226th Meeting – Tuesday, August 13th 2002

"The Catholic Church and the Sexual Abuse Dilemma"

A talk by Dr. Peter Clarke

Present: Hans Bänziger, Hans Baumann, John Cadet, Kate Callahan, Jim Campion, Casie Casados, Tom Crichton, Arthur Edmond-Jones, David Engel, Louis Gabaude, Melissa de Graaff, Otome Hutheesing, jefree, Carool Kersten, Annette Kunigagon, Gareth Lavell, Madeleine Lynch, Paul Mahoney, Macquis Op di Laak, Richard Nelson-Jones, David Rowlands, Shane Watson, David Weighell. An audience of 23.

Dr. Clarke is currently the Professor of the History and Sociology of Religion at King's College and Tutor in the Sociology of Religion at Oxford University. He has also taught in Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil and the United States.

This is the full text of his talk:

Quote from a priest in Bangkok: 'They are killing the church.' I am not by any means an expert on the question of the priestly abuse of children. The most and best I can do is to offer some observations from the perspective of the sociology of religion that may shed some further light on what must be for many an incomprehensible as well as inexcusable crime, both in the form of paedophilia and ephébophilia - the abuse of pre-pubescent and post-pubescent children respectively. My perspective will also be based to a degree on personal experience in that I was trained in a Catholic seminary and was a priest, albeit for only a short time. I have also during my 30 years as a university teacher, tutored priests, both Catholic and Anglican, and made some very close and valuable friends among the clergy during my research in Africa and Brazil.

The first concern of everyone must be to offer their deepest sympathies to all who have been abused. As to the perpetrators of such a crime, I'm not sure whether they are profoundly disturbed emotionally and psychologically or men of evil intent and action. It could, I presume, vary from case to case, and where it is intentional it is hard to imagine a greater evil. This notwithstanding, forgiveness and compassion must always be part of the Christian response as, I believe, it would be in the case of Mahayana Buddhism, which in the concept of Tathagata-gharba or Buddha nature, teaches that whatever a person is like on the surface, the depths of her/his mind are 'brightly shining or pure'. It thus holds out, as do all other forms of Buddhism, and also Christianity, the possibility of ultimate transformation for all. While justice must be done and proper compensation awarded (of course no material compensation, however great, can atone for the injury inflicted), one of the dangers with responses that lack these elements is that healing is made much more difficult for all concerned. The well known Brazilian educator and philanthropist Paulo Freire, to whom I am indebted for this insight, in his classic treatise 'The Pedagogy of the Oppressed' encouraged the oppressed, when engaged in the task of understanding the real cause of their poverty, to build into their understanding of their plight and its resolution the fundamental importance, if they are to preserve their own integrity, of transcending the actions, attitudes, intentions and goals of the oppressor.

Objectively, the teaching of the Gospel on children and the Kingdom of heaven views the kind of abuse we are speaking about here as sacrilegious, and anthropologically speaking it bears the hallmarks of the satanic. It is a case, as will be seen below, of charisma turning graceless, of God and the Devil changes places without a change of face. It involves, among other things, a manipulation of spiritual power for ends diametrically opposed to those for which it is intended. As with the sacred, so too all mystical and spiritual power are potentially two edged and can, thus, be harnessed for good or evil.

While this talk focuses on the sexual abuse of children by priests it needs to be borne in mind, for the sake of fairness and balance and for the wellbeing of children, that priests are not by a long way, as far as is known, the majority or most frequent offenders. This kind of abuse is perpetrated in varying degrees by people in all walks of life, married and single, heterosexual and homosexual, male and female. Further proof of the involvement of married couples was recently provided by the police in the USA who found evidence of an international paedophile ring made up in the main of married couples who were circulating photographic material via the internet of their own abuse of their own children. (Source: APF, as quoted in The Bangkok Post on 11/08/02, p. 7)

A number of general theories have been advanced in recent times to explain the existence of child abuse within the ranks of the clergy. One such by the American Jesuit Fr Keenan (The Tablet, May 11th, 2002) sees it as essentially a problem of power. Keenan insists that 'sexual abuse is not primarily about sex, but about power' and continues 'the molestation and raping of children are not primarily sexual acts; they are violent acts of power' (Ibid.: p10).

