Contributions Towards a Structural Analysis of the Catholic Abuse Crisis

Child abuse is always a horrendous crime. Nevertheless, Catholics sometimes think the abuse scandal mostly does harm to the Church, because some Catholics use the scandal to further their own agendas such as the lifting of obligatory celibacy for priests. Everything changes when you come to know a victim of child sexual abuse personally, especially if they are a friend of yours or someone you have known for many years. Abuse becomes a visible problem when it is given a face. When that happens both sadness and outrage follow. The ultimate aim of questions raised about coping with the abuse, and the new perspectives that answers to them raise, must be oriented towards a hoped for healing of the survivors and their families.

As more details about clerical child abuse become known there are two possible approaches for a responsible coping with what has happened. The first approach is reflection upon the reasons why this massive abuse by clerics in the Catholic Church happened (1). There are various causes for the abuse: individual causes (1.1) as well as the institutional enabling of the abuse (1.2), and something we will call ecclesiolatry (1.3). The faithful deserve, especially the survivors, to have the roots of these crimes are exposed and reflected on responsibly. The second approach consists in concentrating upon the need for instituting effective systemic prevention within the Church (2). Also, spiritual aspects of the scandal need to be addressed (3) before we can conclude by formulating further perspectives (4).

1. The Causes That Enabled the Abuse

1.1 Individual Causes

Recent studies, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report (2018) and the MHG-Report in Germany, show that 80% of those abused worldwide within the Church are boys. Pederasty is the main difference between child abuse within the Church and abuse outside the Church (where most of the victims are girls). At first blush this fact might lead one to conclude that either homosexuality is mostly responsible for the abuse, or, at least, that homosexuals are the offenders. This is only one explanation, one which does not shed light on why the victims of priests were mainly children under the age of 14, whereas the other cases were young adults. If those abusers were homosexual, why did they not choose to have a (hidden) relationship with a male adult? One reason could be the attempt to hide the sexual relationship by abusing a defenseless child. But is that a sufficient explanation? During the last decades the total number of abuses in the Church has been reduced massively. The percentage of homosexual abuses has not changed over time, even though it has nowadays become much easier to get in touch with other sexually active homosexual adults.

Another reason could be that even though those clerics were homosexual, they did not really want to engage themselves with homosexual partners. They were instead focused on a sexual act without any consequences, because it was expected that children or young adults would keep silent. Furthermore, it could just be the fact that boys were more available than girls since until Vatican II girls were not allowed to perform altar service. Plus, after the Council, it took some time until girls were given the opportunity to get involved in altar service.

But the question remains: why did those clerics not search for an adult to have sex with, but instead committed sexual abuse against minors? All these observations lead to a possible relation between sexuality and the misuse of power. On the institutional level it seems that homosexual alliances between the abusers and others had sometimes become a possible reason for the covering-up following the abuse. The findings about the role homosexuality played in the abuse scandal can be summarized as follows: though the rate of homosexuals among priests is much higher than in society in general , homosexuality seemingly cannot be seen as the main cause of the child abuse by clerics, however, its role merits further study.

Recent studies have again shown that most of the abuse was not committed by the use of physical violence. Nonetheless, they are violent acts, because every sexual act of an adult with a minor who cannot consent must be called sexual violence. In the media the abusers are often called “predators,” but the way in which they initiated the abuse was different from direct physical violence, because the abusers usually manipulated not only the minors, but, very often, also their parents. We will return to this later again when we discuss “grooming.”

Before we go into detail about how the offenders acted, we want to get to another possible individual cause of the clerical abuse. The percentage of abused children among all the minors who were abused differs in countries where investigations have already been done. Overall, at least 30-50% (differs from country to country) were usually under the age of 14 and therefore are considered children. If we consider more of the individual causes of abuse we must mention one disorder of sexual preferences: pedophilia. However, the rate of pedophiles among the perpetrator clerics seems to be about 30% or less, as it was recently demonstrated in the MHG-study of the German Bishops Conference. To understand why there are still so many child victims, we need to clarify what is meant by pedophilia.

