Trying to look deeper into clerical abuse

The past year or two in the Irish Catholic Church was a largely positive time. This was due to the first stage of the Synodal Process, which turned out to be much better than was generally expected. There was, in my opinion, a real opening out, listening, learning, changing. Without naming anybody, I was really surprised by the way that some of the more traditional people, both in authority and in media, changed their views, and became open to the need for renewal and change. 

I experienced it as a hopeful time. 

But then along came the revelations of abuse in some of the better known and more highly regarded private schools run by religious congregations. We had begun to feel that maybe we were over the worst of the clerical abuse nightmare in this country, and then we found ourselves right back into it. Fergus Finlay, in the Irish Examiner, called for all religious orders to be disbanded. (By the looks of things, he won’t have long to wait for it to happen of its own accord). Fintan O’Toole, in the Irish Times, demanded that the State should acquisition the records of all the religious orders. Many others, including some of the more established female journalist, were scathing in their criticism. Those of us, the older surviving members of the various orders, asked ourselves would this ever end.

I spent five years of secondary education in a religious run boarding school, with all priests on the staff. Maybe I was lucky, but I never experienced, or heard about, any suggestion of sexual abuse during my time there. I think, for its time, the early sixties, it was a more ‘civilised’ school than many others I had heard about. There was, for instance, almost no physical punishment either, while it would appear to have been common at that stage in other boys boarding schools.

There was little or no effort made to develop our understanding of sexuality and relationships. I think back in amazement now at a conversation with the priest president of the school. I was in my leaving cert year, seventeen years old, and also school capo, as it was called. He brought me in to instruct me in “the facts of life”. Even though I think he did it as sensitively as was possible, I still remember the embarrassment of it. I cannot now recall how much, if any, of this I already knew, but certainly a lot was news to me. Seventeen years of age, and not knowing the ‘facts of life’. Of course that says as much about my home, as it does about the school. Also I don’t remember having much curiosity about the matter. Sport played a bit part in my life. At that stage I was captain of the football and basketball teams, and very much involved hurling with my club during holidays.

My two brothers had gone ahead of me to the seminary, and the presumption was that I would follow, which meant that sex wasn’t going to play any part in my life. How naive the whole thing was.

Thankfully I was lucky enough to later develop a bit of maturity and stability in those areas of my life, which prevented me from the temptation of child abuse. But I can see how easily it could happen for someone who went through their teenage years in a fashion similar to mine, and I believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that was common among clergy of my generation, and probably more so the generations before us.

I know the Church has, after an initial reluctance, tried to face up to the problem, and worked hard at attempting to deal with it. Structures have been set up which are helpful. The demographic realities, ageing priests and few new members, have also contributed to a decline in occurrence of abuse. 

But I have argued for a long time that something more fundamental is needed, and that has to do with Catholic teaching and attitudes about sexuality and relationships in general. So I was pleased to see those matters figure prominently in the submissions to the Synodal Process, though it remains to be seen if anything will eventually be done to reform those teachings.

 My main concern has been about two common features of the damage done to those of us who grew up with strict sexual teaching, and little knowledge or understanding. We were left with two very powerful feelings, guilt and repression.

Guilt was inevitable, because as the sexual urges developed in our lives, and we were constantly being warned that every thought or action was a mortal sin (it being the main topic of preaching by priests like my ancestors in the Redemptorists) we were bound to ‘cross the line’ into what we were told was seriously sinful. This led to the regular trips to confession, where sometimes you could be unlucky enough to meet a priest who questioned you closely on your thoughts and if you were in the habit of ‘touching yourself’. Over the years, through seminary and into priesthood, this battle with your own deepest instincts went on. There seemed to be no other way except to try to distant yourself that that part of your being, and that was done through repression.

Now we know that sexual repression is a dangerous state, in that it can easily emerge in perverted ways. 

I believe that many of the priests who sexually abused children were not necessarily pedophiles. Rather they were men who were conflicted within themselves, where one crucial aspect of their person was undeveloped, not integrated.

This is why I think that the Church needs to develop a new, much more positive, inclusive and human teaching on sexuality and relationships, before we can get to the root of clerical sexual abuse.