Catholic Priests and Adult-Child Sexual Interaction

By Bullough, Vern L. | Free Inquiry, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Catholic Priests and Adult-Child Sexual Interaction


Bullough, Vern L., Free Inquiry


In late 1986, I received an invitation to discuss the historical aspects of pedophilia at a conference to be held in the summer of 1987 in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, sponsored by among others, the Servants of the Paraclete. My initial reaction was cautious. Pedophilia was a controversial topic and I wanted to know who else was invited. I also had never heard of the Servants of the Paraclete and felt that they might be a front group for advocates of pedophilia. It turned out that Jay R. Feierman, a psychiatrist and organizer of the conference, had invited almost all the major researchers in the social and behavioral sciences who had some expertise in the topic, as well as other experts from biology, primatology, and medicine. The Servants of the Paraclete turned out to be a Catholic religious order that had been organized in the United States in the 1930s to deal with troubled "religious," i.e. priests and monks. Most of the papers given at the conference were ultimately published,(1) but the informal discussions that took place between the presenters, other invited guests, and the Servants of the Paraclete were not.

It was through these discussions that I gained considerable insight into the problems that the Catholic church was facing in terms of adult-child sexual interaction among some of its troubled priests, an issue that has more recently received considerable publicity. There has been a rash of accusations, some of which were untrue, against prominent Catholic officials. There was also the airing of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's miniseries "The Boys of St. Vincent." The telecast, a fictional recreation with names and places changed, was based on events that occurred in Mount Cashel in the 1970s, a Roman Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland.(2) The original telecast, blocked out in Ontario and most of Quebec in early 1993 because of legal action, eventually was broadcast there in late 1993, and after some delay reached an American audience earlier this year.

Though church officials probably always knew of cases of sexual abuse of young boys (and some young girls) by priests, they had tried to cover them up. Priests were reprimanded, usually transferred, and in recent years sent for treatment, but publicity about such priests was avoided at all costs until the issue exploded.

Although the Catholic church always recognized that priests are human, Catholicism still puts them on a pedestal. Priests themselves have emphasized their special calling, their celibacy, their long years in seminary, and their essential isolation from ordinary life. This separatism takes a tremendous toll on priests, and it was not until the openness made possible by Vatican II and the massive resignation of priests and religious that occurred later that Americans realized the extent of the priestly and religious disenchantment.

The Servants of the Paraclete, however, had been founded to deal with troubled priests long before this public awakening. For many years, they concentrated on alcoholism, which has sometimes been called the priestly disease. A major alcoholic rehabilitation center was established in St. Louis and perhaps others elsewhere, and these often became permanent homes for the walking religious wounded.

More important, the Servants of the Paraclete soon realized there were even greater problems than alcoholism among the priests, and they established a retreat in Jemez Springs to deal with priests accused of sexual indiscretions, most often child abuse. Intense sessions for each class of thirty or so priests sent there went on for about five months, twice a year. The rehabilitation was costly, but the Catholic hierarchy, suffering from a shortage of priests and realizing the problems of some of those who remained, mounted an earnest attempt.

Unfortunately, some of the very priests sent to New Mexico as part of their path toward rehabilitation were sent out to underserved churches to help out part-time. …

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