Words || Olivia James
The Catholic Church is one of the world’s longest standing religious organisations, and with just under 1.3 billion global members, it’s the largest non-governmental global provider of healthcare and education. However, the charitable work of the ‘one true church’ has been overshadowed by a litany of public controversies, from their stance on homosexuality as ‘acts of grave depravity’ to their well-documented opposition to IVF and abortion. Most serious as of late are the allegations and convictions of the sexual assault of children at the hands of Catholic priests.
Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and vocal critic of the Church’s practices, has consistently asserted over his 30 years of studies that between 6 and 9% of Catholic priests act sexually with minors. If Sipe is correct, then a minimum of 24,948 priests across the globe are currently in the position to sexually abuse children. These statistics are also supported by the New York based John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“The official teaching of the Church on sexuality is that every sexual thought, word, desire and action outside of marriage is mortally sinful… It is not a reasonable guide to healthy, mature, sexual development,” says Sipe.
A 2003 Swiss study found that 50 per cent of the Catholic clergy are sexually active, despite taking a vow of celibacy. Experts have commented on how these seemingly unattainable standards of celibacy have created a culture of secrecy. While most sexually active clergy are only engaging in behaviours with consenting adults, the imposition of silence has fueled a system in which the sexual abuse of children by priests is buried by the Catholic Church, thus allowing offenders to worm their way out of accountability.
The link between celibacy and child sexual abuse has been extensively discussed. Speaking at the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2015, Baroness and professor of psychiatry, Sheila Hollins, surmised “the issues there, it seemed to me, were to do with priests not really seeing a relationship with a teenage boy as being an offense, possibly because they identified with them more as peers than as children.”
The systemic cover-up of child abuse is protected and aided by legislation. Section 127 of the Evidence Act (1995) enables members of religious organisations in Australia to not report instances of child molestation perpetrated by their fellow clergyman. On a global scale, statute of limitation laws have limited victim’s ability to seek justice and compensation.
In the United States, Senator C.T. Wilson from Maryland, who is a survivor of child abuse, has been trying to push through a bill since 2003 that would extend the time allowed to victims of child sexual abuse to sue alleged perpetrators. Previously, survivors of child abuse only had until they were 25 to bring charged against the perpetrators. Wilson brought the proposal forward over 6 times and only succeeded into having it signed into law in April of 2017, following extensive changes suggested by the Church and the Chairman of the Judiciary committee. The time to pursue justice was extended until the age of 38.
As the abuse of children becomes a topic that more people are aware of, films and popular culture have begun to explore the issue. Works such as the Netflix documentary series, The Keepers, Australian made Don’t Tell, and the 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight have been gaining popularity at a rapid rate.
“Experts have commented on how these seemingly unattainable standards of celibacy have created a culture of secrecy.”
Spotlight was based on the true story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, who first publicised the relocation of alleged offenders from parish to parish in their 2002 reports on the abuse of children by Catholic Church authorities. Conducting interviews with attorneys, victims and parents, the team of journalists discovered that Cardinal Bernard Law encouraged his lawyers to settle claims of molestation by priests and bishops under his jurisdiction quickly and privately. Families were allegedly promised that the priests would be removed from circulation. Priests would be classified as on sick leave or unassigned before being sent to a new institution.
Attorney Eric MacLeish, who represented over 300 victims over 3 years, admitted to settling against 45 different priests during this time.
The allegations and studies barely scratch the surface of what is, and has been for years, a global problem. They are just the surface tension of a systemic crisis that has impacted over 200 deaf students in Wisconsin, 547 German choir boys over 6 decades, and has caused over 40 suicides in Victoria – as well as countless other lives. Secrecy has become part of the fabric of the underground world of the Catholic Church, enabling priests, bishops and cardinals to escape punishment. Ultimately, it’s the lives of the young victims that are so brutally impacted.
It is a system where power acts in the absence of accountability, and it has yet to be broken.
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