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Child sex abuse and the Catholic clergy

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Key behavioural patterns have come to light from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and from related investigations both here and overseas.

Firstly, child sex abuse seems to have occurred in a wide variety of settings, and has generally been covered-up in the past. Secondly, it has occurred in both public and private institutions, including those run by government, charities, churches and religious, and absent parents seem to increase a child's vulnerability to abuse. Thirdly, rates of child sex abuse by clerics and religious seem to have peaked decades ago and were highest in boarding environments. Finally, while none of the Churches has been immune from such scandals, the incidence of child sex abuse seems to have been much greater in the Catholic Church and has done its public image immense damage.

The damage to the Churches in general, and to the Catholic Church in particular, relates both to the gravity of the offence, and to obvious and blatant hypocrisy.


A key characteristic of churches and their pastors is a trade-mark habit of taking the moral high-ground on many issues, preaching good works, and admonishing many types of behaviour as "unchristian" or immoral. This is not a problem in itself and can be laudable. The difficulty is that the churches lose all credibility, if they are caught not living up to their own standards, which is effectively what has happened. Worse still, the churches now find themselves in a reversed situation, where they and (some of) their ministers are now the offenders being examined by the same secular state they themselves are so used to chastising.

A common response to being exposed has been to offer empty apologies in the hope that the problem will go away, and, more particularly, go away without them being asked to pay large amounts of compensation.

As crimes go, child sex abuse is almost as low as it gets, and can have a serious and lasting impact on its victims. As far as the Catholic Church goes, the public perception of its hypocrisy is that it is even greater than for the other churches.

Every Christian denomination seems to have a "hobby-horse" it particularly condemns or campaigns against. For many Protestant denominations this has historically been alcohol or gambling. For the Catholic Church (particularly the Irish variety and its Australian relative) for over a century its "hobby-horse" has been extra-marital sex of any type. On top of (what now seem minor) scandals involving the (more than?) odd priest or bishop being caught after having an affair, the extent of child sex abuse that has come to light has both rocked the Catholic Church and exposed the grossest hypocrisy on its part.

Further compounding matters is how known abuse has been dealt with, and that the reputation of the Catholic Church (in contravention of broad Christian teaching) seems to have been put before the interests of the victim and the community. It is clear that, both in Australia and right around the world, the reaction of Catholic authorities to almost any child sex abuse, that came to light, was to cover it up. This generally involved trying to silence the victim, with the perpetrator often left largely untouched or merely moved to another location (only to re-offend).

The widespread nature of such cover-up practices suggests that child sex abuse was more common than people had been led to believe in the past, and has been known about by the Catholic hierarchy for very many decades, if not centuries, across the globe. Systematic cover-ups had become standard and were, until recent decades, largely successful. Similar happenings seem to have occurred, only to a lesser extent, in other churches. Things have only changed because of greater openness about sex, and greater willingness of victims to come forward. Had child sex abuse been severely dealt with in the past (as is proper), it is likely that abuse rates would have been a lot lower.


A major underlying issue contributing to greater problems of child sex abuse within the Catholic Church is that a significant minority of priests and religious brothers seem to have difficulty keeping their vows of celibacy. Child sex abuse may, in part, be an extreme response to repressed sexuality on the part of individuals who cannot handle their commitment, though other factors clearly also prevail. On a broader level, Catholic teaching on sexuality has had difficulty in receiving acceptance among adherents. The Catholic Church's prohibition of artificial means of contraception has met with widespread opposition amongst Catholics and has become a cause of dissent. Additionally, the apparent unpopularity of priestly celibacy almost certainly is a significant factor in declining vocations to the priesthood, and in priestly resignations.

A hidden but substantial historic influence on Catholic attitudes to sex in countries like Australia has been Jansenism. Jansenist attitudes were exported to counties like Australia and the US by emigrant Irish priests and religious. Jansenism, sometimes referred to as a Catholic Calvinism, was a Christian theological movement centuries ago, primarily in France, that emphasised original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. It spread to Ireland in centuries when the Irish Catholic Church was repressed and Irish priests were commonly educated in European seminaries. Emphasis on strict sexual morality, while latent, only became a major feature of the Irish Church after the Great Famine (which had underlined the risks of high population growth). While the influence of this type of Catholicism has greatly diminished since about the 1960s, Jansenism's extreme sexual Puritanism has affected Catholic culture wherever the Irish church had an influence, and has been blamed for making it difficult for many Catholics to be comfortable about their own sexuality.

While not in any way excusing abuse, it is likely that many Catholic priests and religious, who went on to abuse, were to some extent victims themselves. Until relatively recently, most recruitment to the Catholic priesthood and religious life occurred when young people left school. In some cases it was even earlier. This meant that such persons were on a path to celibacy from an age when (at best) they were barely mature, in a context where there was often a stigma attached to leaving religious training ("spoiled priest"). Many observers have speculated that sex abuse by Catholic priests would be substantially lower, if they were allowed to marry.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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