By William J. Furney
Can the ongoing abuses rocking the Catholic Church get any worse, is the centuries-old institution rotten and therefore toxic — and is there really any path to salvation for Catholicism and its 1.3 billion followers? These are questions many are now asking, including the faithful, who are increasingly feeling betrayed by a seemingly impervious institution that was supposed to support, guide and care for them.
Christianity, of which the Catholic Church is a major part, is the largest belief system in a supranatural deity on planet Earth. It has around 2.4 billion adherents who, more or less, live their lives according to the various branches’ diktats, and is followed by Islam, with 1.8 billion believers in the Prophet Muhammad; Hinduism, at 1.5 billion; Buddhism, with just over half a billion; and more. Why is sex, “designed” to create the sexes, such a longstanding taboo and priestly problem within Catholicism? This peculiar, and fundamental, conflict is almost nonexistent in other faiths.
The latest scandal for the Vatican — the world’s smallest state and based in Rome and which I toured in all its gold-glittering finery several years ago, and am due to shortly return to (and where I attended a papal mass in St Peter’s square and snapped the pope in his mobile: main image) — is currently dealing with yet another priestly abuse scandal, that of Cardinal George Pell, an Australian cleric high up in the Vatican and who was a former treasurer. The 77-year-old was found guilty of abusing two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne when he was archbishop of the Australian city. How’s that for taking care of your flock?
One of my lecturers at journalism school was a priest called Father Fortune, a rotund, middle-aged man who liked to talk. He had been on the radio, as a commentator, and so was believed to be something of a dab hand in the media world. But it turned out that he really didn’t have much fortune at all, as he he’d been moved from county to county because of suspected sexual abuse he committed, and he end up committing suicide, not longer after I finished my course. Where was his faith in the almighty, to deliver him from his sins? Isn’t that what his, Lord, Jesus Christ, was crucified for?
It’s gotten to such a sorry — and tragic — state that these days you can’t look at a priest without wondering something. Pope Francis, supposedly a reformer but showing little sign of actual reform, held what the media called a “sex summit” at the Vatican last month — one hopes such wording did not appear on the official invites to the more than 100 bishops who were summoned to the Eternal City — and tried to deal with the crisis of clerical sex abuse, but, as usual, nothing much happened and all the pope really said was that children should be protected from “ravenous wolves”.
“Here again I would state clearly: if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — which already in itself represents an atrocity — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness,” the pontiff said. “Brothers and Sisters: in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.”
Men who are not allowed to have sex are, it unsurprisingly turns out, obsessed with sex and have it with the most vulnerable in society — hoping their vastly elevated status as spiritual leaders will shield them from anyone saying anything. Not any more.
And with most if not all of the many thousands of priestly abuse scandals taking place in the Western, economically developed world, where the Catholic Church has mostly lost its influence — see the pontiff’s disastrous mass in once staunchly Catholic Ireland last year — it’s reasonable to ask if a far larger human catastrophe is taking place in other, developing parts of the world, where the Church still holds large sway, such as in parts of South America and Africa.
‘Radical Transformation’ of Catholic Church Needed
Adriaan van Klinken, associate professor of religion and African studies at the University of Leeds in England, certainly thinks it’s possible. And he thinks a radical transformation of the Church is required if it’s to survive its clerical abuse imbruglio. And he told me that what’s been happening in the Western World is also occurring in places like Africa.
“There exists a serious chance indeed that a bigger scandal is brewing, as the Catholic Church in many countries in the so-called “Global South”, in particular in South America and Africa, has a large following and holds a strong position in society,” he said. “This position comes with the risk of similar cultures of sexual abuse to occur, and of a lack of adequate measures to address and overcome these.
“Anecdotal evidence that I have seen from various African countries suggests that sexual abuse exists within the Church, with a culture of silence around it.
“In this regard it was an important decision of Pope Francis to call the presiding bishops of all the Catholic bishop conferences globally to Rome recently and discuss the problem, but it is yet to be seen what the result of this first step will be.”
Should, I asked van Klinken, the Vatican abolish celibacy and allow priests to marry? Would that go a long way towards halting the abuse and end what some see as the Church being a refuge for gay men to hide in?
“The Catholic Church has its own reasons to adhere to the celibacy rule, and — regardless of my own opinion about it — changing this rule would require such a major shift that I consider it highly unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever,” he said.
