Solving the Clerical Sex-Abuse Crisis

There is a new article in Deborah Gyapong’s blog Proposed solution to the clerical sexual abuse crisis. She comments on a newspaper article about a bishop claiming to offer a solution to this crisis, and asks her readers to comment. I thought of writing a comment, but decided instead to offer a longer and deeper reflection here. As she and I use WordPress, I imagine an automatic link will be set up.

My first instinct is to notice that the remedy is offered without a proper diagnosis of the ailment. What is the treatment on offer? In a word, it is more bureaucracy. More top-heavy inertia as it would turn out. Making priests accountable to structures is certainly tempting, but in practice is little more than “policing” the priest.

I have personal experience of pastoral groups running parishes and putting lay people in charge of certain ministries. Then comes the red herring, that of putting women into roles of leadership. What problem are we trying to solve? The priest’s twisted sexual temptations? We seem to be crossing wires here.

The real problem here is that of replacing one kind of clericalism with another kind of clericalism! I am not a chauvinist or a misogynist, and I am all for women in administrative, caring and teaching roles, but not for replacing a “masculine” church by a “feminine” one in which the men would be inferior – if they stayed.

Now, if I go from the doctor’s prescription and knowing something about medicines, I could guess the disease. This particular treatment would seem to diagnose the culture of clericalism, and that being the cause of priests being tempted to abuse children sexually. There are two problems. The first is that you don’t replace one kind of stuffy clericalism by another kind of stuffy clericalism, going from one extreme to the other, or one end to the other of the same snake that eats its own tail. The other problem is that people who were not clerics or even in the Church have been found guilty by the law of child sex abuse. My conclusion is that clericalism in itself is not the cause of paedophile inclinations and temptations.

I have read a few internet articles by specialists trying to find out what makes some men attracted by children, or inclined to compulsive sexual behaviour. What those experts discover is not always constant or easy to understand. The terrifying indictment is that those men are either incredibly difficult to cure or impossible to reform. Is it something wrong with the brain? Or is it a moral problem concerning men who are fully responsible for their evil acts? My own suspicion is that paedophilia is a particular type of a narcissistic personality disorder. More extreme forms of that disorder are sociopathy and psychopathy, to the criminal cult gurus and the serial killers.

Blaming clericalism seems to be a near miss, but the problem is not a social behaviour or a system, but the personality disorders of individual human beings. The solution to the sex abuse crisis is further scientific research into the personality disorders causing people to be inclined that way and finding a way of finding out whether individuals are liable to offend in that way and thus need careful watching. It is bad practice to institute new systems of law or procedure affecting all because of a minority of persons afflicted with personality disorders that deprive them of a moral conscience or empathy for other people.

Coming to the proposition of putting priests under the control of a team of lay ministers, this may be a leading cause of the crisis of vocations to the priesthood. You have married lay ministers, suitably professionalised, and then you have the “sacrament machine” who is the lowest paid of all and has to embrace celibacy. Who would want to become a priest in these circumstances? If I was at the door of a seminary as a man of 25 or whatever, and was told that this way was the deal, I would immediately walk away and do something else in life. Many priests I have talked with are of the same opinion, not because they are against women or wanting to command everything as a dictator – but because they want some responsibility, credit for their intelligence and moral integrity and basic respect of their humanity. The pastoral ministry is something human and intuitive, not something you put under the control of committees and computers!

I have also noticed in real parishes that very few men want to be lay ministers, at least here in France and in the country parishes. That in itself says a lot. It puts me right off bureaucratic so-called mainstream churches, because they have become like the world we live in. We have all experienced bureaucracy in every segment of our lives, and how it is often made to wear us down and make us abandon rights that are legitimately and legally ours. Bureaucracy easily becomes an abuse of power, cultivates bad personalities and spreads their nefarious influence.

Those are my reflections. You can either have a perfectly “safe” society by bringing in a system like George Orwell’s 1984, with surveillance and brainwashing, people being punished and killed for non-conformity, or we can allow humans to be human and surgically remove the bullies and the sex abusers. The problem is not simple. There is no such thing as zero risk. Children and vulnerable adults have to be protected, and in most cases the enhanced background check is probably the best way so far. But, no system is infallible.

