Sexual Abuse by Clergy and Other Church Workers

In discussion regarding the sexual abuse of children by clergy and other employees of churches, it has been common to refer to the perpetrators as ‘criminals’ who have infiltrated the institutions. The import of this language has been to put the full blame for the abuses on the individuals. It has also encouraged a perspective which sees the solution to removing sexual abuse as better selection of clergy and others who work with children and greater vigilence in reviewing their behaviour. In relation to the sexual abuse of children by clergy and other church workers, it is appropriate to ask whether there are any factors in church systems which have, in some way, contributed to the abuse, allowed it to occur, or contributed to the abuse being covered up.

One recent book to draw attention to such factors within the Australian Catholic Church is by Geoffrey Robinson, a retired bishop who has been involved in the issues of sexual abuse for a period of 18 years. Bishop Robinson draws attention to a range of factors in the Catholic Church which he believes have contributed to the abuse.

Robinson argues that the most critical factor lies at the very heart of the faith: the understanding of and relationship with God. He says that the structure of the church with a pope who is concerned about conformity means that the angry god is never far away, despite the many beautiful statements about God’s love and the many examples of people who have reflected that in their lives.

Robinson further elaborates what this means for the nature of morality. The moral teaching, says Robinson, has contributed to the distorted moral thinking among many sexual offenders. In particular, the church’s teaching about sexual morality has emphasised sins against God rather than focussing on relationships. Because of that, mortal sins against God have been considered much more seriously than a sin committed against a minor. The consequences for the minor were not taken into account, and sins against minors were easily forgiven. Robinson says that this attitude contributed to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another in the name of Christian forgiveness.

Robinson’s other major concerns have to do with the maleness of the church, obligatory clerical celibacy, the clericalism which was expressed in developing a mystique of priesthood, and the lack of professionalism among clergy. He argues that the male domination of the church has led to many distortions and has contributed to a church culture which has found interior reflection, relating with intimacy, and humanising tenderness increasingly difficult.

A scholarly attempt to look at institutional factors in the Catholic Church which have contributed to sexual abuse is that of Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture. The book, published in 2012, focuses on the problem in Ireland.Keenan argues that celibacy itself is not the issue. Rather it is the Catholic sexual ethic and theology of priesthood which ‘problematizes’ the body and erotic sexual desire and emphasises chastity and purity over a relational ethic for living.

Keenan, like Robinson, believes that there needs to be deep reflection on the moral teaching of the church, particularly around sexuality. There also needs to be a re-examination of the male domination of the church’s structures and the understanding of priesthood and celibacy. More research needs to consider the factors that have contributed to abuse in various situations. Simply seeing the problem as the consequence of criminal behaviour of a few individuals will not ensure that abuse will not occur in the future.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 3, Pages 9-13

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