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Knowing the unknowns of clerical sexual misconduct

  • 27 November 2013

Is there an agony in the garden of Catholicism which has yet to be faced — the 'dark figure'* 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