Considerations about the narcissistic personality are probably the lesson to be drawn. It isn’t a problem of systems but of individual persons. Signs are often missed. I knew a seminarian who was later convicted of child abuse involving bondage and sadomasochistic acts. This person was so pious, so compliant with seminary discipline, a model seminarian – never without a rosary in his hand! Then he went on to commit such heinous acts against children under 16. The lesson to be drawn from this is that a “model seminarian” will not necessarily be a good priest, because the compliance was false. The man was living a lie.

Empathy and a sound moral conscience seem to be the indicators. If I were a seminary superior, I would like to see to what extent a person cares about other people and the depth of his ability to feel the emotions of others. Empathy can be instilled by training, and this should be an aspect of priestly formation. But, beware, the narcissist can learn to pretend to have empathy in order to conceal his selfish agenda that much more effectively. There is no single answer for all, except the use of intuition rather than inflexible criteria. And that is a tall order for the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion, or anything that is run like an international corporation!

There are scientific studies (like this one) linking psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorders with paedophilia on account of the person’s apparent inability to understand that what he is doing is wrong and that he has harmed the children he abused. The themes run in parallel lines. This seems to be where we should be looking and not the idea of having more boring cliques and pseudo-clerical lay structures in parishes.

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2 Responses to Solving the Clerical Sex-Abuse Crisis

  1. Stephen K says:

    You make some very salutary points, Father. I think there is a case for greater lay deliberative consultation and decision-making in a faith community (Church) but the aim must surely not to replace one caste with another but to remove all notion of caste. The problem, as I see it, was not that priests had distinct sacramental and pastoral roles, but that presbyteral theology tried to present the priest as ontologically changed by ordination in a way that invariably quarantined the person from being perceived and treated like a normal human being. Clericalism can mean a range of things but I describe it as the tendency to assign the clerical state a higher existential or moral value over any other state. I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that that is how it has been presented for many centuries. The link between clericalism and the sex abuse scandal is not that clericalism caused the sex abuse but that it delayed the honest and realistic and informed acknowledgment of it and accountability to the victims by the very same authorities. As well as being a form of disordered psychology, sex abuse, like other forms of exploitation, is a problem about the way we humans devise, use and accept power. Whilst I personally do not see why women cannot be sacramental priests, I worry when the agenda is cast in the character of trying to equalise power. I am increasingly coming to realise that the Gospel is really challenging us to eschew worldly or ecclesial power in order to embrace non-power, through service, which implies and enjoins respect for each other. The Church’s structures somehow have to be built on this rather than a pre-occupation with authority. Look where the latter has got the churches!

    • You do have a point here. I have tried for years to think of some way by which the sacramental priesthood can be detached and separated from clericalism, its imprisonment into a kind of “caste”. Historically, there are two other solutions: do away with the priesthood as in Protestantism or do away with religion altogether as in the French Revolution and modern atheism. Ideally, there would be consultation and real community life.

      Whilst I said that clericalism in itself is certainly not a cause of a priest developing a perverted sexuality, there is certainly a case for saying that the narcissistic personality ceases to be accountable once it achieves status in a clerical caste. Exploitation and power – they seem to be just about the only two things that motivate movements in churches to replace one power caste by another in a revolutionary dialectical vision.

      It is my fear that the only way ahead is for the corrupted structures to destroy themselves and for Christianity to survive in the wreckage and the little groups of people outside the old institutions. (…) eschew worldly or ecclesial power in order to embrace non-power, through service, which implies and enjoins respect for each other. Indeed, that really is a challenge, and this is why I am turning my attention to new and original tendencies in the independent sacramental movement. The shipwreck of the TAC has been a lesson for us all. I make no prognostic about those who have gone to the ordinariates or who are trying to return to pre-ordinariate times, but the real challenge is going to be for those left on the beach – seeing whether they give up or rethink everything in order to do Christ’s work.

      The challenge is going to be learning to live the priesthood without clerical status, respectability, power, money, immunity from accountability and all the other temptations. Just us, an indifferent world and life…

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