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The Recovery of Priestly Virtue

Adolphe and Rychlak’s Clerical Sexual Misconduct is a very controversial work, especially for those who consider the Report of the McClellan Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse beyond question. The perspective which underpins the Royal Commission is a perspective indifferent, if not hostile, to religious belief.

Adolphe and Rychlak bring balance to the debate about clerical sexual abuse by providing another perspective, a perspective which was missing in the Final Report of the Royal Commission. Clerical Sexual Misconduct provides a perspective which will be endorsed by a variety of other religious groups, as well as other voluntary associations.

Jane Adolphe, Professor of Law at Ave Maria University, and Adjunct Professor of Law Notre Dame Sydney, referring to Cardinal Pell’s acquittal in the High Court, comments on the debilitating challenges faced by the majority of seminarians, priests and bishops whose commitment to their priestly vows remains the bedrock of their spirituality, but who find themselves vilified due to the misdeeds of some of their colleagues.

For faithful Catholics, Clerical Sexual Misconduct is a disturbing read, suggesting that both seminaries and houses of formation for religious, in the past sixty years have on occasion been seriously corrupt—and that some men have been ordained, or admitted to the religious life, who ought not have been. Jane Adolphe refers to Pope Francis, commenting on “cliques”, “lobbies” and “duplicity”, even within the Roman Curia, acting to corrupt the Church.

Sexual violence and cover-up within the Church are illustrated by the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Emeritus Archbishop of Washington. McCarrick was ordained in 1958, appointed Auxiliary Bishop of New York in 1977, Bishop of Metuchen in 1981, Archbishop of Newark in 1986, Archbishop of Washington in 2000, a cardinal in 2001. McCarrick co-founded the Papal Foundation, which gave him access to large amounts of money, and provided an international profile. Friendly, warm, gregarious, charismatic, McCarrick exercised enormous influence and power. McCarrick has a long history of predatory criminal sexual conduct, involving not only minors, but seminarians. There were credible complaints long before McCarrick’s eventual laicisation in 2019. There is a good argument that priests and bishops covered up McCarrick’s criminal acts.

Catholics have always realised the Church is a church of sinners. With the exception of John, who remained with the women at the foot of the Cross, Peter and the Apostles skedaddled at the Crucifixion. Judas, of course, betrayed Jesus. Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), is the story of an alcoholic priest, unfaithful to his vow of celibacy, in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the persecution of the 1930s. The whisky priest, despite his failures, remains faithful to his priesthood, celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments. Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of sinners.

Clericalism goes a long way to explain McCarrick’s rise to the highest levels of the hierarchy, even though the allegations and suspicions concerning him were apparently known to, or at least suspected by, highly placed persons in the Church for many years. Despite what they knew or suspected, these persons turned a blind eye, allowing McCarrick’s ascent to continue. This was clericalism at work. McCarrick was a well-connected part of the system.

Pope Francis denounces such clericalism in strong terms. Russell Shaw argues that the fundamental error of clericalism is to suppose that the clerical state sets the standard of excellence, the norm, for everyone. But it is personal vocation that sets the standard, and establishes the norm of fidelity to God’s will for each of us. For some, that involves the priesthood; for others, it is a calling to the life of a lay person living by the Gospel in the middle of the world. Hearing and heeding God’s call is what counts.

Clerical Sexual Misconduct is a symposium of twenty or so Catholic scholars, more than half of whom are women, most of whom work in American Catholic universities, seminaries and other Catholic bodies. It deals with misconduct by Catholic priests and religious against boys, adolescent males, seminarians and candidates for the religious life. Its focus is on the United States, but much of the argument might well apply to Australia. Clerical Sexual Misconduct deals with this from sociological, cultural, legal and theological perspectives. All of the authors have a Catholic approach—they see human sexuality as good, as a gift from God, to be exercised in mutual self-giving by a man and a woman in marriage for the sake of each other, and for the sake of their children; and celibacy in the priesthood and religious life, also as a good, a challenging good, to be adopted as a way of life for those who are able, as self-giving for Christ and his Church. Given the scholarship and depth of Clerical Sexual Misconduct (exemplified by the footnotes, which run to almost eighty pages) I select here the discussion which I find most interesting.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse claims that sexual abuse is not related to sexual orientation, while noting that most of the victims are boys or adolescents, and most of the perpetrators adult males. A number of the contributors to Clerical Sexual Abuse take a different view. Ultimately, this is an empirical issue to be determined by the evidence. Chapters 1 to 5 of Clerical Sexual Misconduct (which have a sociological perspective) should be read together with the Final Report of the Royal Commission. In many respects, the Royal Commission and Clerical Sexual Misconduct provide contrasting viewpoints, such that one’s understanding can only be enhanced by reading each.

