Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Australia, celibacy, and sex abuse: Anthony Fisher, Patrick Parkinson, and Geoffrey Robinson

In response to the Australian Catholic church report linking child sex abuse to celibacy, Anthony Fisher, recently appointed Archbishop of Sydney by Pope Francis to take Pell's place, has said that Families, not celibacy, are to blame for child abuse ...

Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said that celibacy could not be to blame for abuse, which occurred in every church, regardless of whether it was celibate.

“The thing about child abuse is most of it happens in families,’’ Archbishop Fisher told The Weekend Australian yesterday.

“It’s an awful thing, we hate to even touch on it, but it can’t be about celibacy … because you look around society at the ­moment, it’s in every church, celibacy or not. It’s in many families and they’re not celibate, generally speaking.’’

And elsewhere he has opined that A vow of celibacy does not create a sex offender.

I'd like to comment on what Fisher has said because he's being disingenuous in his assertions that sex abuse in Australia happens at a higher rate in families and that all Christian denominations have the same rate of abuse. Here's part of a 2013 article at ABC Religion & Ethics by Patrick Parkinson on sex abuse and churches in Australia ....

[...] The most comprehensive account of child sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church has come from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It found that 4% of all priests who had served in the United States from 1950 to 2002 had allegations of child sexual abuse made against them .... Some evidence in Australia appears to indicate a higher level of offending than this. Des Cahill identified 378 priests who graduated from a particular seminary in Melbourne and who were ordained between 1940 and 1966. Of these, 14 (3.7%) were convicted of sex offences against children and, after their deaths, another four were acknowledged to have abused children. That is, 18 priests or 4.8% of the total who were ordained between those years, sexually abused children. Taking a later cohort of seminarians, the 74 priests who were ordained between 1968 and 1971 from that seminary, 4 (5.4%) had been convicted of sex offences against children. Another 20 had resigned the priesthood, and so as a proportion of those priests ordained in that period who had long-term careers in the priesthood, the percentage is rather higher.

Is this level of offending higher than for men in the general population? There is no reliable baseline data on levels of offending in the general population in Australia. Peter Marshall's study in England found some indication of population-wide conviction rates. One in 150 men over the age of 20 had a conviction for sexual offence against a minor. Lifetime propensity figures will of course be higher than those derived from a snapshot of the adult male population at a given moment in time. Based on his data of various cohorts of these men, Marshall estimates that between 1% and 2% of the male population would be expected to be convicted for some form of sexual offence over their lifetime (including sex offences against adults). If those figures are similar for Australia, then Cahill's research would indicate that the rate of convictions for Catholic priests who studied at the seminary in Melbourne is much higher than in the general population (3.7% of those ordained between 1940 and 1966 and 5.4% of those ordained between 1968 and 1971).

[...snip ...]

[R]ates of reported child sexual abuse by priests and religious in the Catholic Church are many times higher than for clergy and paid pastoral staff such as youth workers, in other denominations .... The figure for the number of victims in the Catholic Church was exactly 10 times that in the Anglican Church .... A further indication is given by a comparison between the reported number of allegations revealed by the Anglican and Catholic Archdioceses of Melbourne respectively. The Catholic Church has recorded complaints of abuse against 331 children since 1996, dealt with under its complaints procedures against priests and religious. 310 complaints were substantiated. In the Anglican study, we recorded complaints of abuse against 44 children in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne since 1990 that fell within the scope of the research ...

And I believe he's also being disingenuous in his assertion that "a vow of celibacy does not create a sex offender". Of course no one thinks that taking a vow of celibacy turns people o pedophiles and stating the issue that way creates an easily destroyable straw man. It is possible, though, that there is a valid connection between mandatory celibacy and sex abuse. Here's a bit from a 2013 article at ABC Religion & Ethics by Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson on this ...

[...] 5. A Culture of Celibacy

The predominant culture [in the Catholic Church] has not just been male, but celibate male, for all power has been in the hands of celibate males. In the atmosphere created by this fact, celibacy was the ideal, and the only concession made was that, in the words of Paul, "it is better to marry than to burn" (1 Corinthians 7:9), so that marriage was seen to involve an element of failure to strive for perfection.

I am not suggesting that the preference for celibacy is the sole or even predominant cause of abuse, but I believe it has made a significant contribution, both directly and indirectly. It has certainly been a major contributor to the other massive problem the church has not yet begun to face: the sexual abuse of adult females.

Actually, celibacy itself is not the problem, but obligatory celibacy. A celibacy that is freely embraced out of a passionate love for God and people is not unhealthy. But a celibacy that, sometime after ordination or final profession, becomes unwanted, unaccepted and unassimilated, is both unhealthy and dangerous, for it is a celibacy without love. It then contributes to unhealthy psychology (such as depression), unhealthy ideas (like misogyny) and unhealthy living environment (like loneliness).

The preparation for a life of celibacy in the seminaries and novitiates was negative ("Don't do this, avoid that"), and there was little assistance in building healthy friendships, especially with women. The only answer given to the problems this creates was that God would provide all the love and friendship one might need. And yet it is not enough for authorities to say that priests and religious freely took on the obligation of celibacy, that divine love is abundant and that all that is needed is that they pray harder. This undervaluing of the importance of human love and friendship contains serious dangers.

Given sufficient motivation, some young persons might be prepared to embrace a life without genital sex, but no young persons in their right mind should ever embrace a life without love. Sadly, many priests and religious are living their lives without a minimal sense of loving and being loved. This can lead, not only to one or other form of abuse, but also to such things as alcoholism, misogyny and the seeking of power.

Properly understood, celibacy is a gift, and it must be seriously questioned whether it is possible to institutionalise a free gift of God in the way the Catholic Church has by the law of celibacy. If obligatory celibacy is to continue, it is essential that authorities should know far more about the lived reality of celibacy in the lives of priests and religious. Concerning the response to abuse, it seems obvious that celibate males will not respond to the abuse of children with the instinctive fierceness and passion of people who have their own children, so celibacy has also contributed to the poor response.

I'm not surprised that Fisher would promote the church's line on sex abuse and celibacy. As I mentioned about him in an earlier post, he has conservative views on marriage (he's from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family), and the comments he made about two sex abuse victims, one of whom committed suicide, were strange at best ...

THE Pope's expected apology to victims of sexual abuse by priests has been sabotaged by a senior Australian bishop, who criticised people for "dwelling crankily on old wounds".

The bishop organising World Youth Day, Anthony Fisher, made the remarks in response to questions about two Melbourne women who were repeatedly raped by priest Kevin O'Donnell when they were pupils at Sacred Heart Primary School in Oakleigh from 1988 to 1993.

The case was detailed on ABC's Lateline on Tuesday, but Bishop Fisher told the World Youth Day daily media briefing that he had not seen the program. "Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in, the beauty and goodness of these young people … rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds," he said ...


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