish Catholic Church. As Professor William Johnston has reported: ’Young Irishmen came to these [French Jansenist] seminaries to be trained as priests, because the English forbade the teaching of Catholicism in Ireland. These Irish priests carried Jansenist practices back to Ireland and from there to the United States and Australia’; others have claimed that Roman Catholic seminaries have a known and recognised homosexual culture and environment (During a panel discussion in early 2002, Rev. Donald Cozzens, former senior priest in the Diocese of Cleveland, estimated that 30 to 50 percent of priests were homosexuals though celibate, and stated: ’We want to be fair and compassionate to many wonderful gay seminarians and gay priests.’ Rev. John McCloskey, of the US Catholic Information Centre, sharply disagreed with Cozzens and claimed the percentage of homosexual priests was only 2 to 4 percent. A 2001 Sociology or Religion survey of 1200 USA Roman Catholic priests confirmed the existence of a homosexual sub-culture at seminaries with estimate figures ranging between 19 to 26 per cent. These findings were made public in August 2002. Pope John Paul II’s spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls earlier this year cited canon law on homosexuality and stated that, ’People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained.’ A later Vatican statement declared that a major contributor to the sex abuse allegations has been the reluctance of bishops to apply a 1961 document from the Sacred Congregation for Religious which prohibits the admission of homosexuals to the diocesan priesthood and religious orders. The document states: ’Those affected by the perverse inclination to homosexuality or pederasty should be excluded from religious vows and ordination,’because such persons in priestly roles would place them [and those they serve] in ’grave danger’.); others say that none of these things are relevant to the problem of paedophile priests — that they are individuals with personality problems who would be paedophiles regardless of the system or environment in which they gained positions of leadership and trust with access to minors.

Undoubtedly the reasons why some priests have been involved in paedophilia will remain a complex mixture of issues such a those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, with varying factors relating to and affecting specific individual priests — including earlier family relations, loneliness, stress, alcohol impaired judgement and more. Whatever the causes, it is clear is that it remains a serious issue for the Roman Catholic Church.

Cover-up Concerns

Amongst the many issues and factors contributing to the media attention and focus is that child sexual abuse by those held in trust and high esteem, as Roman Catholic priests have been in their congregations, is a heinous criminal offence that has shattered and destroyed young lives and deeply disturbed the families of the victims — as well as destroying faith in church leadership. Donald Cozzens, a former leader amongst priests in the Diocese of Cleveland, referred to the revelations of sexual abuse as ’a crisis in credibility for our bishops and our leadership . . . a crisis in trust and confidence that Catholics place in their priests.’

But particularly significant has been, not just the offences of the predator priests, but often the knowing cover-up, or failure to act, on the part of Bishops and other senior Roman Catholic leaders. The outspoken liberal dissenter, Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame (USA), claimed that some of the statements from the Vatican and the US Cardinals on the issue were far from adequate or satisfactory, and stated: ’The fact is that most Catholic laity are angrier at the bishops than they are at the predatory priests. In this crisis, the people know that the bishops mishandled it badly and in some cases actually covered up criminal behaviour, put children in harm’s way.’

The Director of the Centre for the Study of American Catholicism, at the US Notre Dame University, Scott Appleby, stated on the ABC’s ’Background Briefing’: ’This is a scandal that goes far beyond the terrible evil of sexual misconduct by a tiny minority of priests, because it sheds light upon the mismanagement of some bishops over the scandal that goes from reappointing priests who they knew or suspected of sexual misconduct, to pastoral ministry, and also some terrible stories of minimising victims’ stories about that sexual abuse, so there’s the suspicion there that there is at worst, a failure in moral character on the part of some of the bishops and priests in the church, and at best, a sense that they just didn’t get it when the first wave of scandals hit in the ’80s and ’90s.’ Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has probably come under more criticism and calls for his resignation than any other USA Roman Catholic leader. It seems available evidence shows that he knowingly moved predator priests around and even came to their defence.

One of the more notorious cases has been that of priest, John J. Geoghan. In spite of a seminary report on July 21, 1954 describing John Geoghan as having a ’very pronounced immaturity’ he was ordained to the priesthood in 1962. During his first term as a parish priest a fellow priest reports him to the hierarchy of inappropriate behaviour with young boys. In the mid-1990s Geoghan admitted his abuse began back then.