Nevertheless, both the Royal Commission and the contributors to Clerical Sexual Misconduct agree that processes for selecting, screening and training candidates for the priesthood and religious life need to be enhanced. The formation, support and supervision of priests and religious also needs to be reformed.

American Catholic priests and religious have been influenced by the culture in which they have grown up, a culture deeply at odds with the Catholic worldview. Christians, priests included, are passive recipients of this profoundly anti-Christian culture. Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a professor from the Cardinal Wyszynski University, Warsaw, argues the roots of clerical sexual abuse are embedded in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The extra-ecclesial factors in clergy sexual abuse include the writings of Karl Marx, William Reich, Alfred Kinsey and Herbert Marcuse, as well as certain technological developments. One might also add Hugh Hefner of Playboy, and indeed pornography, which is freely available in almost every newsagency and on the internet.

The intra-ecclesial factors, the roots of clergy sexual misconduct, include the adoption of therapeutic tools that mushroomed into a therapeutic culture. Sin, indeed crime, is seen no longer as sin, no longer as crime, but as an illness. In the diocese of Ballarat, Bishop Mulkearns sent predators off for “treatment” when he ought to have commenced a canonical process against them, and ought, in the meantime, to have removed them from ministry. Susan Mulheron, Chancellor for Canonical Affairs, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, notes that an accused priest, if he did not steadfastly deny the allegation, would typically express remorse for the sexual sin, and promise not to do it again. The bishop would usually send the priest away for psychological treatment, and receive him back with a report from the treatment centre that the priest was safe to return to ministry. When this was able to be done without public disclosure, it was considered to be for the good of avoiding scandal and damage to the reputation of the priest, and of the Church.

Other intra-ecclesial factors include the culture of silence that protected predators from criminal sanctions. Concern for a priest who has committed a grave sin is one thing, but protecting (even concealing) a depraved man because he is a priest is entirely different. Another intra-ecclesial factor is the improper Eucharistic culture in which priests, systematically committing grave sexual sins, are daily celebrating Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Finally, an intra-ecclesial factor in the sexual abuse crisis is a loss of faith among some clergy, which often involves a denial of sin and deep opposition to Church authority.

What has been the role of the law of the Church, canon law, as regards clerical sexual abuse? Why did Bishop Mulkearns, Bishop of Ballarat, not act against priests who were abusing children? Cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps the Church’s foremost canon lawyer, has commented it is often asserted that the scandal was caused by the absence of a proper legal procedure to address clerical sexual misconduct. The truth is that the Church has dealt with such crimes in the past, and had in place a process by which to investigate accusations, with full respect for the rights of all parties involved, including protection of alleged victims during the time of investigation; to reach a just decision regarding their truth, and to apply the appropriate sanction. The law in place was simply not followed.

The Royal Commission commented on the failure of the Catholic Church in Australia to engage with canon law before the Melbourne Response (1996) and Towards Healing (1997). What the Royal Commission referred to as the “reluctance of Catholic Church leaders to engage with canonical disciplinary processes” may be attributed to antinomianism and the disregard for authority which prevailed in the Church from the 1960s to the 1980s and even beyond. The means for dealing with sexual predators amongst the clergy were available in Books VI and VII of the Code of Canon Law. Susan Mulheron argues that the norms were not applied because the bishops (or their canonists for that matter) did not understand them well enough to employ them, or the bishops rejected the use of penal measures as being incompatible with the pastoral approach of the Church.

Canon law derives from a theological understanding of the Church and of the priesthood. The Royal Commission, lacking a theological understanding, indeed displaying theological ignorance, made a number of proposals at odds with the Catholic tradition stretching back to the Apostles.

Russell Shaw argues that clericalism is not the cause of sex abuse by priests, but clericalism provides a congenial environment for abuse by clergy and a rationale for it to be covered up by Church authorities. Clericalism is pervasive where bishops and priests are regarded as the active and dominant element in the Church, leaving the non-ordained merely to pray and pay.

