When Tim Gunn, Lady Gaga, Sir Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci declares themselves celibate, no-one fears that will make them a danger to the public.
History tells us and research shows that many people live perfectly happy, healthy lives, relating well to people of both sexes and all ages, without having sex for many years or even for life, and without abusing anyone.
Yet as the recent Activity Report by the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council noted, some survivors of child abuse, victims’ groups, Catholics and others are wondering about the relationship, if any, between the promise of celibacy made by priests and religious and the sexual abuse of children and young people by some of their number.
In summarising honestly what some have been saying, the Council showed the determination of the Church to get to the truth of the paedophilia problem. But it did not amount to the Church in Australia repudiating two millennia of honouring celibacy – a state embraced by some Christians “for the sake of God’s Kingdom”.
Most Catholics recognize that celibacy amongst priests and religious (nuns and brothers) has been a great grace for the Church, occasioning real dedication, generosity and spiritual fruitfulness. Some question whether this discipline should continue to be required of all priests. That conversation continues. But linking celibacy and paedophilia does justice to neither and may be a dangerous distraction.
The all-too-common abuse of children and young people, and repeated failures of leaders adequately to respond, must be faced head on. We must avoid glib explanations or simplistic solutions. And we must each take a stand.
I, for one, fully appreciate the significance of the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. That these crimes were committed by people in positions of authority, who claimed to follow Jesus Christ and care for the vulnerable, sickens and shames me. As I have said before, there must be no more excuses, no more cover-ups.
Nor am I interested in evasively pointing the finger at others. Catholic leaders have more than enough to do to clean up our own houses without throwing stones at others.
But no one is served, least of all the survivors, by creating mythologies about child abuse. The Royal Commission is showing us that practically no institution is immune, least of all the Catholic Church. Add the great majority of child abuse, which social scientists and social workers say occurs in non-institutional settings, especially the family, and the community still has a long way to go in coming to terms with this issue.
The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reported 5800 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse in 2011-12 alone. In its interim report the Royal Commission reported that it had heard of 595 cases of clergy abuse over a much longer period, including abuse committed by married clergy from other denominations. So blaming celibacy will not get to the heart of this community problem.
The awful fact becoming more and more apparent is that some people in the past hid behind celibacy or clergy life, and even used it as an opportunity for predatory behaviour. Others, it seems, hid behind marriage or professions such as teaching or scouting, and likewise abused their position.
Even one case of clergy sex abuse is shocking and disgraceful: that there have been so many cases in the Catholic Church shames all Catholics. Responding effectively will require addressing aspects of clericalism that sometimes included: inadequate processes of selection and training of candidates for priesthood and religious life; failures to recognize problematic psycho-sexual development or to support people to live a healthy celibacy; an exaggerated reverence that allowed clergy to live as if they were accountable to no-one; a culture of denial that meant victims were silenced and crimes not addressed; and a misplaced desire to protect the Church’s reputation that put Church before children. That culture is now receiving the critique it deserves and the recent Report is another sign of that.
Much better selection and formation has been in place in our seminaries for some time. Our response to allegations and support for survivors is much improved. And the Church is now addressing the psycho-sexual development of its personnel directly and giving much more attention to healthy relationships. But like everyone else we are still learning and the Royal Commission is assisting in this.
When I became Archbishop of Sydney I said that the Church is – I am – profoundly sorry for what happened. All young people must be cherished and protected. All of us in the Church can do better and I am certainly committed to giving a lead. This includes looking at all the facts about sexual abuse, wherever that might lead.
Most Rev. Anthony Fisher OP is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. This op-ed was originally published in The Australian on December 15 and is republished with permission.