The conclusions of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are seldom questioned. But the perspective which underpinned the work of the Royal Commission is indifferent, if not hostile, to religious belief.

Jane Adolphe and Ronald J. Rychlak help to remedy that deficiency in the splendid study which they have edited, Clerical Sexual Misconduct: an Interdisciplinary Analysis.

This weighty book contains papers from a symposium of 20 or so Catholic scholars, more than half of whom are women. Most of them work in American Catholic universities and seminaries. It deals with misconduct by priests and religious as regards boys, adolescent males, seminarians, and candidates for the religious life from sociological, cultural, legal, and theological perspectives. Its focus is the United States but much of it applies to Australia as well.

For faithful Catholics, Clerical Sexual Misconduct will be a disturbing read. It acknowledges that over the past 60 years seminaries and houses of formation for religious have sometimes been seriously corrupt. Unsuitable men have been ordained or admitted to the religious life.

However, Catholics have always known that their Church is a church of sinners. With the exception of the Apostle John, who remained at the foot of the Cross, Peter and the other Apostles skedaddled. Judas betrayed Jesus.

Given the scholarship and depth of Clerical Sexual Misconduct (exemplified by the footnotes, which run to almost 80 pages) I have selected the discussions which I found most interesting.

Formation for priests

Both the Royal Commission and the contributors to Clerical Sexual Misconduct agree that processes for selecting, screening and training candidates for the priesthood and religious life need to be enhanced. The formation, support, and supervision of priests and religious also need to be reformed. There are many aspects of the Royal Commission’s final report with which the contributors to Clerical Sexual Misconduct have no great issue. The Church cannot recover from this crisis without assuring the proper screening of candidates and rigorous formation in the habits needed to achieve priestly virtue.

American priests and religious have been influenced by the culture in which they have grown up, a culture deeply at odds with the Catholic world-view. It is a culture in which sexual addiction is common. Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a professor from the Cardinal Wyszynski University, Warsaw, argues that the roots of clergy sexual abuse are embedded in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

The extra-ecclesial factors in clergy sexual abuse include the writings of Karl Marx, William Reich, Alfred Kinsey, Herbert Marcuse, as well as certain technological developments. One might also add Hugh Hefner, of Playboy magazine, and widespread pornography.

The roots of clergy sexual misconduct also include the adoption of therapeutic tools that have mushroomed into a therapeutic culture. Sin, even serious crime, was seen no longer as sin, no longer even as crime, but as illness. For instance, in the diocese of Ballarat (in the State of Victoria) the late Bishop Ronald Mulkearns used to send notorious predators off for “treatment” when he ought to have commenced a canonical process against them and removed them from ministry.

Susan Mulheron, Chancellor for Canonical Affairs, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, observes that an accused priest, if he did not steadfastly deny the allegation, would typically express remorse for sexual sin, and promise not to do it again.

Thereupon the bishop would usually send the priest away for psychological treatment. When he returned, he would be clutching a report from the treatment centre that the priest was safe to return to ministry. This “discretion” was considered to be for the good of avoiding scandal and damage to the reputation of the priest, and of the Church.

In a postscript to the book, five female Catholic scholars comment that there have been instances where the culture of some seminaries has led to toleration or even facilitation of sexual activity and the sexual abuse or harassment of seminarians. We now know that those who have attempted to expose such corruption have often been ignored and sometimes dismissed.

This culture was a disaster. It not only fostered violations of chastity but also created a dangerous climate of secrecy and sexual indulgence that was likely to lead to sexual abuse of minors by a few, and continued sexual misconduct with adults by others.

Other factors are also at work. These include the culture of silence that protected predators from criminal sanctions. Concern for a priest who has committed a grave sin is one thing, but protecting or even concealing a depraved man because he is a priest is entirely different. Another factor is an improper Eucharistic culture in which priests who regularly commit grave sexual sins are daily celebrating Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Finally, there is a loss of faith among some clergy, which often involves a denial of sin and deep opposition to Church authority.

The role of canon law

What has been the role of the law of the Church (canon law) as regards clerical sexual abuse? Why did Bishop Mulkearns not act against priests who were abusing children? Cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps the Church’s foremost canon lawyer, says that the scandal was not caused by the absence of a proper legal procedure to address clerical sexual misconduct. There was a legal procedure available.