Clericalism is a sense that being a priest entitles one to respect above that to be bestowed on others, especially laypeople—respect not just for the office, but for the person of the priest, and all his decisions and actions. It is the belief that because of a priest’s ordination, education and sacrifices, he deserves special deference, even obedience. It is accompanied by a sense that, since priests have such an elevated status, and have renounced spouse, family and career, they deserve to be compensated with nice things—nice residences, cars, vacations and fine dining. Laity can be at fault for nurturing clericalism, especially that of bishops. Laity can fawn over their priests and bishops, and pamper them. This is often meant to show gratitude, love and respect, but it can also serve to put clerics beyond criticism. Seminarians need to be warned about the tendency of laity to “hero-worship” clergy, in order that the special attention and deference they receive does not make them proud.

Such clericalism is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church, as illustrated by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, and Pope St John Paul II’s Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, Christifideles Laici, as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law which reflects that teaching. Canon 208 provides:

In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful (that is to say, among clerics and laity alike) a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in building up the body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function.

What is the theological perspective which underlies Clerical Sexual Misconduct? The argument by the scholars who have contributed to this work is consistent with Benedict XVI’s piece “The Catholic Priesthood” published in 2019. Benedict XVI, despite his advancing age, has lost none of his acuteness. He argues that the priesthood involves becoming one with Jesus Christ, and renouncing all that belongs only to self. The fact that Jesus gives himself forever as food during the Last Supper signifies the anticipation of his death and Resurrection. This transforms an act of cruelty into an act of love and self-giving. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church, and humanity, are ceaselessly drawn into this process and involved in it. The vocation of the priest is one of self-abandonment. This requires exclusivity with regard to God. The priest must continually be purified and overcome by Christ, so that Christ is the one who speaks and acts in the priest. The exercise of priestly ministry must be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least, and the servant of all. The priestly vocation is not easy.

Nevertheless, the Church has always understood that the presence of Christ in the priest is not to be seen as if the priest were preserved from all human weaknesses, including sin. Whilst the action of the Holy Spirit extends to the sacraments, so that the priest’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the priest leaves human traces not always faithful to the Gospel.

Although Clerical Sexual Misconduct is mainly directed to the United States, Jane Adolphe does discuss the Royal Commission. She considers the Commission’s analysis of clericalism as a trojan horse used to attack the Church and religious freedom. She refers to the Commission’s flawed analysis of “clericalism” to justify a critique, beyond its competence, of certain theological concepts. She comments that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church succumbed to organisational pressures similar to those of secular organisations, not something peculiar to the Catholic Church. She further argues that the Royal Commission assumes the Church is equivalent to an international non-government organisation. Catholics, of course, believe the Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who gave it a particular constitution. The Church has both divine and human aspects, something which the Commissioners do not understand. Adolphe points out that the Royal Commission has made assumptions impacting its research, based on what is, from the Church’s perspective, a flawed understanding. The Commission’s findings and recommendations, some of which are useful, are limited by the Commission’s underlying philosophical and theological assumptions.

In a postscript to Clerical Sexual Misconduct, five female Catholic scholars—who teach young men aspiring to the priesthood—comment that there have been instances where the culture of some seminaries has led to toleration or even facilitation of sexual activity and the sexual abuse or harassment of seminarians. We now know that those who have attempted to expose such corruption have often been disregarded, and sometimes dismissed. Such a culture not only violates chastity, but also creates a dangerous climate of secrecy and sexual indulgence that is likely to lead to sexual abuse of minors by a few, and continued sexual misconduct with adults by others. The Church cannot recover from this crisis without assuring the proper screening of candidates before they are admitted to the seminary and the rigorous formation of the habits needed to achieve priestly virtue.

Clerical Sexual Misconduct provides a much-needed balance to some of the assertions of the Royal Commission. These issues are too important for there not to be real debate on contestable matters. The Church will reform the seminaries, the priesthood and religious orders, in accordance with the sources of Christian belief, a reform from which there is no going back.

Michael McAuley is a Sydney barrister.

Clerical Sexual Misconduct: An Interdisciplinary Analysis
edited by Jane F. Adolphe and Ronald J. Rychlak

Cluny Media, 2020, 480 pages, US$29.95

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