Pope's theory on clergy sex abuse


John Jay reportOne of the intriguing qualities of Pope Benedict XVI is his intellectual style.

He consistently uses large theoretical constructs, such as secularism, to reflect on the condition both of Western societies and of the Church. He also regularly attributes the dysfunctional aspects of both Church and society to the embrace of false theory. He has regularly attributed sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to bad moral theory.

The strength of this way of viewing the world is that it simplifies complex realities and provides a focus for reflection and conversation with those of a different view. Particularly during his visit to England earlier this year the Pope Benedict has stirred helpful conversation about the place of religion in society. His intellectual style engaged his listeners and offered a different perspective even if it did not persuade them.

The breadth and abstraction of this intellectual style also allow space for confident leadership. If you believe you can identify the causes of weakness in society and the Church, you may also be able to exercise control over them. If the root of corruption lies in false theory, you can work to convert people to true theory. In a church you may also be able to proscribe bad theory, to prescribe true theory, and so to eradicate corruption.

The strengths of this intellectual style are also its potential weaknesses. When you think in large theoretical terms it is easy to miss the subtle relationships that are crucially important. It is also very easy to miss the ways in which your own perspective may be part of the problem, not simply an authoritative guide to its solution. If your diagnosis is inaccurate your remedy will be at best unavailing, and at worst counterproductive.

When Pope Benedict blames bad moral theory for sexual abuse by the clergy, he may offer an example of the weaknesses of this intellectual style. His judgment is firmly held: he has made it in at least three places. In itself his argument is not without plausibility.

Proportionalism, the moral theory that he has in mind, is complex. It could be misunderstood as propounding a moral relativism, within which we could not speak of actions as in themselves right or wrong without referring to our intentions, our circumstances or to the perceived consequences. Someone who held that point of view might then be able to argue that in his circumstances paedophilia would be morally acceptable.

The Pope could also argue that, although different moral theories may have little currency among Catholics generally, they are significant because they influence the moral thinking of future priests. And moral thinking does influence action. Finally, the theory he criticises enjoyed some currency among Catholic moral theorists in the 1970s, the time when clerical abuse began to rise sharply.

The John Jay report (pictured) argues against the influence of this theory, at least in the US. It suggests that most offenders received a traditional moral theology that emphasised the good and evil of actions independent of circumstances or intention. The offending clergy, too, recognised the sinfulness of their actions and put weight on their confessing them and being forgiven by God. Their spirituality was focused on the individual's relationship to God.

The roots of abuse then lay in the way in which Catholic life and clerical life were construed before Vatican II, not in moral theories that arose after it.

These conclusions invite reflection that might lead to an explanatory theory. But any satisfactory theory will be unlikely to be simple or to be cast in terms of large intellectual movements.

It will need to reflect on the relationships between interlocking aspects of Catholic life in different periods and cultures. It might ask how power, sexuality, celibacy, clerical status, sin, confession and God were interrelated in the mid 20th century, and what changes in relationship took place from the 1960s and subsequently.

Such reflection will inevitably turn to the ways in which the interweaving of these elements has shaped Catholic thinking about God and the church. Moral theories will be part of the weave of this tapestry, but to focus on them alone entails missing much that is salient.

These kinds of question are susceptible to a patient and intuitive teasing out of thought, of story, of experience and of imagery. They involve a good deal of self-reflection and a readiness to change. They are less susceptible to theoretical analysis in preconceived terms.

This is not to discount the Pope's intellectual style and his insistence on objective moral standards. In an Australian environment where many Christians are among those who see no moral problem in trafficking people to Malaysia to achieve political ends, I find the Pope's insistence on absolute moral values very welcome.

But in the case of clerical sexual abuse, his analysis is not pertinent. It is important for the Church that he leads and for the victims of abuse that it be pursued deeper. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict XVI, sexual abuse, clergy, moral theology



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I find it strange that the John Jay report has not taken up the issue of homosexuality among the seminarians and what influence this had on the prevalence of abuse. It is a fair question. Here is a critique of the John Jay report by sociologist William Donohue.