Since the early 1960s to late 1995 Geoghan was a continuing paedophile offender. Parents and other priests reported his molestation of boys and he over the years he underwent psychotherapy and treatment at a number of institutions- the first time being in about 1968 and the last in 1996.

Bernard Law became Boston’s archbishop in March 1984 and in September 1984 removed Geoghan from the parish where he was serving and assigned him to other parish where senior clergy were ’aware of past allegations’ yet put Geoghan in charge of three youth groups, including altar boys!!

Geoghan was finally defrocked and removed from the priesthood in 1998.

On February 21, 2002, John J. Geoghan, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for molesting a 10-year-old boy. My more charges will be brought against the 66-year-old former priest. Since 1995, more than 130 people have claimed Geoghan abused them during the thirty four years he served in Boston area parishes. He has also been named in more than 80 civil suits, and the likelihood is that more will follow.

Yet all this could have been avoided.

Cardinal Bernard Law knew of accusations against Geoghan but continued to move him between parishes instead of reporting him to the law authorities and removing him from the priesthood.

The case of another paedophile priest Paul R. Shanley is another clear example of cover-up and mishandling of the problem by Cardinal Law.

Shanley was ordained in 1960. By 1970 he was involved in his street ministry to troubled teenagers - including runaways, drug abusers, drifters and teens struggling with their sexuality. The then long-haired and casually dressed Shanley was riding around on a motorbike championing the causes of ostracised minorities. He openly spoke at a conference advocating sex between men and boys and which resulted in the formation of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, also known by its acronym - NAMBLA. It seems that Shanley was one of its founding members.

More than 800 page of internal personnel records, released under court order in April 2002 by the Archdiocese of Boston referred to Shanley as a ’very sick person’ and revealed:

  • that church officials had received complaints about Shanley dating back to 1967;

  • that church officials were aware that Shanley had advocated sex between men and boys;

  • that Shanley was treated for venereal disease;

  • that Shanley had helped young people use drugs;

  • that Cardinal Law did nothing to prevent Shanley, who archdiocesan records showed was a child molester, to move to various parishes around the archdiocese;

  • that Cardinal Law recommended Shanley for a post at a California church without telling officials there of allegations in Shanley’s past;

  • that Cardinal Law wrote him a positive retirement letter.

In April 2002, Cardinal Law publicly declared that ’the negligence of the plaintiffs contributed to cause the injury or damage’ in relation to a law suit against him seeking documents relating to Shanley’s abuses. The lawsuit, filed by Gregory Ford and his parents, allege that the abuse began in 1987, when the boy was only 6. When examined in depositions in June 2002 Cardinal Law acknowledged that a 6-year-old was hardly to be in the position of negligently causing Shanley to abuse him!

In May 2002 Shanley was arrested in San Diego and charged with three counts of child rape. He was extradited back to Massachusetts, where he had served as a priest for 30 years. He was indicted in June in Massachusetts on charges of raping four children between 1979 and 1989. On Wednesday 10 July, 2002, the 71-year-old Shanley pleaded not guilty to ten counts of child rape and six of indecent assault and battery against four boys.

More than 40 people have come forward claiming to have been victims of Shanley’s abuse.

Cardinal Bernard Law has claimed he knew nothing about allegations against Shanley until 1993. His own position has been further complicated following Cardinal Law facing the court in June to provide depositions in relation to the Shanley case. He changed his statements several times and basically claimed it was not his policy to examine the personnel files of his priests, and that he depended on advice and guidance by his deputies in relation to recommendations for moving or promoting priests in his archdiocese. Details of his depositions were made public in August and September 2002.

Shanley’s court case is continuing.

Following a statement made by he US Cardinals on their return from Rome earlier in the year, one commentator reportedly declared,:’I didn’t see an apology in the text, an apology for the sins and abuse by priests, but also for the failure of the bishops to be on top of this, for allowing it to spread. Until they do that, the people in the pews are not going to be pleased at all. Certainly the victims’ groups won’t be.’