Broadly, there are two forms of pedophiles. First, those who are sexually attracted only to pre-adolescent children. We could call this a “fixed pedophile preference.” It seems that there are almost no effective treatments yet to heal this kind of pedophilia. Although, according to recent research, life-long abstinence from sexual acts is possible without leading to children being harmed. The other form might be called a “regressed pedophilia” in which the perpetrator abuses children because of various reasons. For example, it is easier not to be detected as being unfaithful to the vow of chastity as a priest, because the abused is a child—who will keep silent if told not to speak about the abuse. Other reasons include a desire to exercise power by dominating the child through sexual violence. This kind of abuse is presumably the one we find in most cases in the clerical abuse. Clerics, most of them born between 1920 and 1940 (according to the Pennsylvania Report), used children and youths to exercise both their power and their superiority by committing these sexual crimes. A Church climate where perpetrators did not have to fear to go to jail for having abused a child became both a protective frame and a fertile ground for the abuse.

Before we proceed to the institutional level, we need to ask about the roots of this regressed pedophilia. The German MHG-report includes a meta-analysis of the studies on sexual child abuse in the world Church until 2014. It found emotional as well as sexual immaturity as major reasons for the abuse. The inability to have mature friendships and real connections with adults of the same age is a consequence of this immaturity. This sexual immaturity, in conjunction with clerical arrogance, is often found in abusers. The elitist attitude makes a person almost unapproachable for both personal connections and especially for constructive criticism. The main impression is that a priest as a “man of God” can never be judged or made accountable by non-clerics at all.

If a person avoids confronting himself with the question of sexuality as a part of human identity, emotional immaturity remains even though the person on the outside is experienced as being mature and confident. If sexual desires are ignored they can become a risk factor for the abuse of power apparent in cases of sexual abuse.

These factors sometime lead the public to think that celibate life, or, more precisely, the obligatory celibacy for priests is a risk in itself. However, a competent priestly formation could help to make sexuality a subject of discussion in the seminary and an issue for personal reflection without fear. If the integration of sexuality is addressed properly as part of personal formation in the seminary, it will be easier for young men to discern whether they really want to live an authentic celibate and chaste life. A vivid prayer life, true friendships, as well as a realistic self-perception is crucial to developing a committed celibate life without destructive tendencies.

If a man is recognized as having a fixed pedophilia disorder, he should definitely not be accepted as a candidate for priesthood. It might be a difficult challenge for spiritual directors in a seminary to assess seminarians, if people hide their sexual preferences because of fear of being rejected and refused. Hence the training of seminary directors must be both adequate and well-prepared for this task.

We have discussed how individual causes contribute to child abuse in the Church so far. Now we want to take a closer look at the specifically institutional factors responsible for the incidences of sexual abuse in the Church.

1.2 Institutional Causes

It might seem that institutional causes are only mentioned when it comes to covering up a crime. Instead, some kinds of institutional climates can foster abuse even though that abuse is not intended. The way a systemic factor causes abuse is different from the way individual factors are causes. The systemic factor is not a direct cause, but very often the established systematic frame becomes the soil for enabling the abuse. The way clerics were not punished after allegations, but instead moved to another parish, had a disastrous impact on the handling of abuse. Pope Francis recently mentioned clericalism as one of the main reasons for the cover-up culture among the clergy.

“Clericalism” means that certain people are perceived as being of higher value only because of the sacramental power that they hold. A clericalist view is based upon the elitist conviction that there is a significant difference between the ordained and lay people due to the different value they carry within the Church. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

Therefore, clericalism could be understood as symbolizing the very opposite of what a priestly vocation symbolizes—readiness for service, self-giving, and commitment to charity. Following Presbyterorum Ordinis, Vatican II’s decree on the ministry and life of priests, we can say that priests “are not to be separated from the People of God or from any person; but they are to be totally dedicated to the work for which the Lord has chosen them” (§3).