Skye | 16 June 2011  

When I went through the Police Academy we were taught that paedopilies were opportunistic, they chose their careers out of opportunity to abuse - not the other way around. Whether they be teachers, police officers, priests or sports coaches, the career was incidental. Perhaps it's time to view this from a different perspective. What better job than to be living in prime real estate, to not be worried about bills or food, to have a house cleaner,to be intimately invited to all these homes with the utmost trust, and to be fully supported by the Church. Why wouldn't a paedophile choose the 'vocation' of a priest - it's perfect!

Jacky | 16 June 2011  

Blame for sexual assault on minors and vulnerable adults and abuse of pastoral relationships cannot be sheeted home to "bad moral theory", even if a future pope did once do so. He blamed, I seem to recall, the teaching of probabilism to seminarians in the 1960s and later.

Pity was, the reintroduction of probabilist theory in the 1960s reached only a handful of specialist journals. It never reached a wider audience until the 1970s.

Both the UK Tablet and the USA's NCR ran stories of how the then Cardinal had, one might say, mis-remembered. His causation theory was wrong then, and now.

Rodney Stinson | 16 June 2011  

An interesting perception, Andrew. On the other hand,I would therefore be interested to know how Benedict who grew up under the Nazi Regime justifies and explains the rising of Hitler in what was probably at the time the most Christian Nation in Europe!

Peter M | 16 June 2011  

Andrew this comment "It might ask how power, sexuality, celibacy, clerical status, sin, confession and God were interrelated in the mid 20th century, and what changes in relationship took place from the 1960s and subsequently" is most salient for me to beg the question what happened about mid 20th century to change the moral fibre of humanity? What was the enormous move to this type of new morality? and in being able to see this we can see why sexual abuse rose to the surface.

Personally I believe that the introduction of the "pill" into society opened the doorway to change of the whole notion of morality both for the male and female. This tiny littlinsidious "thing"
changed how life was seen and controlled, how "man" was now in control of life and sexuality. Sexuality became passe, even bestial and if so it infected all including priest who is also part of humanity. For me the big picture is that sexuality in all its splendour because of what it meant was cheapened and handed over to a spirit of lust.

I dont always agree with your writings but enjoy reading them.

Hannah Smith | 16 June 2011  

Responsibility is not on ism. It would be useful to read the chapter in Introduction to Proportionalism (16th edition) headed Personal Responsibility. The chapter on Responsibility in Leadership should be required reading for all popes.The pope, like other human beings, finds ways of passing blame onto something or someone else. The difference with the pope is that he uses a highly sophisticated language when he passes on the blame. But it's the same old story. Even my hippy friends have got over explaining away all the world's problems on this imponderable Aunt Sally, the Sixties.

Desiderius Erasmus | 16 June 2011  

Those who disparage and those who defend religious taxonomies, generally have a dog in the fight and consequently are unwilling to view a situation from a neutral standpoint, regardless of how much they profess the opposite. Defining religious belief and practice is not a value neutral enterprise.
My advice to religious autocrats:
"Say not this is the truth,
But so it seems to me to be,
As now I see the things,
I think I see."

Amos | 16 June 2011  

Skye, I will read the critique of John Jay's report by William Donohue. I could offer one possible reason that homosexuality was not mentioned, political correctness. I am not for one moment saying that all homosexuals are paedophiles. Any future posters, spare me this facile label. However, it is possible that fear of this very thing stopped John Jay from looking at a link between earlier homosexual activity and abusive clergy.

Patrick James | 16 June 2011  

John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) were the pair of eyes that ruled the Holy See and the pair of hands that shepherded the Vatican for over a quarter of a century of the 20th century. Cardinal Ratzinger ruled as Prefect, from 1981 to 2005, the CDF Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or Inquisition), and he was as powerful as John Paul II. He silenced many theologians who dared criticise John Paul II and his doctrines, read the list in our related article Beware! Benedict XVI-Cardinal Ratzinger and his allies can be violent http://pope-ratz.blogspot.com/2010/03/benedict-xvi-cardinal-ratzinger-and-his.html

Paris | 16 June 2011  

Skye will find, if he/she reads the JJ report, that homesexuality as a causative factor was very much "taken up" . . . and dismissed.

