The M+G+R Foundation

Religious Life Without Integrity

A Guest Document

by Dr. Barry M Coldrey


'Sex has taken many priests and Brothers by the short hairs and sifted them like chaff. In some dioceses and some Provinces of Religious Orders the impression is that not a virgin is left standing. ' Journalist hyperbole, you say and rather trite too. Nevertheless, the revelations of the last few years around the whole of the English-speaking church, suggest that a large minority of the 'celibate' priesthood have treated their vows and responsibilities lightly in this area; among some, celibacy has been honoured in the breach, treated as the optional extra. Moreover, priests were often shielded by a culture of sexual secrecy from the consequences of their actions, permitted to play at life with a sort of diplomatic immunity.

Sexual underworlds developed in some dioceses and in some Religious Congregations. The 7%-10% of priests and Brothers who have sexually molested minors has been merely the tip of an iceberg of infidelity. In the United States, as a result of exhaustive researches over 35 years, Richard Sipe found that four times as many priests were (at some points in their lives) engaged in heterosexual sex as molested children, and some 12% - 15% had gay sexual experience. With the evidence of other in-house investigators and commentators, this study accepts that Richard Sipe's analysis and conclusions are broadly relevant to the Australian clerical scene, for which no long-term professional study exists.

It is an assumption in this exploration that the sexual abuse crisis has been the elephant issue in the English-speaking church over the last ten years; the vital issue in the sense that while 'everyone' understands sexual and money matters, only a relative handful of people care about the other contentious questions facing the church, for example, the ordination of women as priests. The Catholic Church has stressed that its priesthood is celibate; that its ministers pose no sexual threat to anyone. Celibacy is the distinctive feature of the Catholic priesthood to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Over the last 10 - 15 years many people have become progressively aware of widespread (though minority) infidelity to this vow by many priests.

This infidelity have become a major obstacle to preaching the gospel in the English-speaking world. Priestly 'zippergate' has become to the church what 'Watergate' was to U.S. President, Richard Nixon. As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the recent (December 1998) Synod of the Bishops of Oceania in Rome:

Victims of abuse and the whole community demand that the Church do everything possible to ensure that no one else will be abused in the future. They demand that all aspects of the life of the priest and the religious be studied and that all attitudes to power and authority be carefully reviewed. (Wedesweiler, D. 'Synod: bishops urge change', The Catholic Weekly, 4 December 1998, p. 1)

This is a developing study and when the next phase of Chapters in the Congregation arrives, it will be available for delegates. Meanwhile there is the frustration of the dedicated Catholic laity faced with increasing evidence of the infidelity of many of their priests to the most public of their vows. It is the laity who have to face the ribald humour and coarse innuendo of their non-Catholic friends and acquaintances at each new revelation of priestly infidelity, child molestation or personal shortcomings... the more so since Catholic priests have rarely been slow to lay down the law on what the community ought or ought not to be doing.

This exploration accepts that during the 1990s, the English-speaking church was on a phenomenal learning curve in these matters, and the problems of the celibate priesthood and the Religious Congregations are being addressed, at times, ever so slowly. Statements, principles and procedures have appeared after many years in gestation to provide an intellectually-satisfying framework through which decision-makers can deal with the problems of sexually troubled men. However for some, it is all too little too late: the church is not contrite enough, not sincere enough, not revealing enough, not thorough enough, and its performance, not good enough!

It is easy to condemn the church's past failings, the inability to address the sexual abuse issue, the lying, the duplicity, the victim-blaming, the squalid ethics all directed to the avoidance of scandal at any cost. Many Churchmen had little awareness, and certainly no clear understanding of sexual offences against children and teenage minors, their criminal nature and the permanent psychological scar such offences could leave with the victims.

In a sense the sexual abuse of minors and general clerical infidelity to celibacy vows has been the dark underside of the old Irish-Australian working class church, covered over many years by class and tribal loyalties, and now revealed in all its naked horror by Catholics who no longer feel the old working class Irish-Australian tribal ethos. Bourgeois and empowered, they expect something better of the church.

Times have changed. By the year 2000, in Australia some seventy Brothers and priests have been convicted of sexual offences against children and more cases are pending. There have been the highly-publicised suicides of some offenders. Sexual infidelity has been revealed. Vast sums have been paid in legal fees, 'hush money' and mediated compensation payments; some priests have been laicised for their offences; others confronted and disciplined in more determined ways than was once done. The proverbial chickens finally came home to roost with a vengeance. Some reforms have commenced.