If priesthood becomes a mere status symbol of Church leadership, then men with a narcissistic personality disorder will find it very attractive to be part of this exclusive circle. A similar attitude can be detected when it comes to celibacy. A person who tries to avoid mature connections with adults might find it attractive to hide in a system where marriage, or even intimate relationships, are not required, but instead are prohibited. That is why the personnel in seminaries and friaries should be well-trained in accompanying young men during their time of formation. There is a need to be vigilant so that the seminarians become able to live out a celibate life with integrity. Though vigilance is required, control should be limited, as much as possible, so that young men may develop the positive use of their freedom.

1.3 The Problem of Ecclesiolatry

Given the fact that so many priests, as well as bishops, either tried to keep the victims silent or actively participated in the cover-up of the abuse, it is necessary to take a closer look at their motivations and their desire to avoid transparency. Their intention was to protect the Church rather than the victim, and this institutional factor is another one that made the horrendous abuse scandal possible. Prevention can be successful only if this flawed intention is analyzed in detail. “Ecclesiolatry” is what I call an exaggerated focus on the Church that leads people to suppress any kind of critique or allegations against members of the clergy, even if the abused would be harmed again by being treated as if they were the victimizers (of the Church).

The first attitude, one of protecting the Church (instead of survivors), was present in even many of the so-called “good priests” and ministers: a pastoral attitude. The clerics knew (even some lay people often agreed with it) that if crimes such as the sexual abuse of children would become public, then the Church would lose much of her credibility. This credibility is essential for the proclamation of faith; it is necessary for a powerful witness from the Church as a whole. Therefore, making sure that those crimes were reported to the police, or even to the press, would definitely weaken the Church’s ministry—a God-given task. Those thoughts led many priests, and even bishops, to the idea that it would be necessary to handle the crimes as silently as possible, that is, as grave sins, that can be forgiven, but not as normal crimes. Victims were therefore often forced, even by Church leaders, to keep silent.

The second chief element of the systemic cover-up was based upon a hegemonic attitude, based upon an ideology of power. Since clerics are a key part of the Church’s leadership, and if the Church as a whole loses power, they themselves would have to expect a significant loss of both power and recognition. This attitude is obviously much more selfish than the first one, which attempts to not let the ministry and proclamation of faith be weakened by exposing the sins of some pastors. At the same time it is even more disastrous for those affected by the abuse, since they effectively become victimized a second time because of the self-interest of Church leaders in positions of power.

The third ecclesiolatric attitude that should be mentioned has a pragmatic dimension. Clerics suspect that if abuses become publicly known, then people would ask for adequate punishment for the offenders, and they would sometimes even demand the defrocking of priests. Since Church officials wanted to have pastoral care well-organized they did not want to have the number of clerics reduced by priests who would be dismissed from the clerical state. This attitude did the most harm to the survivors, as well as increased the pain they had to bear, because the grievances of those abused were totally neglected for pragmatic reasons.

All of these intentions seem to be understandable from a limited institutional point of view, especially since clerics were not trained to care for victims of sexual violence. Nevertheless, all those attitudes are shameful and truly evil, because for many decades the powerless victims were not able to defend their right to physical and emotional integrity, nor exercise their right to justice. This is not the “sacramental brotherhood” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, §8) in service of the people of God, but instead must be called a flawed clerical loyalty, or even ecclesiolatry. It distorts the meaning of the Church as the community of Jesus’s disciples where charity should be the first guideline for every decision and act.

2. Approaches to Effective Prevention

2.1 Detecting Grooming Behavior

“Grooming” is an element in the individual causes of abuse, and is therefore an element that needs to be considered in any approach to prevention. Grooming is a common way in which perpetrators become deeply connected to the child or youth with the aim of using them. Very often the minor’s parents are also involved if the priest is trying to manipulate minors by establishing a trustful relationship. Therefore, afterwards many of the abused describe their relation to the offender as caring and loving in the beginning. As part of a manipulation this grooming process prevents the child from speaking out about the former “friend” as predator.

