COVER STORY: Sexual misconduct in the Church
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, June 29, 2002
Appalling revelations of sexual misconduct by some Catholic clergy in the United States and Australia have caused embarrassment and shame to many Catholics, and prompted fierce attacks in the media on the Church's moral teachings, its leadership, and its credibility as a moral force within society.
Channel 9's 60 Minutes program has been in the vanguard, with programs on successive Sundays alleging that Dr George Pell had covered up sex abuse cases, offered "hush money" to buy victims' silence, and given little or no support to the victims and their families - claims Dr Pell has firmly denied.
As only a small, perhaps tiny, minority of clergy are involved - and the same problems exist in other churches and many other professional and voluntary organisations - many churchgoers will be tempted to regard the publicity as nothing more than an outbreak of anti-religious bigotry, and an attempt to silence church leaders like Dr Pell.
Official crime data show that about 6,000 sexual assaults on children are reported to police every year in Australia, with an unknown number unreported.
As Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996, Dr Pell, together with his Vicar-General, now Archbishop Hart, played a leading role in drawing up protocols to ensure that sexual abuse by clergy, previously swept under the carpet, was not covered up. They ensured complaints were promptly and fairly dealt with through an Independent Commission, which was empowered to recommend payment of compensation to victims (without preventing any person taking legal action), and appropriate disciplinary action against clergy responsible for abuse.
Similar guidelines have since been adopted by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
In contrast to Australia, the Church in the United States is only now coming to terms with the problems.
At its meeting in mid-June, the US Catholic Bishops for the first time set about drawing up a code of practice to deal with sex abuse cases, of which scores have come to light over recent times, with clear evidence of systematic cover-ups. Four American bishops have resigned over sex scandals in recent months. The most recent was a New York auxiliary bishop, who admitted to affairs with several women.
At the opening of the US Bishops Conference, its President, Bishop Wilton Gregory, told his brother bishops: "The Catholic Church in the United States is in a very grave crisis, perhaps the gravest we have faced." He added that the crisis was not a crisis of faith among the laity, but "about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds."
What makes the problem of clerical pedophilia so appalling is that it involves not only a grave violation of God's law, taught by Jesus himself, his Apostles, and the Church throughout its 2000 year history.
These crimes have also been committed by men who, in a special way, are consecrated to God's service, and who have made vows of celibacy which have been flagrantly breached.
In both the United States and Australia, clerical pedophilia principally has involved sexual abuse of young boys and adolescents, and is therefore homosexual conduct which has been always condemned by the Church, although apparently tolerated by some US Bishops.
In an article in the New York Times, the recently-appointed Jesuit Cardinal, Avery Dulles, pointed to the significance of this issue. He said:
"The draft document does not explicitly raise the question of homosexuality, but it is a matter of obvious concern. Noting the large proportion of offenses against adolescent boys, some bishops will seek to screen out all homosexually-inclined seminarians.
"Others will see the issue rather as one of obtaining psychologically mature candidates capable of living up to their commitment to celibacy."
Two recently published books in the US, Goodbye Good Men and Passionate Uncertainty, highlight the fact that the Church faces major problems as a consequence of the inroads of secularism, individualism, situation ethics and the rejection of legitimate authority and moral absolutes.
The former book describes the crisis in many of America's seminaries, where good young men offering their lives to serve the Church are being turned away by trendy seminary administrators, often guided by psychologists who screen out those whose views are too "rigid" (read: orthodox or loyal to the Pope).
These seminaries have been corrupted by dissenting and New Age spirituality, and widespread homosexuality.
The crisis to which Bishop Gregory referred cannot be separated from what has happened in seminaries, Catholic schools and universities throughout the United States, England, Western Europe and Australia. In light of how much Australia has been influenced by American fashions, one can only expect that the same situation exists here.
The solutions to these problems are to be found in the reaffirmation of traditional Christianity: loyalty to the Church which Jesus Christ founded and its teaching, and the reform or closure of seminaries, schools and religious orders which are not willing to live by those principles.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council