The Darkest of the Dark Side: The Catholic Hierarchy and Clergy Sexual Abuse

By Doyle, Thomas P. | Conscience, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Darkest of the Dark Side: The Catholic Hierarchy and Clergy Sexual Abuse


Doyle, Thomas P., Conscience


CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE OF MINORS AND VULNERABLE adults constitutes a dark and recurring theme of church history. The earliest legislation passed by bishops to counteract it dates from 309 A.D., the Council of Elvira. Since then, there have been recurring attempts by popes, bishops and church councils to deal with the sexual deviance of clerics and the destructive violations of mandatory celibacy.

Although church authorities had advocated clerical celibacy from the earliest centuries, it was not until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that it became mandatory. Throughout the centuries, celibacy violations have occurred in three areas: sexual abuse of minors, casual or forced sexual encounters with age-appropriate men or women and clerical concubinage. There has been a consistent effort by the church hierarchy to deal with violations by mandating penalties for errant clerics. The church has not always enshrouded such clerical malfeasance in a blanket of secrecy, and there is solid evidence that during some historical periods (e.g., 15th-16th centuries), the church actually collaborated with civil authorities in prosecuting clerics who abused the young.

Parallel to the church's official actions, unofficial sources also considered sexual abuse abominable. Perhaps the most famous single effort has been St. Peter Damian's blockbuster work, The Book of Gomorrah. Written at the beginning of the 11th century, the book is shockingly prophetic of what has happened in our own era. The author wrote in detail of priests who took sexual advantage of children, but what is most remarkable is that he leveled harsh condemnation at superiors who condoned their subjects' evil actions. In the end, Peter Damian's stringent recommendations to the pope were watered down by the church's highest authority.

Sexual solicitation of penitents by priests during sacramental confession served as a major focus of church legislation from the 17th to the mid-20th century. In the years before it was shut down, the Inquisition was actually a church court system, with operations in Rome and elsewhere. Scholarly investigations into its records in Spain and Mexico revealed that 3,775 solicitation cases were completed between 1723 and 1820. The figure represented a small minority of the actual number of cases brought forward, the majority having been abandoned or never completed by the tribunals. Anti-solicitation legislation usually amounted to special judicial procedures to be used in the investigation and prosecution of reports. The Holy See issued several separate legislative pronouncements between the 17th and 20th centuries, including the widely publicized 1962 document known as Crimen Sollicitationis. The 20th century legislation explicitly included sexual abuse of minors in its scope, reflective of a perceived concern by the Holy See.

In reaction to the contemporary exposure of the church's consistent bungling, bishops and other church supporters assert that this is a new problem. They say they are on a steep learning curve, only recently realizing that sexual abuse is a highly destructive form of sexual dysfunction. In fact, it has long been considered criminal by civil and canon law. Files turned over in the many civil cases since 1985 have revealed that church authorities have been concerned about sexually dysfunctional clerics since the early 1940s. Perhaps the most shocking documents have been a series of letters written by the late Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a small community of religious men whose sole mission has been the care of clerics with serious emotional and mental health problems. Fr. Gerald founded several facilities, the most famous of which were located in New Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s he wrote letters to bishops who had referred sexually abusive priests to him for treatment. His theme was consistent throughout: Such men cannot be cured and present a very real danger to the church. …

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