Commenting prior to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June, 2002, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the US Catholic journal, First Things, stated ’...what we need in Dallas is bishops on their knees [confessing] their sins, first of all to God, then to the Catholic people and then to the world, because as a body ... they have been negligent.’

In the USA a number of Roman Catholic lay groups have formed to push for changes and reforms in the church’s leadership hierarchy. They have been angry and hurt by the insensitivity and dismissive approach by some of the bishops and other leaders to the whole issue of sexual abuse, and to the lack of repentance on their part for not dealing openly and decisively with the problem.

Cover-up Reasons?

Commenting on the fact that there are proportionally more Protestant clergy than Roman Catholic priests who have been accused in sexual abuse cases, Indiana Professor of Sociology, Anson Shupe, has commented, ’To me it says Protestants are less reluctant to come forward because they don’t put their clergy on as high a pedestal as Catholics do with their priests.’

The Roman Catholic doctrines of Apostolic Succession and the nature of the Priesthood (as a separate class of people to the laity) have probably contributed significantly to such an elevation of the priests. These teachings, mixed with traditional concepts of the unquestioned power of priests — and especially the unquestioned power and authority of bishops, archbishops and cardinals — have led many to perceive it all as virtually an exclusive men’s club leading to mutual protection.

Such perceptions have not been helped by the apparent greater pastoral concern and care for priests and predators than for victims.

Some bishops and church officials have been taking a tough line and fighting back — with a leading Vatican lawyer even advising against the open disclosure of files and documents. The Vatican approved journal that published the lawyer’s advice in May later published an article attacking media exposures about abuse by priests as ’anti-Catholic bias’ driven by ’morbid and scandalistic curiosity.’ Such comments, especially coming from Vatican sources, will do nothing to help the situation and everything to exacerbate the growing negative perceptions of gross mishandling of the problem.

Allegations of abuse against some of the Sisters of Nazareth in Scotland have not been quietened by refusal to acknowledge any wrong doing, and have been aggravated by the Order in Scotland planning to send one of the main accused away overseas, while claims are made in Australia that one of the main accused nuns was dead when she was very much alive.

The apparent inability or refusal of some Roman Catholic leaders, to recognise the full seriousness of the problem of sexual abuse by priests and members of various orders, is set against a backdrop of hundreds of millions of dollars having been quietly paid out to alleged abuse victims around the world.

Pastoral Responses

Leaders in the Roman Catholic Church don’t have an easy task.

The vast majority of priests, brothers and nuns, are non-abusive, caring people seeking to serve the community in the name of their church and the love of Christ. A notorious minority of abusers are causing untold damage to the lives of hundreds of people, as well as to their church and the reputations of fellow church workers.

As more and more abuse victims find the courage to come forward to expose their abusers and make them face the consequences of their horrendous ungodly actions, the problem of false accusations (possible for whole range of complex reasons from false memories to other perceived hurt and anger) will be an added complication.

While the Roman Catholic leadership has a pastoral duty of care to look after and protect those serving the church, it needs to ensure that this does NOT lead, or even give the appearance of leading, to the neglect of their duty of care to those who may be victims of abuse by church workers.

Many positive steps have been taken from the public acknowledgment that sexual abuse is a criminal offence that needs to be dealt with by the police, to a greater acknowledgment of the duty of care responsibilities to abuse victims and alleged victims. It seems that Australian Catholic Bishops have been in front of their American colleagues in recognising and dealing with the problem.

An example of this is seen in the Towards Healing programme of ’principles and procedures in responding to complaints of abuse against personnel of the Catholic Church of Australia’ which was inaugurated in 1996 and revised in December 2000.

Programmes such as this can only be part of more extensive efforts to end and prevent abuse by those in positions of authority and trust. Unfortunately, for some it will be a case of too little too late.

A number of websites provide further and up-to-date information, including:

Newspaper and media sites: Link?)

The April 01, 2002 issue of Time Magazine - Link connects to Time archives which require payment for article downloads,9263,1101020401,00.html

Victims of abuse:

A private concerned Roman Catholic site with numerous links:

(From TACL Vol 23 #5 2002)

Suffer the little children Part 3.pdf337.38 KB