According to recent research on grooming behavior a definition of it could be formulated as follows: (1) the use of different kinds of manipulation and controlling techniques (2) with a vulnerable subject (3) in a range of interpersonal and social settings (4) in order to establish trust or normalize sexually harmful behavior (5) with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting exposure. It is important to grasp these points together because people often cannot understand why minors were not able to escape from the threatening situation and kept silent, sometimes even for decades. Very often they were not even able to understand that they were abused, because the abuse came from a person they came to know for an extended amount of time and who often told them how precious and important they were to him.

The lack of concrete physical violence in most of the abuse cases must lead us to focus upon the psychological violence used by the abuser, and grooming ought to be seen as a relevant factor in abuse. Offenders often seemed to care for their eventual victims in a peculiar way. They provided them with privileges (such as being alone with the priest and accompanying the priest to special events), particular attention, and even expensive presents. The concrete act of abuse has been often obfuscated as play, or some kind of sexual education (i.e. showing pornographic movies), or just as personal interest for the minor. Children as well as young adults have a strong desire to be loved, to be cared for, and to be recognized. They are often not able to discern what type of attention they are being given by a priest. That is why grooming behavior must be vigilantly detected. Specific grooming prevention steps will help develop sensitivity and vigilance in the Church.

2.2 Vulnerability

The definition of “grooming” mentioned a “vulnerable subject.” Children as well as minors are always vulnerable to physical violence because of their lack of physical strength to sufficiently defend themselves. Minors are also vulnerable to emotional manipulation, because of their desire to be loved and cared for as mentioned above. This vulnerability is part of the human condition. Human life depends on relationships, and young people especially while searching for their identity and their path in life sense the necessity of being connected closely with others.

That is why the abuse of minors is both so easy to commit and so harmful for the kids. Trust is misused and vulnerability becomes a significant part in the choice of a possible victim. That is why reflecting upon one’s own vulnerability, as well as the vulnerability of children and adolescents, is crucial for the formation of seminarians. In many directives for the handling of abuse cases people with mental disabilities are referred to as “vulnerable adults.” Those adults must be protected and defended in their vulnerable status without taking away from them their freedom and the opportunity to develop. Seminarians do not belong to the group of “vulnerable adults,” but if a superior or spiritual guide is making use of them sexually, they become real victims and are not to be seen as accomplices. If they depend on the power of their superiors and directors they have to be protected in their situation as well. That is why it is necessary that a clear path for making allegations against higher clerics has to be established.

2.3 Formation in the Seminary

In the following, since we have limited space for our discussion, only some aspects of formation can be mentioned. The German MHG-report describes the many differences in how formation in diocesan seminaries address sexuality. Some seminaries only devote one day-long course on the matter. Others take a few more hours per week for some more extended period of time. If we consider the low priority given to training about “healthy celibacy” then it clearly seems to be underrepresented among other issues. If celibacy is only either seen as a welcome way of avoiding marriage and family, or as a moral “maximum performance,” then this inadequate training can become a risk for the seminarian’s development. According to scripture chastity is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22f) and therefore a gift. There are obviously habits that would have a contaminating and even destructive impact on the moral life, for example, the consumption of any kind of pornography. However, the spiritual teaching about walking in grace with the opportunity of forgiveness and a new beginning can be understood as the essential handrails that can provide the necessary support.

How to connect with people in a sincere and trustworthy way, especially if it is not a continuous relation, has to be reflected on carefully. Therefore, prevention courses on child protection need to be obligatory in every seminary and in the formation of both male and female religious orders.

2.3 The Significance of Women

Men commit much more than 90% of the sexual abuses, and if women are involved in such crimes within the family, they usually participate in the crime of their male partners. Women in general are more likely to protect children and minors from sexual violence, furthermore, there are almost no pedophiles among women. Meanwhile, many dioceses have both a male and a female person in their office that deals with the cases of abuse done by clerics. An independent commission in every diocese needs to be established so that cover-ups can be avoided in the future. It is very important to have women as active members of such commissions against abuse, because they usually play a crucial role in detecting sexual crimes as well as in creating a climate where abusers cannot hide anymore.