Keenan supports his theory, which, while well argued, is nevertheless too monocausal and unilateralist to be totally convincing, with examples of cases in which certain members of the hierarchy have put questions of their own power first in dealing with the issue of sex abuse. He maintains that for some members of the clergy this is a tendency whatever the issue. To resolve the problems that arise from this obsession with power Keenan calls for the development of a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of power, of more power sharing and greater accountability. While these measures would not lead to the elimination of child abuse in the ranks of the clergy, they would doubtless make an important contribution toward that end. And, importantly, what they would ensure would be access to the best informed opinion on these matters and greater transparency in dealing with the issue.

There is, however, one dimension of priestly power, the charismatic dimension, which, whatever reforms were to be introduced, could never be made either wholly accountable or transparent.

Very often priests, gurus and spiritual leaders of all kinds exercise authority and control on the basis of a relationship with their followers that is based on their claims, or claims made on their behalf by others or by an institution, to be guided in their mission by a supernatural mandate. This form of leadership constitutes what is known as charismatic authority and often places the actions of those who wield it beyond the normal, everyday processes of reasoning and scrutiny. In recent times cases have been reported of spiritual leaders abusing children while their adult followers, and even the children's parents, looked on with approval.

(Your Convenor writes: A recent example of the abuse of charismatic authority, which Peter referred to in his talk, is the late David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian Cult in Waco, Texas. After the meeting, I found the following on Internet web sites: - In a 1993 US Treasury Department review it was stated that "While reports that Koresh was permitted to sexually and physically abuse children were not evidence that firearms or explosives violations were occurring, they showed Koresh to have set up a world of his own, where legal prohibitions were disregarded freely." And from another web site, in a report by Hugh Davies in Washington on evidence given by fourteen-year old Kiri Jewel to a Congressional Hearing in 1995 - "There was an uneasy silence in the congressional chamber as Kiri began to talk of her first sexual encounter with the cult leader (Koresh) at a motel in Waco when she was 10.

He asked her to sit beside him on a bed. "He kissed me. I just sat there, but he then laid me down," she said. After committing a sex act, he instructed her to take a shower and then read from the Bible. Close to tears, Kiri said: "He sat on the bed and read the Song of Solomon."

Recounting more of her sexual initiation, she said that he used Biblical quotations to explain himself. He told her that, "King David from the Bible would sleep with young virgins to keep him warm."")

Koresh reportedly justified, if indeed he needed to justify, his sexual behaviour to his followers by telling them that he was impregnating the innocent and pure - the only worthy recipients of it - with God's seed. Clearly, to the outsider, this is a case of charisma turned graceless. Some of those who witnessed such abuse without questioning it and eventually left the movement explained that at the time their faith in their leader's supernatural claims was such that he was incapable of sin or transgression. Although by no means all charismatic leaders transgress in this or similar ways, for a charismatic leader to behave normally in everything, including sexual conduct, could potentially, depending on the nature of their claim to rule, lessen their authority and power.

Sociologically understood, this kind of charismatic authority is essentially relational. As was previously mentioned, it is based on faith in supernatural claims and not on the personality attributes of the one who exercises it. Looked at psychologically it may be best explained in Freudian projectionist terms. It can be an important element of spiritual authority and, I believe, may contribute to an understanding of several aspects of the dynamics of child sex abuse by spiritual guides, including priests. Charismatic authority can facilitate, for those who possess it, the construction of a system of access to those whom they may wish to abuse, without arousing the suspicion of parents or guardians. A case of God being displaced by the Devil without a change of face.