William Donohue the sociologist? That's news to me. I've looked over some of his commentaries, and they read like a diatribe. I wince whenever he says he's presenting the (real) Catholic view.

Rodney Stinson | 16 June 2011  

I read with interest Andrew's article on the Pope's theory on clergy sex abuse. It is a complex issue with unfortunately devestating consequences. As the church advances in theological reflection on this matter, hopefully we will begin to see with maturity that the images or paradigms in which we see ourselves, God, nature, relationships and the comos will shift from a concept of sinfulness to one of seeing ourselves as being a blessed people.

The reality of the church, unfortunately has been too focused on getting people into heaven and inorder to do this one has to see one's self as sinful, psychologically this fixation is ultimately damaging, but it has been imbued in Christian Theology for some time. Thanks be to God it is breaking down but it is is still an extremely powerful paradigm, the new liturgy gives withness to this. Not only are we "bad but we are very bad." In therms of theological education, there is a great need to develop curricular that discusses the nature of what it means to develop wholesome heathy sexual relationships. Then I think we can come some way to addressing the sexual abuse in our Catholic Community

Paul Donnelly | 16 June 2011  

In practical terms,Hannah Smith has hit the nail on the head.Prior to the "pill" catholic life was dominated by the moral teachings surrounding the propagation of life within Christian marriage and the misuse for personal gratification of those human functions associated with sexual relationships.

This dominant "morality" threatened such dire consequences if breached that when the fear of temporal consequences was greatly removed from women with the "pill" and primacy of conscience grew in awareness at the same time, most of the restraints that confined sexual permissiveness were removed.Combined with the headlong rush by priests and members of religious orders to be no longer identifiable or respected but to be perceived as nothing special,they too became "human", sadly in so many cases with damaging consequences for the Church,seen for example, in the abandonment of the religious life for a secular life with its marriage and secular freedom.

Sadly some chose to embrace sexual freedom without relinguising their obligation as a priest or religious. I know this is very simplistic.However, most things are.Mankind has a great penchant for making things complex for the sake of "intellectual" debate. I believe Pope Benedict's approach is truly intellectual for the very reason that it promotes debate, which is, after all, the machinery of progress.

john frawley | 16 June 2011  

What Hannah is missing completely is the awareness that sexual abuse is not just a modern phenomenon, and that it absolutely PRECEDED the advent of the pill. Paedophilia has NEVER been acceptable in our society. Complaints about paedophile priests have been consistently ignored by the Church (remember Mary MacKillop’s complaint???). Andrew Hamilton is right in his conclusion that the Pope’s analysis is irrelevant to the lived experience of we the people who make up the Church! I believe the Pope’s and the Jay report’s interpretations are intellectually dishonest attempts to shift the blame onto the victims.

Patricia | 16 June 2011  

I read with interest Andrew’s article on the Pope’s theory on clergy sex abuse. While it is extremely important for the Catholic community to engage in theological reflection (which is critical that this is done), we need to recognise the immense damage this abuse has done not only for the Catholic Community but for the Christian Church. Part of the analysis and reflection will recognise that a major paradigm shift will be required to make some sense as to the reasons this behaviour occurred in our community and it might have to cut to the core of Theological education and reflection. The paradigm shift is ultimately centered on how we see ourselves and our relationship with God, others and the cosmos and that will require us to have a new vision on our sexuality. Theologically, it will require a shift to seeing ourselves as a blessed people, and not a people that need to be rescued or see ourselves as a sinful people. This paradigm as a sinful people has distorted for sometime our vision of ourselves and it is very difficult to imagine ourselves as anything else. But I think it our responsibility to engage in the imagination to develop new ways of understanding ourselves but it will require a letting go of old models of thinking