Our reputation has declined seriously, and and it may sink further before things improve. Catholics ache with a sense of innocence lost or destroyed, of the dangerous allure of evil: criminal behaviour, vows ignored, the squalid efforts to cover-up.

It is instinctive in any institution to protect itself from outside criticism and scrutiny, but it is equally true that periodically institutions are forced by circumstance to explain themselves to an outside world that does not necessarily take certain things for granted, nor share the same basic loyalty. The sexual abuse allegations have destroyed permanently the complacent notion that a religious order is somehow beyond good and evil. There is conflict between the public expectations of the life we lead and the human reality of feelings often agonising, chaotic and apparently humiliating the messiness of the human struggle. Priest and religious have been found out as human beings. However, some reforms have been initiated.

However, there is still a downside, a shadow side which includes widespread denial among ordinary Brothers and priests of the extent and dimensions of the problem; an empathy with the perpetrators which confronts the victims with at best, sympathy-fatigue, and a defensive attitude to discussing the situation with any degree of frankness or detail. There are attempts to silence in-house critics. There is evidence, also, that some Religious Superiors, their lay advisors and solicitors have skirted the edge of illegality by paying hush money to complainants to withdraw their allegations after criminal proceedings have started against priests or Brothers. However, the French have a crude saying that unless the puss comes out, the wound won't heel.

Rhetoric remained pious, generalised, evasive; some meetings to discuss the issue were stage-managed, sterilised and carefully orchestrated to avoid confronting sexual problems too directly. Individuals who work, or have worked to bring the abuse issue to the attention of authorities can find themselves marginalised, subject to continuing lying and character assassination, a sort of low-level verbal terrorism, while offenders are readily excused and integrated, and either are, or give the appearance of being protected. There is the toxic mixture of brotherhood and betrayal, high belief and low cunning. Sin is congenial; jail a novelty; 'Promotion' is based on sexual experience.

All this suggests that the willingness of the church authorities to confront the abuse issue and the casual attitude to vowed celibacy among a large minority of priests and Religious depends, not so much on deep-seated commitment to the right, but more on the relentless pressure of the media, the oxygen of destructive publicity; and the justice systems, both civil and criminal. There was, and still is, a perceived desire by those in authority to sweep the whole matter under the carpet, when and where this is still possible. Sexual molestation is the 'tip of the iceberg' of clerical infidelity to celibacy; the whole issue must be addressed otherwise the abuse issue is only partly confronted.

Hence, the need to explore the issue further as part of the on-going process to make the scandals of the last fifteen years as far as possible things of the past. Once, over many years, the guys in white hats lost while evil reigned; now the good guys are winning more, but evil reigns too often, despite some improvements in the church's response to child molestation.

There are some original thoughts in this book; not many. In the main it is a compilation from a wide range of secondary material informed by my own experience over eight years of investigation to focus decision-makers on further reform measures the church in Australia must make to deal with the ramifications of the sexual abuse crisis.

About The Uganda Martyrs

Four "White Fathers" commenced Catholic evangelisation in 1879, nearly two years after the arrival of Anglican missionaries. The zeal of the early converts helped to spread Catholicity rapidly. The persecution of 1885 - 1887 produced the 22 Uganda martyrs canonised in 1964, and a similar number of Anglicans martyred for their faith.

The 22 African youths were put to death by the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, Mwanga, a vicious and perverse young man after his Christian courtiers refused to submit to his demands for sex. Joseph Mukasa, the majordomo of the Royal Household, died first, beheaded, 15 November 1885 for encouraging the courtiers to remain chaste and protesting the murder of the Anglican bishop, James Hannington. Joseph Mukasa is the first martyr of Black Africa.

On 25 May 1886, Mwanga ordered the execution of the courtier, Denis Ssebuggwawo for instructing his favourite boy in the Christian faith. Over the next few days a number were put to death, and on 3 June 1886, at Namugongo, thirteen were burned at the stake, including Charles Lwanga who had charge of the courtiers. Most of the courtiers were young men in their teens; the last execution, 27 January 1887 was of Jean Marie Muzeyi, a former young courtier, who was beheaded.

The Uganda martyrs were beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1920 and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

© 2000 Barry M Caldrey

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

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