Another insightful, although also monocausal, theory to explain child sex abuse by priests, advanced by the theologian and former seminary director Donald Cozzens, lays the blame on the clerical system as a whole, describing it as 'a closed, all-male system of privilege and secrecy.' (The Tablet, May 4, 2002: 8). Cozzens focuses mainly on the role of homosexual priests in relation to teenage boys, ephébophilia - the abuse of post-pubescent boys, rather than paedophilia - the abuse of pre-pubescent children. Research findings claim that post-pubescent boys are victimised by priests four times more often than post-pubescent girls. (See Richard Sipe, 'Sex, Priest and Power: Anatomy of A Crisis').

According to Cozzens, studies show that 30-50 percent of priests in the United States are homosexual (especially those under 50) in orientation, compared with around 5 percent in the population at large. Basing himself on Sipe, Cozzens points out (The Tablet, May 4, 2002, p. 8) that the majority of sex abuses of post-pubescent boys by priests have been perpetrated by homosexual priests. Some of these priests reportedly entered the priesthood to deal with their sexuality by putting it on the shelf, an approach that is in strong contrast with one of the principal goals of religion which should be to enable one to come as close as possible to feeling in harmony with one's true self. This is not an option for gay men who feel called to be priests in the Catholic Church. Using the Catholic priesthood as a way of escaping from one's sexuality is obviously potentially extremely dangerous, one reason being that those who do so are obliged to abandon the search for true self-understanding, and self-authenticity by living in denial of what is a core dimension of their biological, emotional, and spiritual selves. Another is that they are likely to come to rediscover their sexual being only after ordination. Seminary training for those who enter it young tends to delay self-discovery and there is the possibility, as one psychiatrist recently pointed out to this writer, that those priests who abuse children are actually relating to persons they feel to be sexually of a similar age to themselves.

What homosexual priests are bound to accept and teach is the official Catholic instruction that homosexuality is objectively a disorder. It is true that by a form of casuistry the Catholic Church can also hold that this objective condemnation of homosexuality as disordered does not mean that every individual homosexual is disordered. Homosexual priests must take small comfort from such hairsplitting. The emotional and psychological strain of being a closet homosexual within the ranks of the clergy, as within any other organization, must indeed be great. And the possible psychosomatic effects can well be imagined.

While it grounds itself in Biblical sources and Natural Law, and legislates in favour of the majority, the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality as disordered from a biological and psychological perspective is based on an ideal type construct that does not allow for the complex nature of human sexual orientations. The reality would seem to be that for the majority of people the heterosexual orientation is the principal one, the driving force as it were. However, it is not necessarily the only one. For some people homosexuality is the dominant orientation and for others both of these orientations are equally pronounced. This kind of reality suggests that Catholic teaching on sexual orientation needs to be refined if it is not to do damage to those whom it adversely affects, and, according to the available evidence, there are many.

Some mental and emotional relief is provided by those within the ranks of the clergy and in the wider church who would accept this interpretation of the complex nature of human sexuality. Such support can help to offset the isolation and the self-doubt and even self-denial of the homosexual priest and lay person. This cannot however, it seems to me, compensate, where 'loyal' Catholics are concerned, for official disapproval. Official acceptance is, it would seem, indispensable to the pursuit of self authenticity, that most treasured of human and spiritual ends, which, the evidence shows, is one of the most, if not the most, treasured goal of so many today as we move from a world in which identity was once ascribed, provided largely by the community to which we belonged, to one in which we must construct our own.

While official Catholic teaching on homosexuality may be causing stress and anxiety to homosexual priests themselves, the presence of so many homosexual priests within their ranks may pose serious relational and other problems linked to the vow of celibacy for heterosexual clergy. It is not difficult to imagine how those heterosexual clergy who are committed to the concept of a celibate priesthood in which celibacy is voluntary, might speculate on how such a large presence of homosexual priests could affect decision-making about this issue. Without suggesting that they might tend to blame gay priests and bishops for a lack of commitment to the cause of optional celibacy, heterosexual clergy may, however, be persuaded that homosexual colleagues cannot fully empathise with the arguments for the abandonment of mandatory celibacy, or be best suited to put the case for this on their behalf. Thus, heterosexual priests may feel that their colleagues and superiors who do not fully share the same concerns and aspirations are, in no small measure, determining their fate.

