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Knowing the unknowns of clerical sexual misconduct

By Stephen de Weger - posted Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Catholic Church in Australia is going through a much needed surgery, a deep and honest exploration of some of the more sinister goings on both under and behind the cassocks of religious life. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has exposed a long and deeply shameful history of abuse and how it has (not) dealt with it. During proceedings, there has occasionally been made mention of another agony in the garden of Catholicism which has yet to be faced - the 'dark figure', the known unknowns of crime - the events that go unreported or undetected of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults?

From initial readings as part of my research into this issue, two aspects have become quickly apparent: that it is a 'known unknown' within Catholic life, and that it is a very complex issue. That it occurs is not in doubt. This was one of the tangential findings of the John Jay Report: the board was 'repeatedly faced with the problem of sexual relationships of priests with adults' and stated that this issue 'could bring about further trouble in the future'. From my own preliminary readings, discussions and experience within the Catholic Church and connections with religious life, I now suspect that there is not one cleric who does not know of an incident of this form of clerical sexual misconduct.

However, as to the actual statistics, forms and effects of such misconduct, much more academic research is needed. When the unknowns become more known, the issue can be contextualised in psycho-social and/or criminological frameworks and dealt with accordingly. But the research has yet to be done, especially in Australia.


So, what is known? Based on accounts found in literature dealing more generally with clerical sexual misconduct and such sites as Broken Rites and SNAP, clerical sexual misconduct involving adults may include heterosexual and homosexual rapes and assaults against lay adults/older teenagers; priests fathering children; clerical sex holidays overseas; older priests molesting seminarians; male and female religious taking advantage of disabled women and men; sexual harassment, blackmail and bullying, and attempted seductions of unsuspecting and vulnerable people.

What also becomes clear is that sexual misconduct involving clerics results in serious and usually lifelong harm, because the person is a cleric.

One of the issues that invariably arises, when investigating the little research that there is to date on this particular form of clerical sexual misconduct, is that of consent and blame. According to researchers such as Kathryn Byrne and Diana Garland and Christen Argueta, it appears that, more often than not, when clerical sexual misconduct involving adults occurs, it is the victim who is suspected by almost all. This is mainly for reasons of their age, sex and a traditional perception of superiority-in-holiness of the cleric.

A common response can be summarised as follows: 'Surely as an adult they could have stopped the abuse. They must have consented in some way.' Or, the victim is also made out to be the temptress (or tempter) of a godly cleric. (Does this perhaps reflect an embedded 'evil-Eve' mentality?)

These perceptions initially leave victims erroneously believing they must have 'sort of' consented, or tempted the cleric 'in some way'. As such, victims are condemned to years of guilt and shame and held back from disclosing or reporting the misconduct. Who would believe them above a cleric anyway? Meanwhile, the cleric's life progresses, sometimes to high levels within the church, with no one the wiser. And the 'dark figure' lives on.

Furthermore, academics such as Indiana University's professor of sociology Anson Shupe and Loyola Marymount University's professor of law Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaeffer point out that, as in all other 'professional' situations, the responsibility to stop any misconduct from happening lies with the 'professional', the cleric. This is true even in cases where a cleric may be presented with the possibility of a sexual encounter. Because of the enormous power imbalance inherent in cleric/lay-person encounters, as well as an unconscious, psychological transference often accompanying such encounters, authentically free consent cannot be present.


Does this power imbalance always exist in the many varied activities of church life? Does a fiduciary (in good faith) responsibility, expected of other professionals, apply to clerics as well? Does a priest not also have an even greater and permanent positional authority? After all, the church teaches that a man, upon ordination, is ontologically changed. He is given 'sacred' powers via the sacraments, bestowed on him from above through apostolic succession, by Jesus/God Himself. And the laity are dependent upon these priestly 'powers'.

This teaching is what Catholics, cleric and lay, have for centuries assimilated into their world view. So did the following cleric in the process of seducing his male confessee who, up to this point, greatly respected and admired this 'holy man': ‘I am a priest of Jesus Christ" the priest said. "I am representing Jesus Christ on earth. When I speak to you, it is not me who is saying the words, but Jesus….and when I lay my hands on you, it is not me but Jesus laying His hands on you’. No need to describe what followed.

Authors such as Tom Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall have no doubt that with this level of personal and institutionalised sacred power, abuse of that power is prone to occur. Also, accompanying the abuses of sacred powers, a collective 'cover-up' culture often results. And for many lay people, at least on a psychological level, these sacred powers of the priesthood permeate, by association, all forms of the consecrated life.

There are many developing theories as to why clerical sexual misconduct involving adults occurs. Stereotypically, liberals tend to blame narcissistic clericalism. This, they believe, is inevitable given the extraordinary level of 'sacred power'. In turn it has given rise to an historical elitism and a monarchical (male) clerical culture, sustained by mandatory, unhealthy, lifelong celibacy. As such, things are bound to and do go terribly wrong.

On the other hand, conservatives suggest it has more to do with an unchecked 1960s 'sexual revolution' approach to celibacy where the 'sexual celibate' progressed to the sexually active celibate. Many also blame an associated back-door permeation of homosexual culture into clerical life.

It is not easy for Catholics with different interpretations of 'church' to see the possibilities within another's theory of anything let alone the causes of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults. But perhaps the answer as to 'why' is a case of 'both/and' or somewhere in between. Again, more objective research is needed.

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Stephen is conducting an anonymous survey of victims of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults. It can be found online here.

A slightly different version of this article was published in Eureka Street.

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About the Author

Stephen de Weger is a Masters (research) student in the Faculty of Law's School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology. He completed a BA at University of Queensland majoring in studies in religion, history and english, then went on to do his diploma in teaching. He was a teacher for 13 years during which he also completed a Graduate Certificate in Social Science at Uni. of Qld. He later hopes to complete a PhD dealing with vicarious trauma and secondary victims of clerical sexual misconduct, another seriously under-researched aspect of clerical abuse and its effects.

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