Be opened!

Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes is a disturbing, but much-needed, read.

by Peter Roach

It seemed appropriate that on the Sunday, as I neared completion of reading Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes, the Gospel of the day recorded how Jesus Christ, Son of God, had healed a man brought to him by his friends. St Mark recorded how Our Lord had cured the deaf mute by putting his fingers into the man’s ears; touching his tongue with spittle; and commanding “Ephphata”: “Be opened”.

Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes tries to open the eyes of all who have preferred to remain ignorant of both aspects of the scandals of sexual abuse throughout the church: sexual abuse by clergy and religious; the mismanagement of priest offenders and the claims of their victims by bishops and religious superiors.

Those who have had the misfortune of suffering sexual abuse; those who have been involved in helping such victims; the families who have suffered vicariously through the abuse of their children, brothers and sisters; and all those who have suffered directly as a result of responses to their concern, their eyes have already been opened wide – often bringing with it a loss of faith in the Church as the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

Promoted by its publishers, Volt Press, as recounting “the Catholic Church’s 2000 year paper trail of sexual abuse”, the book is the work of Thomas P. Doyle, a courageous and recently much honoured Dominican priest; and of two former priests.  One is Richard Sipe, a Benedictine priest for 18 years who was educated to deal with mental health problems of clergy. In the 34 years since leaving the community he has practised as a consultant and expert witness. The third author is Patrick Wall who was also a Benedictine monk, laicised after 10 years. Since 2002 he has advised in relation to more than 200 sexual abuse cases.

For this reviewer, the most significant portion of the book is the 76 pages recording the text of a submission made by Fr Doyle and others to each bishop of the United States in May 1985.  Prophetically the opening statement was entitled “Ominous Signs of a Serious Problem”. Despite the detailed exposition, the submission was substantially ignored and nearly 20 years passed before the conference of bishops in the United States publicly faced up to the problems.

Having ignored the warnings and pleas from faithful Catholics, the bishops were ultimately forced to respond to public exposure by the media and through the courts. In defence of bishops, complaints were made that the media were biased and engaged in ‘Catholic bashing’. Perhaps there was bias - but there was no suggestion that the disclosures were false.

The authors are forceful in their criticisms of mismanagement of these problems by bishops. They are critical of the secretiveness which has attended management of abuse problems. They condemn the all-too-common practice of concealing from the laity knowledge that priests who were appointed to pastoral responsibilities were known to place at risk children of the parish.

The book records a long history of sexual misconduct among clergy and argues that, since priests were obligated to celibacy, the obligation has been widely ignored by some - probably a higher percentage than most would suspect – even as they represented themselves to their communities as faithful celibates.

I found a bias against mandatory celibacy recurring throughout the text. Yet I suggest any thought that abolition of the celibacy rule would have saved thousands of victims from abuse is far too simplistic. Most sexual abusers within our society have been married men who were never subject to any obligation of celibacy. Further, such an argument does no justice to the many fine priests who throughout the centuries have been mature well rounded personalities in full mastery of their lives and in control of, rather than  controlled by, their sexuality.

In Australia it is widely believed that priests who find that they cannot live up to their commitment to celibacy, all surrender their calling. Some disappear into the night; others seek laicisation. But as the research of Dr Jane Anderson as presented in her book Priests in Love- Australian Catholic clergy and their intimate relationships (John Garratt Publishing) indicates, there are many who profess their priesthood even as they dishonour their commitment to celibacy. Her claim, which as far as I know has not been challenged for accuracy, is that 150 priests in Australia have acknowledged to her that they are not celibates. Coupled with the number of priests who are sexual abusers - rather then engaged in consensual heterosexual relationships - the prospect is alarming.

Sex, Priests and Secret Codes is recommended for study by all laity who wish to contribute maturely and positively to the life of Christ in his Mystical Body - the Church.

The text deals only with recent problems in the United States – but it would be rash for anyone to assume that the situation in Australia is substantially different. It is true that the problems of the Australian Church have as yet not been as thoroughly exposed by the public pedia; but it is also true that the Australian bishops have not presented a report to the faithful in any way comparable to that presented by the American bishops.

The laity should have a special concern in these matters. They are the victims; and families of victims. They are the persons at risk. Yet for the most part these problems within the Church are dealt with in closely confined and clerically controlled groups – as if the only laity to be involved would be those bound to confidentiality either as lawyers engaged to resist, or at least limit, financial payouts in relation to the claims of victims; or as social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists retained to help victims work through their problems.

Very little seems to be done by clergy to address the crises of faith experienced by victims. It is as if the complete rejection by many victims of the Church – with the Eucharist and other Sacraments – is accepted as a fait accompli: something to be regretted, but no more.

As things stand in Australia - as in the United States and several other countries - the scandals attending sexual abuse by clergy and religious and arising from the mismanagement of claims by bishops have greatly damaged the moral authority of bishops.

Some words of Bishop Gumbleton of Detroit, Michigan are appropriate. He said: “when every Bishop in every diocese cooperates in bringing about a genuinely just resolution of every charge of sexual abuse, I believe that we will once more be perceived as credible moral teachers”. And that ‘genuinely just resolution’ means much more than providing victims with some money, even a lot of money, and paying for some sessions with a psychologist as they try to come to terms with the damage they have suffered.

Yet by classical Catholic teaching, there are souls to be saved and brought to eternal glory through wise pastoral and spiritual care from Bishops and clergy and adherence to the Sacraments – not by psychological counselling, important though that may be.

Peter Roach is a committed Catholic and a retired tax lawyer. He is well acquainted with the problems of the laity arising from sexual abuse by clergy and religious and has been a critic of many practices of the hierarchy in Australia and overseas in dealing with both primary victims and secondary victims, their families. He invites concerned persons to respond to him:




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