Considered not only from the perspective of interpersonal relations between the clergy but also from other angles, mandatory celibacy seems highly problematic. It is, of course, a law that is unfair in its implementation in that it is incapable of being enforced in the case of homosexual priests, while this is not the case with heterosexuals. Moreover, theologically, if not self-contradictory, it is, at the very least, paradoxical. That there should be a celibate clergy is not an issue, but what surely must be is that a church rule which all admit is not a matter of faith but of discipline, is allowed to make the reception of one sacrament, that of marriage, an obstacle to the practice of another, that of ordination.

Again, historically, the question needs to be asked has celibacy been effectual, has it fulfilled its purpose? It does have a long history in the Western Catholic Church, dating back to the time of Augustine in the 4th century, and this makes generalization rather unwise. Celibacy was not compulsory for all priests until the 12th century, and then not so much for theological and spiritual reasons but rather as a means of combating nepotism. While nepotism may have been curtailed and certain economic conditions alleviated, the introduction of celibacy did not prevent the Church from becoming a major landowner in many parts of the world including the poorest places, among them Latin America. As a consequence, celibacy itself did not and does not remove from the minds of the poor of Latin America and Africa, who are turning in their millions to evangelical and Pentecostalist churches, the image of the Church as over pre-occupied with its own concerns, or as an integral part of the power structures that have created their misery. (See: David Martin, Tongues of Fire, Blackwell, 1990)

While its merits, in terms of the freedom to be at the service of others and its symbolic power which points to the greater importance of the spiritual life and the heavenly realm over and against things material and physical, are repeatedly brought forward in defense of celibacy, it also needs to be recognised that it has proved an intolerable burden for many priests, no matter how great the effort they may have made to be faithful to it. There often follows in the life of celibate priests - in 50% of the cases we are told - a relationship that is secretive and, therefore, robbed of much of its meaning and value for both parties. Other priests, and I've known some intimately as fellow students, or as my own students, or simply as good friends, have turned to drink, while others have been impeded for years from the total engagement in their work that they feel they ought to have been able to give.

When looked at in the wider context of the caring professions in contemporary society -parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, aid workers, etc.- it can hardly be claimed that the Catholic priest is by virtue of his celibacy any more available for the service of others than are many others who may or may not be celibate. The idea that the celibate are freed by their celibacy to offer themselves totally to their flock is patently not the case. Availability means more than just physical presence. It means also having the experience necessary to empathise, an experience that comes mostly from a close relationship with another, whether successful or not. Moreover, as has been pointed out by sociologists, the clergy have become increasingly like other professionals - doctors, dentists, psychologists, etc.- where availability is concerned, with their times for seeing parishioners posted on their office doors.

All of this questioning of the need for mandatory celibacy is not to deny the fact that no direct link can be established between a celibate priesthood and child abuse. Neither the abolition of mandatory celibacy nor the expulsion of homosexual priests would eradicate child sexual abuse from the ranks of the clergy. Nor would the ordination of women priests. While, from what is presently known, the majority of abusers are what is referred to as 'regressed homosexual men', women are also known to have sexually abused children.

The Hierarchy and responsibility:

Much criticism has been made of the way the issue of child abuse has been handled by the hierarchy. Individual bishops appear to have made serious errors in the way they have handled certain cases. This seems inexplicable. One possible mitigating factor could be the fact that advice on how to treat paedophilia and ephébophilia was not necessarily always consistent. For example, while a psychotherapist might suggest that paedophiles could be successfully treated, a psychiatrist might argue the opposite. This could pose something of a dilemma for anyone in authority who had to make a judgment on the care and future career of paedophiles.