Paul Donnelly | 16 June 2011  

No, I did not enjoy this article. I am left with quite disturbed emotions; I am despairing that we discuss bad moral theory, true moral theory, false moral theory, proportionalism and that, finally, the Pope's analysis is "not pertinent". It is only important that he leads. And that this is pursued deeper for the victims of abuse. I am pleased that for me, these words support my decision to leave the church 25 years ago. Normal humans have an innate moral sense and it is a truism that, if you have a moral battle as to whether one's action may be good or bad, don't do it. For almost all victims of abuse, the pursuit of these abstruse questions is useless; they are already dead from suicide or are struggling toward the end of a ruined life. Can any person actually conlude that in his/her case the sexual abuse of this child they face is "morally acceptable"? As they pursue their sexual gratification with a terrified, weeping child do they believe that; even if there's any degree of consensuality, once gratification is over, the child's life is essentially over. Sexual abuse equates to slow child murder. Teach that to seminarians!

Caroline Storm | 16 June 2011  

Andrew your second bit on clergy abuse-church cover up this month again focuses on the priest perpetrator and gives us B16’s philosophical constructs and theological theory to show the predator priests view that the sin is between himself and God and can be obliterated by confessional absolution. Again you neglect the child victim who also has a theological theory of ‘priest’ as a mediator to God, a sacred person and specially chosen by Jesus. To the victim the sin is by a privileged persona, the offence is not one to be wiped clean by confession, but a confusing load that leads to dysfunction and suicidal tendencies for life. The victim sees this theological theory reinforced by the might of the institutional church through the Pell Process (with perpetrator priests tipped off before police investigate) and Towards Healing as highlighted in the insensitive response to David of by Kerry Buchecker, Director?Office of Professional Standards of Towards Healing Victoria in the Brother Best case. Age 3 6 2011 How few are the pleas on behalf of the victims like Fr. Brendan Dillon of Geelong to the agonies spelt out in Chrissie Foster’s Hell on the way to Heaven. Andrew, you conclude that it is important that B16 leads and for the victims of abuse that it be pursued deeper. Andrew, your two bits reinforce that the Church is more interested in understanding clergy abuse-church cover up to excuse its employees rather than the vulnerable victim. You highlight B16’s theological theory the priest; at Vatican 2 the priest is not the sacred one, but is one selected by the community to preside at the Eucharist and does not need the baggage of eight years philosophy and theology or celibacy or gender as a condition of full time ministry in the Western church. Andrew please give us your take on clergy abuse-church cover up from the victims viewpoint; and also your take on the Pell Process and Towards Healing and the Jesuits record of supporting victims rather than alleged predator.

Michael Parer | 16 June 2011  

Get out Fred Schepisi's "The Devil's Playground" and have a look. Then ask yourself if anyone could have survived that with a healthy sexual identity.Just accept that the Church as a bastion of celibacy with an inability to tolerate dissidence will continue to propagate human suffering,BUT will maintain its purity undefiled and uncontaminated and provide a home for cerebral gymnastics.

Ignatius | 16 June 2011  

Thank you Andrew for a very reasoned response as usual.
Seems our Pontiff wants to excuse clergy at all cost and the cover up that has been in the Church for many, many years both before and after Vatican 11.

Rosemary Keenan Gwelup WA | 16 June 2011  

In re the intellectual styled of Benedict XVI: Abstract, yes. Perspectival, yes. Theoretic, no.

If, as you say his analysis of clerical sexual abuse is not pertinent, what makes the rest of his analysis pertinent? Just as Benedict XVI is selective in his use of historical criticism, you seem to be selective in your evaluation of his intellectual style as intriguing. I think his thinking is a closed shop and not just on clerical abuse.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza provides, I think, a more comprehensive view of Benedict's "style"

Tom H Canberra | 16 June 2011  

Theory and practice (particularly in the demonstrable absence in regard to the latter)...what significant and distant cousins these are in the universal church.