“I also think that celibacy does not necessarily lead to sexual abuse. What leads to sexual abuse is the culture of taboo and silence around the sexuality of priests, leading to unhealthy ways of handling it — both for priests with a heterosexual and a homosexual orientation. The Church may indeed have been, and still be a hiding place for Catholic men who are homosexual — but I’d be very hesitant to suggest that ‘gay priests’ are the problem, as the current way of thinking in the Church seems to be.”
The young academic — whose books include Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa and the forthcoming Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa — said that just because a priest may be gay does not necessarily mean it results in sexual abuse, and that priestly abuse has been of a homo- and heterosexual nature.
“Instead of scapegoating homosexuals and excluding them from the priesthood, the Church should make the handling of sexuality, intimacy and relationships a major part of its training and coaching of all priests,” he said, adding that “one critical matter for the church in Africa, I think, is the question of abuse of female religious nuns by priests. There have been a few cases in the media, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s only the top of the iceberg.”
He also said the Catholic Church should practice what it preaches, if it wants to redeem itself in the eyes of the faithful, and the wider, non-Catholic world. “With regard to the Church’s rehabilitation, what seems essential is that the Church rediscovers, and puts into practice, its own teaching about penance. According to the Catholic Catechism, interior repentance is supposed to come with ‘a radical reorientation of our whole life’.
“The only way the Church can rehabilitate itself to the world — and to God, one might add — in the face of the scandal of sexual abuse is by radically transforming its structures and policies and by coming up with profound measures to deal with the problem. Where the Catholic practice of penance or confession is traditionally a private affair, in the face of the very public scandal of sexual abuse, the Church cannot and should not try to handle things internally but should be open, transparent and specific about what it is doing, and should also fully comply with the legal systems in place.”
Fury of a ‘Recovering Catholic’ Abuse Survivor
Sue Cox is having none of it. The British campaigner and healthcare professional, who was abused by a Catholic priest when she was aged between 10 and 13, told me that, such is the scale of the problem, that she doesn’t think think the Church can be rehabilitated at all — and she fervently hopes it won’t be, such is her disdain for an organisation she now brands as toxic. Her own experience of priestly sex abuse, the mother of six says, resulted in her “downward spiral of mental and emotional disturbance, alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorder and serious self-harm.”
She told me that it’s “a mistake to see these dreadful crimes as the acts of a few ‘bad apples’; the problem is the narcissistic organisation itself. When you consider that these boys arrive in seminaries, having been told they are ‘special’, chosen by god, and the next thing to him on Earth. They are then lumped together with other ‘special’ young men, in a hotbed of dysfunction, and sexual repression, where they are told they will be ‘ontologically’ changed at ordination, and even that they have ‘sacred hands’. They are then let loose onto the unsuspecting sheep they are to shepherd, where they are almost deified. Years of indoctrination and brainwashing of their flock reinforces their arrogance.”
Cox calls priest’s environments “unnatural” and “unwholesome” and as a result, abuse is “almost an inevitably”. It’s hard to argue with that, as I’ve written before.
She went on: “They hide; they groom; they abuse; they escape any kind of consequences of their actions. It is also a big mistake to point the finger at celibacy, as they’re not celibate.” And she said she believes priests don’t want marriage because it would make them too ordinary, like the rest of us, and “take away their elevated status” and that “they might even have to take responsibility, like the rest of us. I think that is the last thing they want, but it is an easy hook to hang their crimes on.”
She said the Catholic Church had “always provided an environment where pedophiles can hide, flourish, and where they have access to their prey. They find it easy to single out the weak, the vulnerable, and they are very efficient. They groom families as part of their imperative; they use the confessional to hear the most intimate details of each person; they know who is not protected, whose family has had affairs, not paid their taxes, has similar predilections to themselves.They listen as little boys and little girls ‘confess’ their first sexual feelings — children are sitting targets.”
It all seems so vastly unnatural. And as Cox — who now describes herself as an “atheist, a humanist, and very thankfully recovered from Catholicism” — says, if abusing priests are accused or caught, they will be protected or moved to different parishes or even countries, “where they … [continue] with their criminal behaviour, safe in the knowledge that the Church will always put ‘saving face’ before anything.”
Is it time-up for the Catholic Church, whose extraordinary abuses have scandalised the world and caused millions of faithful to turn away and shun their beliefs, at their disgust and revulsion at what supposed “holy men” have done to children and women? Or are we only at the beginning of an incredible abuse scandal whose real horror has not yet been revealed? And is the Church doomed because of its failure to act, unwillingness to reform and ingrained apathy towards victims and the realities of the modern world and being human, and sexual?
Few will be surprised if the Church’s strange and cruel obsession with sex doesn’t kill it off entirely.