The present policy of bishops in the United States where, given the present state of knowledge on the subject, the abuse appears to have been most widespread, albeit confined to a very small minority of priests, is one of zero-tolerance. However, leaders of Religious Orders, who are responsible for 15,000 of the 45,000 priests in the United States, have followed a less restrictive line - priests who offend will be kept away from children, offered treatment and handed over for trial where required by law. The main argument for adopting this less restrictive policy is that members of religious orders are members of families and have no resources of their own to support themselves.

(Your Convenor writes: In conversation with Peter before he gave his talk, I had asked him how it was that bishops had not handed self-confessed criminals over to the authorities to be dealt with in law. Peter's reply was that the bishops made the distinction, in their own terms, between crime and sin.)

Possible mitigating factors notwithstanding, the questions have to be asked: Whose good did the bishops have in mind? Were they concerned above all else, as Keenan suggests, with protecting a system of hierarchy and privilege from exposure and did this contribute to a failure to value above all else the integrity and autonomy of the abused child? Following Keenan, and until evidence to the contrary is provided, in the latter question the provisional answers in both cases must be in the affirmative.

The position of the Vatican in all of this has received relatively little attention. At least twice, in documents in 1967 and 1975, Rome addressed the issues of paedophilia and ephébophilia, admittedly in relation to homosexuality in particular. While Rome did pronounce on these issues, all responsibility for the inadequate way in which they were handled cannot be made to rest with the bishops concerned. During the present papacy, bishops, it would seem, have often been reduced to little more than spokespersons. While it would be absurd to place even most of the blame on the pope for the present crisis, it is undoubtedly the case that his top-down rather than collegial style of leadership has not allowed for sufficient openness and the creative thinking necessary for the reform of the priestly ministry. Nor has it encouraged the laity to actively and creatively engage with the complex issues facing the church. I believe there is much in the off-the-cuff remark once made by my history tutor in a general discussion about the quality of life of the Catholic Church under an inflexible leader. 'Strong Pope, weak laity' he remarked.

There are those who have wanted a strong centre and they have had one for over 20 years. This centre has moved quickly to close down debate on important issues bearing on the priestly ministry, including celibacy and the ordination of women. It has also proved adamant in holding to its policy on contraception despite the tragedy of the Aids epidemic, which as we all know, affects most seriously and gravely the most poor.

For this writer, by no means a radical in matters theological, Vatican II was a momentous event, a time when it was good to be alive, it was a time of grace when the Church was truly open to the Holy Spirit. I would hazard a guess that without it, the situation of the Catholic Church, which is losing its hold over Catholics in many parts of the world - for example in both Latin America and Europe - would be far more parlous than it actually is today. For its part, a strong centre has presided over a diminishing number of priests and of truly committed Catholics.


It is too early to assess the damage to the Roman Catholic Church brought on by the child sex abuse affair. Evidence shows that prior to the recent revelations, confidence in the authority of official Catholic pronouncements was declining remarkably. The crisis, as Keenan has pointed out, could have a positive outcome if it pushes the Roman Catholic Church to accept the necessity for greater democratization and diversity, if only to interest and engage effectively with the young, the vast majority of whom in Europe show little or no desire to engage with official teaching as presently transmitted from above, or to pass on the teachings of Christianity to their children. (see The European Values Study, 1991). In a survey undertaken in the mid-1990s in France, over 90 per cent of under-19-year-old Catholics asked if they would obey official teaching before their conscience replied 'Non'. This finding can be replicated across Europe and elsewhere. And only one in seven of people aged under-thirty when asked if they would be passing on the teachings of their faith to their children replied in the affirmative. If these trends should continue then the result will be a loss of Catholic memory on an unprecedented scale.

The recent scandal, for which only a very tiny minority of clergy are directly responsible, will clearly do little to reverse these trends. Moreover it will, doubtless, and most importantly, impact negatively on belief in the sense that people who were once gripped or held by their Catholic faith come to simply hold on to it, loosely and ineffectively, if at all. And this at a time in history when, arguably, it is most needed.


Following an enlightening question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Peter in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.