Navel gazing in any institution does little or nothing for anyone.

KISS.... "keep it simple stupid" has much going for it.

When churchgoers start seeing bishops defrocked for covering clerical sex abuse-allowing miscreants to practice further afield...then we might more readily wander the fields of academic meanderings with quiet abandon...but how distant is that horizon?.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 16 June 2011  

I believe Pope John XX111 would have dealt with all the social changes and made possible a way for reform in the church. As an example of a truly moral and life-sustaining code of living the church could lead instead of being an elephant in the room with inaction,denial, division and lapsed or watered-down apostolic work. There seems to be a branding of Catholicism, feigning to middle-class and and conservative pockets.While this remains the church cannot connect or empathise with any victims.

Paedophiles and abused are both victims in different ways.The church has a precious opportunity to show Christ's powerful and redemptive love.To focus on this suffering is the true calling of a church withering as it turns away.The poor and abused are all around and not invited to the feast.

Catherine | 16 June 2011  

While studying overseas years ago the large seminary property was put up for possible development. It was surveyed. After all the survey work and presentations it was found the primary datum peg was in the wrong place.

The Rector of the seminary took the mistake into one of the best homilies I've ever heard. "You can be 99% right yet 100% wrong. It depends on your starting point". This principle lies at the heart, I believe, of the 'round holes and square pegs' of present day church life.

Fr. Paul Goodland | 16 June 2011  

SKYE: You stated, "I find it strange that the John Jay report has not taken up the issue of homosexuality among the seminarians and what influence this had on the prevalence of abuse."

To take up the issue would not be politically correct; that's the reason they did not address it.

I don't agree with William Donohue on most things, but he's RIGHT ON with this one!

When I was in religious life in the 90's open homosexuality was out of control. Some of them were pedophiles, and where covering for each other. Others were simply too frightened to speak out.

I was disgusted with what I saw, got out and got married. First, I blew the whistle on one of them. He's now in prison.

drwho13 | 16 June 2011  

Patricia, Hannah Smith does not miss the scenario completely. I didn't say it was a modern disease. Sexual abuse, abortion, murder, rampant sexuality, homosexuality, infanticide have always existed and will continue to exist. What I suggested as a thought was that from mid 60s that one event "the pill" opened up doors to modern immorality which affected all including priesthood, families, children.

Hannah Smith | 16 June 2011  

I'm with you, Caroline Storm16. I find it curious that the pope is intellectualising sexual abuse. The perpetrators are not people who are driven by intellectual theories. They don't care about the moral theories of others. What has morality to do with their exercise of lust and power? Even if they have a sense of moral guilt, that obviously does not stop their evil actions. Why would teaching moral theory to a seminarian make a shred of difference if he has chosen this career to enable him to sexually abuse those under his power and control? We are still releasing paedophiles on parole even after multiple re-occurrences of their offenses. When do we say that the rights of the victim are more important than those of a serial paedophile?

Frank S | 16 June 2011  

I was delighted with the broad conversation that my article occasioned. A couple of points to invite further thought.

Hannah Smith's emphasis on the part the 1960s played seems pertinent, although precisely what in that period brought out the brittleness of Catholic life in the previous period remains unclear to me. The pill is an interesting symbol. It weakened an ethical opposition to extramarital sex that was based on fear of consequences, and the condemnation of artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae has often been seen as the point at which Catholics became critical in their attitudes to authority. So the pill could well have been a catalyst of dissolution of previous attitudes. But the results weren't all negative - out of the 'sexual revolution' also came in time deeper reflection on the place of friendship and intimacy within marriage and in any human life.

I have read William Donohue's interesting critique of the John Jay report. Generally it makes some good analytic points, but is ultimately a work of polemic more than of analysis. I was not persuaded by its qualified assertion of the centrality of homosexuality within clerical abuse of minors. Key points of his argument were made as assertions and not demonstrated, and others supported only by anecdotal evidence.

