Clericalism, Celibacy and Child Sexual Abuse In the Catholic Church in Australia DES CAHILL and PETER WILKINSON.

Clericalism, Celibacy and Child Sexual Abuse In the Catholic Church in Australia


Emeritus Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson are both Catholic priests who resigned from ministry and married. They were consultants to the Royal Commission and co-authored a recently released five-year RMIT University study on Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Their report can be read online at:

The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was published on 15 December 2017. Among its 409 recommendations was one which is proving controversial, namely, the introduction of voluntary celibacy for diocesan priests. There are compelling reasons why the Commission chose to urge a change to a long-held tradition.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) formally petition Pope Francis to allow voluntary celibacy for diocesan priests (Rec. 16, 18). This is unsurprising, given the overwhelming scientific and evidentiary material that it has considered. Also unsurprising was the Commission’s repetition of its previous recommendation that the ACBC seek clarification from the Holy See on matters related to the seal of confession.

Initially the Commissioners were quite tentative about whether it would be more appropriate for them to be making recommendations regarding canon law and other sensitive church matters. When they expressed their hesitation directly to the metropolitan archbishops in the Case Study 50 public hearings in February 2017, Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane reassured them that “it would be very appropriate for the Royal Commission to make whatever recommendation they judge to be in the best interests of children and therefore the best interests of the Church” and that “he personally would welcome any suggestions or recommendations that the Royal Commission would present”. As the Commission commented in the Final Report, “There may be leaders and members of some institutions who resent the intrusion of the Royal Commission into their affairs. However, if the problems we have identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made to the culture, structure and governance practices of institutions. A failure to act will inevitably lead to the continuing sexual abuse of children, some of whom will suffer lifelong harm. That harm can be devastating for the individual. It also has a cost to the entire Australian community.”

The Australian Royal Commission has been the world’s most thorough examination ever of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In its breadth and depth, it surpasses all 26 other major inquiries in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. It is comprised of 17 volumes with 7,323 pages. It found that criminality against children by Catholic priests and religious was nested in a culture of destructive clericalism.

Clerical Sexual Offending
In a series of scarifying results comparable to the US evidence, the Royal Commission found that between 1950 and 2012, one in thirteen diocesan priests, one in seventeen religious order priests and an estimated one in eight religious brothers sexually offended against children. The offending was worst in the regional dioceses of Sale, followed by Sandhurst (Bendigo), Port Pirie and Lismore and least in the archdiocese of Adelaide. It was even more horrific in some of the residential settings run by the religious Brothers of St John of God and the Christian Brothers.

Altogether there were 572 Catholic priest offenders and 597 religious brother offenders. There were some, but few, offending sisters. Over 3000 survivors alleged that these priests and religious had sexually abused them when they were children. All these offenders had promised or vowed never to engage in sexual acts, abuse or otherwise, with another person, and never to marry.
Anglican ordained ministers (a total of 247) also offended, mainly in Anglican grammar schools, particularly boarding schools. Major issues in the Church of England Boys’ Society, especially in Tasmania, Sydney and Adelaide, surpassed those in the Evangelical wing of the Australian Anglican Church where ministers were ordained into the Anglo-Catholic tradition, which the Commission described as authoritarian, opposed to the ordination of women, exalting in the authority of the priest and making an unhealthy separation between clergy and lay people. The Uniting Church also had offending ministers, but only three had been convicted since 1950. However, no other major religious group in Australia came close to the level of Catholic criminality, although in some smaller groups, particularly the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Salvation Army, there were significant problems.

Sexual offending against children can be traced back to the earliest years of Christianity. It has always been a problem, especially where celibacy has been enforced. It was an early problem in the Catholic Church in Australia. When some religious sisters of the congregation founded by Mother (now Saint) Mary MacKillop, discovered in 1870 that the Franciscan parish priest in Kapunda, a parish of the Adelaide Diocese, was sexually abusing children and reported it, a cabal of his fellow Franciscans prevailed on the Franciscan bishop of Adelaide to excommunicate Mother Mary. Later on during World War Two, Archbishop Beovich of Adelaide suppressed a small male religious order in the suburb of Thebarton because of their sexual abuse of vulnerable children in their care.
In navigating its way through the waters of religious freedom and its limits, the Royal Commission could only recommend that the Australian bishops submit to the Holy See a proposal for a change to the law of clerical celibacy for diocesan priests. Any decision on the matter can only be made by the Pope. The Commission was well aware that its recommendations cannot apply to another sovereign state and that there would be criticism about its recommendations as attacks on religious freedom. However, the right to religious freedom is a relative, not an absolute, right. Individuals have the freedom to be bigoted or to sexually abuse, but not the right. The State has the responsibility to protect itself against bad religion or bad religious practices in order to maintain public safety, good order, health and the morals of its people. While the State can make accommodations where deemed appropriate (e.g. Sikhs wearing the sacred dagger), the civil and criminal law in a secular, democratic society that respects the rights of all must generally over-ride religious law, whether it be Anglican Church law, Catholic canon law, Jewish religious law or Islamic Shari’ah law. A healthy society needs healthy religion.