In the past women sometimes shared a clericalist attitude towards priests and members of religious orders. Priests were not expected to be real humans with weaknesses and shadow sides, instead they were automatically put on pillars as holy “Men of God” who could never be able to do harm to children or even to commit a crime. Yet, even though in many cases women were the first to whom the abuse was reported, they sometimes did not believe their own children because of the mentioned premise that the priest was always to be seen as a “good guy.” This was part of how the faithful were educated to think about priests.

However, involving women in any effort for creating prevention measures and transparency, as well as in care for survivors could be much effective by using their naturally given attitude to protect children against abuse and seeking the good for the person in need.

3. More Questions than Answers: A Spiritual Note

Not only because of the famous Polish apostle of mercy, Sr. Faustyna Kowalska, but also thanks to St. John Paul II, mercy became an essential element of the Catholic spiritual life in the 20th century. With the papacy of Pope Francis mercy has become the main focus for the Church as a whole, since it is called to serve the wounded and the most vulnerable. One reason why the abuse by clerics in the Church is as scandalous as it is, is that the scandal symbolizes the opposite of a priestly vocation, which should be directed towards serving the flock by celebrating the sacramental mysteries, and showing both Christ’s love and mercy. Children and young people were used for enacting shameful desires.

We can only speculate what would have happened if young priests would have personally experienced a God who not only knows about every vulnerability, but also a God who is merciful and caring and who wants them to be merciful priests. If young seminarians would have experienced the changing power of God’s mercy personally, then would they have been able to radically open their hearts for the encounter with God, the healer? These are more questions than answers, but the abuses show a terrible incapacity among some priests to grow authentically as mature human beings and also as men. Spiritual Fatherhood was well known during the time of Vatican II. Priests were called to live out this attitude of protecting, caring for, and humbly guiding the people of God. The temptation to misuse power, striving for an elitist status, as well as following the disordered desires of an unintegrated sexuality, led some priests to become predators. May they now be able to repent, to convert and to receive God’s mercy by praying for the healing for the victims.

4. Justice for the Survivors

Though even perpetrators may receive God’s mercy and may live a life of penance, justice is due to survivors. Canonical, and if possible, legal punishment should be the main objective. In cases of grave abuse a priest should be dismissed from the priesthood and perhaps be excommunicated. Justice requires that the survivors need to be given information about the kind of punishment the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has decided upon, and they should get the opportunity to have access to the files of their case. Also, financial compensations should be paid, as it is already common in some countries for some years, by either the perpetrator himself, or by the diocese of the priest. Standards for these compensations need to be established for the world Church. If a lighter sentence is passed (in case of a less grave misconduct), and if the priest will remain in Church ministry, his superior needs to be informed about the case in detail and about any punishment as well. Such a priest should perhaps not be allowed to work with minors ever again and should not receive his full pension.

As the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors recently stated, survivors’ advisory panels will be created all over the world that their voices may be heard and listened to, especially by all the clergy. This will be a step towards truth and justice within the Church. Another aspect of justice is correcting institutional memory. If perpetrators are honored in either the Church chronicles, in the public sphere, or in the web, there must be a commission, or specific persons, in charge of correcting the bestowing of honors. It is necessary for the victims that the offender has his public honors withdrawn. Even higher clergy who have been deeply involved in cover-ups of abuse should lose public honors. A big part of the justice owed to the survivors is establishing a new climate in handling allegations concerning abuse. The abused should be listened to, they need to be treated with respect and caring love. For the Church as a whole decisions must be made now, and programs for the protection of minors must be implemented firmly. Then we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, can hopefully fulfill the God-given task to both protect and defend minors, the least of these, from evil and harm.

Featured Image: Ismael Nery, Us, 1926; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-80.


Katharina Westerhorstmann

Katharina Westerhorstmann is a Senior Lecturer and Fellow in Moral Theology at the University of Bonn (Germany). She held the position of an Interim Professor for Moral Theology and Social Ethics at the University of Bonn (2014-2015) and at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (2016-2018).

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