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Philippa Martyr: Dismantling abuse’s culture of omertà in the Church

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Photo: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

From 6-24 February 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held its wrap-up sessions for the Catholic Church, covered by The Catholic Weekly. Key issues came up over and over again – celibacy, clericalism, the seal of the confessional. But at the same time, a colossal elephant in the room was barely discussed.

Let’s look at the Commission’s own statistics.
• Of the 4444 complainants, 78 per cent of complainants were male.
• 90 per cent of the perpetrators were male.

Is this the usual gender balance of victims to perpetrators? The overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse victims in Western countries are female. The Australian Institute of Family Studies noted this, along with the other group where the number of male victims was statistically far higher: gay and bisexual men.

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In Australia, a ‘child’ is anyone up to the age of 18, and the sexual age of consent in most States is 16. The Royal Commission reports that, based on data collected from the Catholic Church in Australia, 40 per cent of all victims were aged 13 and over at the time of the abuse, but that the ages of victims rose over time, so that from the 1970s victims were much more likely to be teenagers. Similar results were found in the United States: around 40 per cent of victims were males aged 13 or above.

Why does an adult man act out sexually with a teenage boy? They may both be in some isolated and confined all-male environment where there is no access to women (‘situational homosexuality’). Or, one or both has a pre-existing sexual attraction to other males (‘same sex attraction’, ‘homosexuality’, ‘being gay’).

Situational homosexuality might be a reasonable explanation when looking at closed communities like single-sex boarding schools in isolated rural areas. But for diocesan priests in urban settings, with freedom of movement and access to a wide range of women on a daily basis, this is clearly not ‘situational homosexuality’.

The modern concept of ‘homosexuality’ is a construct of late nineteenth and early twentieth century psychology, initially classed as a mental disorder. ‘Hebephilia’ and ‘ephebophilia’ were similar constructs used to describe adult males having sex with pubescent and late adolescent boys, again as mental disorders. In 1973, ‘homosexuality’ disappeared from DSM-II as a mental disorder. The present-day gay community has also been anxious to dissociate itself from men who have sex with pre-pubescent boys, and attempts to have hebephilia included in DSM-V have been controversial. This is why, if you make any link between the adult male sexual abuse of adolescent boys and what we understand as ‘homosexuality’, you will be shouted down very quickly.

On the one hand, there are robust studies of child sexual abuse which class all male-against-male sexual abuse as ‘homosexual’. These demonstrate a very high correlation between ‘homosexuality’ and the sexual abuse of young males. If homosexual adult males account for less than two per cent of the general population, they are thus enormously over-represented among sexual abusers of males under the age of 18.

The opposing argument is that the studies are over-inclusive because they are based on the acts committed, not on the participants’ orientation or self-identification as homosexual. This is really the only difference in the two arguments.

Since ancient Greece, countless texts have demonstrated that the culture of male-on-male sexual activity in the West revolved around adult men sexually enjoying boys and adolescent males. There is also plenty of evidence that in the confused years around the Second Vatican Council, many diocesan seminaries became enclaves of male-on-male sexual activity. All these sources describe a similar picture: close-knit communities with their own rules of sexual engagement; initiation, secrecy, substance abuse, and violence. Male youth has always been the most powerful and desirable currency in this sexual world.

Diocesan seminaries are under the authority of the local bishop, but in many cases the fox was in charge of the chicken coop. Celebrity cases immediately spring to mind – Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt of Cape Town, Cardinal Hans Groer of Vienna. There are also Catholic theologians (and their followers) who argue that same-sex attraction and acting-out are not impediments to priestly life, and they have made life very difficult for the Courage ministry, whose chastity-based approach has proved successful for many self-identified gay Catholics.

You can see this troubled internal dialogue at work in the wrap-up sessions. Sr Lydia Allen RSM provided a straightforward summary of Catholic thinking and practice on 14 February. Monica Doumit summarised her testimony:

“Sr Lydia … explained that deep-seated homosexuality was more than same-sex attraction, but a desire to make that part of their identity, to be part of the gay community and a refusal to be of the same mind as the Church in such matters … there was a need for a person to accept the natural law and ideas of masculinity and femininity.”

But another witness present on the same day was Dr David Leary OFM, a Franciscan friar and lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Victoria. He also has a PhD in psychology. Here is how he responded to Sr Lydia’s comments:

“Dr Leary criticised this, saying that homosexuality did not impact on ministry, and that viewing it as a disorder had no basis in good theology or psychology. He said a capacity for compassion was much more critical. To illustrate his point, he told a story about showing a movie about grief and loss to his seminarian students, and receiving a complaint from one seminarian because the movie [possibly Brokeback Mountain] featured two gay men as the main characters.”

This effectively shut down the discussion completely. It is not homophobic or unreasonable to speculate about an association between a cohort of homosexually-active adult men in the diocesan priesthood and an increase in clerical sexual abuse of adolescent boys. It’s just not currently politically correct to do so. The Royal Commissioners stayed on safer ground, and focused on priestly celibacy. Most of the witnesses agreed that it was probably a factor in sexual abuse, but Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP consistently maintained that celibacy in itself was not the problem, but rather a lack of sexual integration. Like marriage, celibacy often turns out to be very different from what you signed up for: more demanding, less room for selfishness, lonelier.

Heterosexual men who have freedom of movement tend to seek out adult women who are reasonably attractive to them. When clergy do this, it’s now politely called an ‘adult boundary violation’. Last year I took part as a witness in a formal diocesan investigation of one of these, and it was profoundly distressing. We still have a long way to go when dealing with these and other failures in clerical celibacy.

Last year Father (now Bishop) Richard Umbers wrote:

“When the bureaucratic mindset is coupled with secrecy, with an inability to be held accountable and questioned, the results can be catastrophic … Canon Law is meant to be a mirror of justice, but where asymmetric information rules there is too great an opportunity for mischief and cover up. In clergy sexual abuse cases, the call for permanent silence only compounds the hurt.”

So what are some possible solutions? The collection and publication of transparent data on child sexual abuse and adult boundary violations by each diocese would be a start. Church-funded ‘professional standards’ organisations are useless otherwise. If we as a Church can’t see the size and real nature of the problem, how on earth can we fix it?

Careful screening of seminary candidates and good formation must be matched by an episcopal willingness to let numbers fall if necessary. Good priests are made of the same material as good human fathers. This isn’t an argument for married priests, because celibacy actually frees a man to be a spiritual father to everyone he meets. In a society that is starved of fatherhood, the priest as father – rather than ‘leader’, or ‘servant’ – is a role waiting to be rediscovered and renewed.

We need better pastoral care of diocesan priests: their principal job is to administer the sacraments, and this should be central to their way of life. The Royal Commission witnesses talked about the dangers of clericalism, but niceness is the equally dangerous modern equivalent: the priest, especially if he is young, is not allowed to be less than ‘lovely’ all the time. Priests can also be encouraged to live with brother priests wherever possible. This can alleviate loneliness, put the brakes on selfishness, and keep susceptible individuals out of the more obvious sorts of trouble.

Above all, the culture of omertà which privileges clerical privacy over lay distress has to change, and quickly. If we are serious about protecting non-negotiables like the seal of the confessional from the heavy hand of the State, we had better come up with some viable alternatives for facing and managing some unpleasant truths about our clergy.

This is the edited text of an article which first appeared in the April edition of Quadrant magazine.

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