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The big questions: sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

By Peter Bowden - posted Monday, 7 March 2016


The recent academy award winner Spotlight  raised huge unanswered questions for this viewer. It most likely raised the same questions for all of us. The biggest impact was the massive list of countries and cities world-wide that had evidenced clerical abuse. We have obviously dealing with a fundamental aspect of human nature. The basic unanswered question is why? Why do so many men, particularly those who commit themselves to God, in this church and others, behave this way?

In the US alone, Agostino Bono in the Catholic News Service writes that about four percent of U. priests ministering between 1950 to 2002 were accused of sex abuse with a minor.

The study said that 4,392 clergymen, almost all priests, were accused of abusing 10,667 people, with 75 percent of the incidents taking place between 1960 and 1984.

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From 2001 to 2010 the Holy See, the central governing body of the Catholic Church, considered sex abuse allegations concerning about 3,000 priests dating back up to fifty years. Cases worldwide reflect patterns of long-term abuse, where the church hierarchy regularly covering up reports of alleged abuse. In Ireland, a 2009 report (Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) covering six decades (from the 1950s), noted "endemic" sexual abuse in Catholic boys' institutions, with church leaders aware of the abuse, and government inspectors failing to "stop beatings, rapes and humiliation. Australia is well aware of the current inquiry and the testimony of Cardinal Pell The impact of this abuse can be horrendous. A 2012 police report detailed 40 suicide deaths directly related to abuse by Catholic clergy in the state of Victoria.

This writer went to a Christian Brothers School in Sydney. Two of the brothers were known to have wandering hands.

A major issue is why nobody, no priest or brother, exposed the abuse to the public. In some of the cases, the abuse was a clear immoral violation - an obvious wrong.

Those seeking answers can only speculate on the reasons. One possibility is that those who knew about the paedophile priests and brothers did not believe that the abusive actions to be enough of a wrong to report it to the civil authorities. They obviously reported it to the church authorities, for numerous cases exist of the paedophile being moved from parish to parish.

Beth Griffin in theNational Catholic Reporter Feb. 10, 2015gives a number of examples. She also highlights the role of whistleblowers in the church. New documentary highlights whistleblowers against clergy sexual abuse.

It would appear that there were whistleblowers - the church authorities knew of the abuse for otherwise there would be no shifting from parish to parish. The powers in the Church were primarily responsible for the cover up. Why did they keep quiet? In order to protect the Catholic Church? That protecting the reputation of the church was of higher priority than avoiding further abuse by the clergy.

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We can also raise the speculation that none of the senior clergy thought that the wrongdoing was bad enough to want to condemn the church. Why? Could we also speculate that the multiplicity of ethical theories that have come out of philosophy over the last 2000 years, many of which conflict with each other, has resulted in none of them being powerful enough to condemn these actions? Examining the moral theories however, it does seem that their violations are identified by some of the theories .They clearly violate Kant's preepts "do not use others for your own purposes"; and also one of utilitarianism's versions - "do not harm others". But they do not violate the ethics theory of being of a virtuous character. The paedophile priests and brothers would undoubtedly consider themselves of virtuous character. Perhaps the theories are too much at cross purposes to be taken seriously.

The questions, for this writer, are not yet answered. Was it the vow of celibacy? Most investigators say no, that the problem was there before the eventual perpetrator entered religious orders. But this writer is unconvinced, for he well remembers the constant efforts of the teaching staff to convince 17 year old boys in their final year to enter the brotherhood. The questions still remain: How has this behaviour arisen? Why is it near universal? And why did not people committed to a holy life, a life of goodness, not stop it?

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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