I found more convincing the argument of the Report based on findings that sexual activity in homosexual and heterosexual candidates for priesthood both before and during the seminary was more likely to be followed by sexual activity after ordination, that such activity would have the same orientation as previously, and that in neither case would it be with young people.

The association of the sexual abuse of children with power, too, suggests that to me that sexual orientation is not as important as Donohue suggests. But in this, as in other areas, more detailed study is required.

I agree with Michael Parer that we ought to focus on the victims of sexual abuse, just as we ought to do in discussion of asylum seekers. But to protect and nurture victims, we need also to spend some time in reflecting on the reasons why people cheerfully abuse the dignity of children in both cases. Otherwise the cycle may return.

Andy Hamilton | 16 June 2011  

Rodney Stinson 'homosexuality '"taken up" . . . and dismissed.'. Precisely. It was dismissed. I suspect the dismissal was a denial of some unpleasant truths.

Skye | 17 June 2011  

I welcome Andrew's article but it, the report that it discusses, and most of the postings that followed have, it seems to me, ignored the elephant in the room, that is the cover up and the reasons why the cover-up occurred.

Why is the hierarchy focused on understanding and explaining and, in the process, seeking to shift the blame onto secular society while at the same time ignoring the even more insidious and damaging culture within its (the hierarchy's) own ranks that gave priority to protecting the 'shepherds' rather than the 'sheep'?

I'd like to see Benedict expose those cover-ups to a bit of his undoubted intellectual rigour but I'm not holding my breath. Monolithic autocratic institutions - secular or sacred - don't do that sort of thing

Andrew's penultimate paragraph in his response to posters raises the issue of the relationship between power and abuse. May I suggest that there is also a relationship between power and cover-up and that so long as the power of the hierarchy remains unchallengeable and unaccountable the problems of abuse and cover-up will never go away?

Ginger Meggs | 20 June 2011  

Peter's reference to Pope Benedict growing up in Nazi Germany is nasty, unfair and inaccurate. Germany at that time was certainly not the 'most Christian nation in Europe' in any understandable sense of the word. I do not have time to summarise the reasons for the rise of Fascism in Germany or elsewhere but this comment is misplaced. And it is totally irrelevant to the finely nuanced article it purports to comment on!

Ann | 21 June 2011  

The Church will always be focused on ideal behaviour in all circumstances as taught by Christ. Surely we have learned that, no matter the Education level in theology,philosophy,ethics or good living the human weakness aspect present in all of us will unfortunately, often prevail.There are myriad examples in history.What is redemption about??

Julian Shanahan | 21 June 2011  

Having now read the entire article, I say "Well done." Thank you, Andrew Hamilton and Eureka Street. On many sexual issues, not just clerical abuse but of course THAT, it is nuanced conversation about reality that must accompany sound moral teaching.

Dr Susan Reibel Moore | 21 June 2011  

What bothers me here is the seeming assumption by many that the problem arose in the 60s and 70s. My mother told me of an attempted sexual assault on her by a priest in the 1920s, which leads me to wonder if the only reason we know about the crimes of the 60s and 70s is that the victims are still alive to talk about it.

John | 21 June 2011  

Dear Hannah, I think the genie of sexual lust was well and truly out of the bottle before the pill arrived. What the pill did was give women an albeit flawed weapon with which to fight the silent abuse and shame that many had suffered in those so-called 'enlightened' pre-pill days. In those days, also, the Church may have been responsible for an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual abuse. Generations of young people were scared out of seeing sex as a natural part of life by an attitude which made something as innocent as a kiss between consenting teenagers an 'occasion of sin'. Hell's fires were reigned upon acts of sexual dalliance while other moral demons like racism, gambling, religious bigotry and degredation of the environment escaped censure The somewhat hysterical and demented condemnation of sex by church instrumentalities was very bad 'moral theory' in itself and may have been a siginificant contributing factor to the epidemic of sexual abuse.

Charles Costello | 22 June 2011  

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