The truth is that the Church dealt with such crimes in the past. It had in place a process to investigate accusations, with full respect for the rights of all parties involved, including protection of alleged victims during the time of investigation; to reach a just decision regarding their truth; and to apply the appropriate sanction. The law was simply not followed.

The Royal Commission commented on the failure of the Catholic Church in Australia to engage with canon law before the Melbourne Response (1996) and Towards Healing (1997). What the Royal Commission correctly referred to as the “reluctance of Catholic Church leaders to engage with canonical disciplinary processes” may be attributed to antinomianism and a disregard for authority which prevailed in the Church in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and even beyond.

But the means for dealing with sexual predators among the clergy were readily available in Books VI and VII of the Code of Canon Law. Susan Mulheron, chancellor for Canonical Affairs for the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, argues in Clerical Sexual Misconduct that the norms were not applied because the bishops (or their canon lawyers, for that matter) did not understand them. Sometimes the bishops rejected outright the use of penal measures as incompatible with a pastoral approach.


Another contributor, Russell Shaw, makes some very perceptive comments on clericalism. He contends that clericalism is not the cause of sex abuse by priests, nor is sex abuse by priests the cause of clericalism. But clericalism provides a congenial environment for abuse by clergy and a rationale for it to be covered up by Church authorities. Clericalism is pervasive where bishops and priests are regarded as the active and dominant element in the Church, leaving the non-ordained merely to pray and pay.

Clericalism is a sense that being a priest entitles one to more respect, especially from lay people — respect not just for the office, but for the priest himself and all his decisions and actions. It is the belief that ordination, educational attainments, and self-sacrifice entitle a man to special deference, even obedience. It is accompanied by a sense that, since priests have such an elevated status, and have renounced spouse, family and career, they deserve to be compensated with nice things — holiday houses, cars, vacations, and dining at fine restaurants.

Laity can be at fault for nurturing clericalism, especially that of bishops. Laity can fawn on their priests and bishops, and pamper them. This is often meant to show gratitude, love, and respect, but it can also put clerics beyond criticism. Seminarians need to be warned about the tendency of laity to hero-worship clergy so the special attention and deference they receive does not make them proud.

Such clericalism is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church, as illustrated by Second Vatican Council documents and Pope St John Paul II’s statement on the laity, Christifideles Laici, as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law which reflects that teaching. Canon 208 provides:

“In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful (that is to say, among clerics and laity alike) a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in building up the body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function.”

The case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, formerly Archbishop of Washington DC, illustrates the evils that clericalism can spawn. McCarrick was ordained as a priest in 1958. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of New York City in 1977, bishop of Metuchen in 1981, archbishop of Newark in 1986, archbishop of the nation’s capital in 2000, and a cardinal in 2001.

McCarrick co-founded a Papal foundation which gave him access to large amounts of money and gave him an international profile. Friendly, warm, gregarious, and charismatic, McCarrick exercised enormous influence and power. But he had a long history of predatory criminal conduct, involving not only seminarians but also minors. Long before his laicisation in 2019, there had been credible complaints, but they were ignored.

Highly placed persons in the Church suspected McCarrick at a fairly early date. But they turned a blind eye, allowing him to ascend further. This was clericalism at its worst.  

A theological perspective

What is the theological perspective which underlies Clerical Sexual Misconduct? The argument by the scholars who have contributed to this work is very consistent with an article which Benedict XVI wrote on the Catholic priesthood in 2019. Despite his advancing age, he has lost none of his acuteness.

Benedict argues that the priesthood involves becoming one with Jesus Christ, and renouncing all that belongs only to self. The exercise of priestly ministry must be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least of all and the servant of all.

Nevertheless, the Church has always understood that the presence of Christ in the priest is not to be seen as if he is preserved from human weaknesses including a spirit of domination, error, and even sin. While the action of the Holy Spirit extends to the sacraments, so that the priest’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the priest leaves human traces which are not always faithful to the Gospel. The priestly vocation is not an easy one.

Clerical Sexual Misconduct is a magisterial work, providing a much-needed balance to some of the assertions of the McClellan Royal Commission. These issues are too important for there not to be real debate on contestable matters.

Michael McAuley is a barrister practising in Sydney, Australia.