Celibacy and clericalism
The Commission has made two other recommendations on celibacy: 1) that all Catholic religious institutes in Australia implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life (Rec. 16, 19); and 2) that the ACBC and all religious institutes in Australia further develop and regularly evaluate and continually improve their processes for selecting, screening and training candidates for priestly and religious life, as well as their processes for ongoing formation, support and supervision (Rec. 16, 20). Both are designed to encourage and protect a mature and healthy celibate commitment to God for the service of the community. The Commission carefully acknowledged that ‘such a personal choice is valid and to be respected’ and stated that having consecrated celibate religious persons supported by a caring community life was desirable.

While the evidence supporting the recommendation to vary the rule of clerical celibacy was overwhelming, the Commission wrestled with the question as to whether celibacy had been ‘a direct cause’ of child sexual abuse. It was clearly convinced that it was ‘a significant factor’ in this Catholic catastrophe, especially when combined with other risk factors. The Commission was impressed by the evidence of the Irish psychotherapist, Marie Keenan and her indictment of the Church, its structures and ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Her much cited study was supported by the research of many others, including the priest psychiatrists and researchers such as Richard Sipe and Stephen Rossetti in the US, Eugene Drewermann in Germany and David Ranson in Australia. Other important studies came from the University of Sydney, RMIT University, the Ulm University Hospital, the Boston University School of Medicine and Marquette University in Milwaukee.

The Royal Commission found that, aside from the important individual factors such as psychosexual immaturity and mal-development, lack of intimacy and sexual deprivation, the key variable amongst the structural and cultural factors was clericalism. In its view, the very high occurrence of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and religious and the inadequate handling of abuse complaints by Catholic bishops and religious superiors were elements of the same incubating clericalist culture. It found that clericalism within the Catholic Church is characterised by several outstanding identifiers:

 The sacramental belief that the priest is an ‘ontologically changed’ sacred personage. It was this belief that led to unregulated power and an unquestioned trust which was able to be exploited by priest perpetrators and deceiving bishops. The Commission noted that offenders were caught in a vortex of unregulated public power and their own powerlessness within church structures, and that the nature of Church power was highly genderised.

 The theological view that the Catholic Church is a two-tiered ‘perfect society’, with the clergy placed on pedestals and the rights of the child completely neglected. This was extended to the beliefs that the Church is above the State, canon law outranks state/civil law and that the Church has nothing to learn from the outside world.

 Some bishops and clergy, hiding behind their clericalism facade, lived in ‘a kind of clerical bubble’, catastrophically failing to understand their obligations under civil and criminal law, and being fundamentally opposed to transparency, accountability and collaboration. The Commission observed that many priests were narcissistic in their thought and actions.

 The concentration of personal power in the bishops as ‘little monarchs’ in their own dioceses meant they had few checks and balances and no separation of powers. Their key concern was the avoidance of scandal and the maintenance of the culture of secrecy. The exclusion of lay people, especially women, impacted negatively on good governance and decision-making.

 The flawed selection of bishops was a key factor according to the Commission. The criteria seemed to be their perceived orthodoxy and deferential obedience, together with their limited training and education for Catholic leadership. The Commission has recommended that the Australian bishops request the Holy See to publish the selection criteria and that lay people be involved in the selection process.

 The Commission bemoaned the lack of consultative, inclusive and transparent models of governance of dioceses and religious institutes.
The Royal Commission also noted its concern about the current resurgence of clericalism in some Catholic seminaries and amongst younger clergy.

Already across Australia, Catholic schools have responded very well to the abuse crisis. With a succession of policies and practices, and now run almost completely by lay teaching professionals, mostly married but with many gay teachers, Catholic children are now being educated in very safe institutions.
For most ordinary Catholics, a determination by the Holy See to allow married men to be ordained and tp minister as diocesan Catholic priests would be a momentous pastoral decision, but one likely to be welcomed and readily accepted. Australian Catholics are already accepting of former Anglican married clergy now working in many local parishes.

Moving forward

Overcoming this Catholic catastrophe will require new ways of thinking about a more diverse, flexible and professional priesthood, and about sexuality and gender amongst other things. The Church has to become a much more professional operation, overcoming the lack of ethical professionalism that has characterised the behaviour of bishops and priests in the sexual abuse crisis.

Transitioning to a more inclusive and flexible priesthood will need to be carefully managed and calibrated because up until now consecrated celibacy has been the linchpin of the clericalist system. Voluntary celibacy will not be a panacea, but it can give hope and strength to a renewed Church over the coming decades. The Catholic Truth, Justice and Healing Council which played an excellent facilitating and mediating role during the Royal Commission has already urged the government to implement all its recommendations. At the same time the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference must move quickly to implement all the carefully considered recommendations that apply to the Catholic Church in Australia, but above all in a transparent, accountable and synodal manner.


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