My thoughts on the report of the Australian Royal Commission on sexual abuse of minors, and its call for the Catholic Church to discontinue compulsory celibacy for priests.

The Australian Royal Commission, set up to investigate child sexual abuse in institutions, has made its report. It has focused a great deal on sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, and its findings are, to say the least, disturbing, and challenging for the Church. We have had a number of state sponsored investigations in this country, but none of them has gone so deeply into the causes of abuse.
The part of the report that is initially making news is where it recommends that the Church change its rule of compulsory celibacy for priests, since it identified this as a contributory factor in the high instances of abuse perpetrated by clergy and religious. Already I see that a number of Catholic commentators, some of whom I admire, like Russell Pollitt and James Martin, have come out in defense of celibacy, saying, correctly, that the large proportion of abuse of children is done by married men. But maybe, in their haste to defend celibacy, failing to recognize that this report says very important things for the Church to hear.
My hope is that the Church won’t quickly dismiss the findings of this commission, and what it says about compulsory celibacy. From the little I have read over the past four years of the working of this commission, I think their findings are somewhat broader and more persuasive that just blaming it all on celibacy alone.
It is many years ago now since Freud first highlighted the danger of sexual repression, and how sexual desires and urges, if they are not integrated into the personality, can emerge in perverted and destructive forms. Traditional Catholic sexual teaching, with its condemnation of sexual desire and action, even in marriage, and its emphasis on mortal sin and eternal damnation, was undoubtedly conducive to sexual repression in certain individuals.
Put that with the traditional style of seminary training of priests. I think it is hard to deny the truth of what the Commission has to say about it:
“The initial training of priests and religious occurred in segregated, regimented, monastic and clericalist environments, and was based on obedience and conformity. These arrangements are likely to have been detrimental to psychosexual maturity, and to have produced clergy and religious who were cognitively rigid. This increased the risk of child sexual abuse.”

Many priests came out of this type of seminary training with a highly developed intellectual life, but very immature psychosexual and emotional development. I don’t know enough about current seminary training to know if that has really improved.

We know that pedophilia is a deep-rooted and difficult condition that effects some people, and can lead to serial abuse. But by no means all the sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious has been done by pedophiles. I believe a great amount of it was done by sexually and emotionally immature and repressed priests and religioous. In my work with the Association of Catholic Priests I have come to know of many priests who had inappropriate relationships with minors in their early years of priesthood, but who matured and developed as life went on, and had no further difficulty in this area. These are the type of cases where compulsory celibacy, combined with seminary training and rigid Catholic sexual teaching, caused sexual repression,, leading to perverted and damaging expressions of sexuality.

The culture of clericalism, familiar to us all from the regular highlighting of its damaging effects by Pope Francis, also features as a major problem in the Commission report.

One final aspect which featured in the studies conducted by the Commission, though as yet I am not sure if it made it into the final document, has to do with the, generally accepted, high proportion of gay men in the priesthood. The Commission makes no judgment on that, and of course gay people are as entitled to be priests as others. But what they question is the possibility that some men of a homosexual orientation, but who have been unable to accept and integrate this aspect of their personality, join the priesthood as a way of, maybe, trying to put aside that whole part of living through the celibacy of the priesthood. This too could be a further cause of immaturity and repression, the fertile fields of abusive behavior.

Putting all of this together, I believe there are serious issues underlying the clerical sex abuse scandal which it will be a pity if the Church fails to study closely. My big criticism of the four investigations carried out here in Ireland, – Dublin, Cloyne, Ferns and Ryan – is that none of them attempted to look at what might have been behind this type of behaviors by priests and religious. If we can be open to what the Australians are telling us, and not dismiss it to easily, maybe the Australian Commission will do the Catholic Church a great service..