A few weeks before my father died, he phoned me one night, something he never did. I think he believed that it was humiliating for a father to have to phone his own children. He called to tell me that his cancer, which until that point appeared to be growing infinitely slowly, had suddenly begun to generate many diverse and unpleasant symptoms and was advancing with great rapidity. He talked of his shortness of breath and other difficulties, saying, his Lancashire accent cracking with rage and distress: ‘It’s all because of the Thing! It’s the Thing!’
The Thing was not just the cancer, I think, but the entire moral circumstance of his life, the cloud of iniquity that had always dogged him right from childhood: the son of an Irish trawler-man the fifth of seven children, flogged at school with willow branches by the Catholic Marist Brothers (often for not having the correct uniform) berated and threatened in the name of God.
And this strange fog of grief and guilt he attempted to bequeath to me, his eldest son, in some uncanny way when he sent me at the age of four, to a bleak Catholic school run by nuns who stood before us like black predatory birds to inform us with great relish that if we spent so much as a ha’penny of the money we were given by our parents for the collection plate at weekly Mass, the Devil would seize our hands when we put them in our pockets and burn holes through the centre of our palms.
This image gave me frequent nightmares, not least because my teacher followed up her advice by beating me with her fist in class whenever my attention was distracted, usually by the fearful images the nuns had conjured up, something that thereby reinforced the link between impure thoughts and evil circumstances.
It always seemed to me that my teacher disliked me so much that even thinking about me drove her into a shrieking vindictive fury, a fury that she was more than happy to vent on my parents by informing them that I was retarded. It was a depressing and nearly unbearable experience at the age of four to wake each morning, and have to go to school to be shouted at, beaten, and told that I was born inherently evil and could only be redeemed if I did what God told me. As the nuns seemed to be God’s personal mouthpieces, this gave me a dark and dismal and hopeless view of the world and my place in it.
One can only conclude that nuns and teachers behaved like this because it doing so gave them pleasure. We were completely in their power and, in the bottom of our hearts we knew it, and they knew it too. This was the first lesson of school, the first lesson of Catholicism, the lesson that everyone learned almost immediately: your inner life was not your own and your outer life even less.
In Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa; Silence in the House of God, a brilliant, bitter and heart-rending report on the endemic sexual abuse of children by the clergy of the Catholic Church, it is made abundantly clear that not only was sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy a common practice over several continents, it was also structurally institutionalised.
Among the extraordinary, courageous and moving reports from adult survivors of sexual abuse by priests, Mea Maxima Culpa features some damning commentary from Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and now a sociologist and mental health counsellor. Sipe spoke about his extensive research into the abusive sexual activities of Catholic priests. He concluded that not only were only about 50 percent of priests maintaining their vow of celibacy but that the Catholic clerical hierarchy knew that this was so.
‘The higher you go,’ said Sipe, ‘The more they know.’ He then went on to make a hair-raising claim about the Catholic Church’s complicity in the sexual abuse of children:
The system of Catholic clergy – for which I have great respect and to which I have given many years of my life – selects, cultivates, protects, defends and produces sexual abusers.
This is an amazing assertion. Sipe is in effect saying that the Catholic Church is a factory for the production of men who sexually assault children. Given the numbers of children who have been sexually assaulted by priests, it’s difficult to gainsay him.
So, if Sipe is correct, exactly how does the Catholic Church do this?
There are a number of things we can say fairly definitely about adults who abuse children. It’s worth looking at these closely, given that the institutional history of child sexual abuse is likely to a be topic of considerable public conversation In Australia over the next couple of years.
The person who sexually abuses a child is:
- a man
- using children as a substitute sexual partner
- unable to establish a sexually intimate relationship with another adult.
- someone who has great difficulties in relating closely with others, because he has great difficulties understanding the minds of others.
- unable to establish a coherent sexual identity for himself
- living on the edge of a psychological disintegration.
In other words, according to Sipe’s definitions, the Catholic Church has done a stellar job in selecting men who have great sexual anxiety, struggle to have close relationships with others, are profoundly impaired in their ability to understand the mental states of others, and have enormous difficulty in maintaining psychological cohesion. As far as the Church is concerned, these are the men who make ideal priests.
Clerical identity might well superficially address such profound difficulties in these men, and thus appear very attractive to them. If I have severe sexual anxiety, that can be alleviated by an authority sanctioning me as sexually pure. If I am unable to understand the minds of others, then the Church dogma can explain others to me. If I struggle to maintain mental coherence then a construction of an identity as holy, special, removed from ordinary toil, and subjected to certain rules of divinely ordained conduct can contain me.
The Catholic Church is no ordinary authority. Signing up for a Church-sanctioned identity is not like over-identifying with your job in the public service. The Church considers itself to exist outside of time, the embodiment of eternal moral verities, accountable only to the Creator of the Universe Himself. One should not underestimate this. The damaged man who signs up for the priesthood is not just given a new identity. He is exalted. Or as Richard Sipe describes it, the new priest is ‘ontologically changed’.
In Mea Maxima Culpa, one survivor of abuse at the hands of the serial abuser Father Lawrence Murphy, a teacher at St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, said that when he first attended the school he was entranced by a statue of Christ with his hands on the heads of two children. He said that when he saw the Christ statue he felt safe. He felt that he would be cared for. It’s one thing to be sexually abused by a stranger. It’s another to be abused by someone who says they care for you and is believed by others to care for you.
The institutional response to the sexual abuse of children is very often ‘We didn’t know.’ But children who are sexually abused nearly always try to tell someone. The adult world, however, usually fails to hear what abused children are saying.
Within the Catholic Church, the knowledge that priests were abusing children was so widespread among the Catholic hierarchy that the Church purchased special retreats in different countries, where priests who had raped and abused children could go. After short periods of penance and prayer, they were returned to active duty and abused again.
In Australia, the Catholic Church established Encompass Australasia, a secret centre for treatment of priests who had sexually abused. Encompass Australasia was located in Sydney and only closed in 2008. During its existence not one referral was ever made to the police despite hundreds of men passing through the centre’s doors. In an incredibly weird post at Eureka St in November last year, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson described the treatment centre and explained why no reports were made to the police:
It was a treatment centre, so the clinicians asked only questions directly related to treatment. This did not include seeking admissions of specific offences and, in particular, it did not involve asking the name and address of any victim. To ask such questions would send the client running away from the treatment. The clinicians therefore did not have knowledge of specific crimes.
More importantly, if one single person had been reported to the police, the entire treatment program would have closed down permanently the same day, for no offender would ever again come near it. In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders into the future would receive any treatment.
This is an astounding and mindboggling statement that demonstrates such cavalier ignorance about working with abusive men that it is very hard to know where to start responding to it. It admits a sinister and toxic amount of collusion with men who have sexually assaulted children. One of the central difficulties of working with abusive men is clearly and directly addressing their attempts at collusion. ‘Collusion’ refers to the abusive man’s attempts to escape responsibility and engage others in subtly or overtly putting the blame elsewhere. These attempts are often relentless, complex and begin the moment the abusive man walks through the door. Collusion protects the perpetrator and sanctions his excuses.
Robinson goes on to say;
This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish to include treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.
Actually, Geoffrey, we never have to. We can do both. We can hold abusive men fully accountable for their actions and work with them to change their behaviour. That’s the whole point. The fundamental premise of working with abusive men is working with them to accept responsibility. This often involves collaborating with police, judiciary and other agencies. There is no therapeutic magic trick that works outside of that framework of responsibility.
It beggars belief that none of the hundreds of men who went through Encompass Australasia’s program ever disclosed details of their abusive criminal behaviour to anyone. Robinson’s description of Encompass Australasia’s program is a recipe for protecting sexual predators. And, unsurprisingly, it appears that there was no corresponding program that addressed the needs of the victims of sexual abuse by priests, despite the known catastrophic effects that childhood abuse entails. A leaked 2012 Victorian police report documented at least forty suicides of people who had been sexually abused by Catholic clergy.
It’s usually the default strategies of abusive men to deny everything whenever their behavour is clearly identified and named. If that doesn′t work, denial moves into variations on blame or even, as some victims of Catholic priests report, claims that the abuser was in fact ‘helping’ the abused. Whenever I hear yet another statement from a member of the Catholic clergy ‘reaching out’ to the victims of its toxic culture, or seeking to rationalise abusive actions, I think, ‘In what way is this a strategy of denial, or an abrogation of responsibility?’ Geoffrey Robinson’s statement about the treatment of sexual offenders falls squarely into both camps, I think.
For the Catholic Church to take full responsibility for the acts of abuse perpetrated on thousands of children across the world, it would need to undergo a structural remake on a scale not seen since Peter got the nod. There have been many calls for Catholic priests to be forced to abide by laws that everyone else abides by when it comes to the sanctity of the Confessional Seal. In other words, priests should abide by the mandatory reporting laws on child sexual abuse that many other professions have to follow. Numerous Catholics, clergy and lay people, have objected to this. The Jesuit and lawyer Frank Brennan, well known in Australia for his human rights work, said last year that he would rather go to jail than break the confessional seal.
This is an extraordinary statement for someone like Brennan to make. Many priests who have agreed with him have pointed out that those who abuse children don’t tell anyone, so that advocating for priests to abide by mandatory reporting legislation is a red herring. Of course, abusers don’t voluntarily disclose. But children do. There have been numerous reports from adult survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy that they tried to tell other priests what had been done to them. Brennan appears to be saying that if he hears a disclosure in the confessional box from a child who says they have been sexually abused he will do nothing.
As Mea Maxima Culpa demonstrated, the knowledge about sexually abusive clergy went right to the very top of the Vatican. And it is clear that many of the reports of the sexual abuse of children landed squarely on the desk of Joseph Ratzinger, decades ago.
It’s hard to see how the Catholic Church can recover from the revelation that it is a structurally abusive institution that has sanctioned the rape of children and protected the rapists. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: what are the ways in which the Church will try to recover? My guess is through denial, blaming others, and most toxically, by the protection of, and collusion with, the perpetrators of the abuse.
The election of a new Pope, whoever he is, will most likely make little difference to the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual assault by its clergy. In fact, since the outgoing Pope appointed the majority of the current Cardinals, change is probably the last thing on their minds. One thinks of deck chairs being shuffled around on sinking liners. The Catholic Church’s demonstrated institutional intransigence and toxicity on child sexual abuse is so enormous and so pervasive that one begins to think, if the rape and sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy has been so endemic in the Church, and if the Church is a culturally rigid institution a couple of thousand of years old, how long has this been going on? Centuries?
I stopped being interested in Catholicism about the time my Infants teacher was beating the crap out of me. When I was a Catholic child I used to think about Christ’s statement, ‘Suffer the little children to come to me.’ I didn’t really get it. It was the use of the word ‘suffer’, I think, that threw me.
When I did understand it, it puzzled me further. I wondered if the Catholic teachers and nuns I had encountered had actually got Christ′s injunction backwards. It made sense that they had. Obviously, I concluded, they thought it meant, ‘Make the children suffer.’
That must be it. That explained everything.