I first met the clerical God in 1964. I was 27. This was at Springwood, in the Blue Mountains. I met him while hiding away at St. Columba’s seminary. He was not to my liking and we parted in just under three years. Unlike my God, this distant and patrichal God lived somewhere outside his created world.
His clerical followers instructed me in an idealised form of clericalism, although that word was never named. What we knew about such matters we learnt as small children in our Catholic ghetto through a process of osmosis. Priests were special. We trainee-priests were special. We hadn’t chosen this powerful God. He had chosen us. On ordination we would become sacred persons, superior beings, ontologically changed. We would be higher than the angels in Heaven, according to Saint Pius X, one of the main architects of our seminary system.
Pius X’s seminary reforms with their distorted view of religion and human nature led to an exaggerated form of clericalism that dominated the last century and are central to understanding both clerical sexual abuse and the current problems in the church. Bishops, universally, chose to protect their own rather than protect the children of their dioceses. For Pius, the one duty of the faithful was simple enough: to behave like a ‘docile flock’ and ‘follow their pastors’.
My book,Trapped in a Closed World, is not merely about an anachronistic seminary system, but more importantly it describes an unhealthy and psychologically dangerous training system with its flawed notions of priesthood and human nature.
Bursting with testosterone, we young men were Isolated from the rest of the world. My seminary experience was anti-world, anti-human and anti-Christian. With my background in Catholic Action I found the seminary experience alienating.
We were not empowered to be the best we might become. Rather, we were disciplined and trained to be obedient. Incredibly, our future celibate state was never mentioned. Ironically, our future lives as priests was never discussed. We were trained in a vocational vacuum. No priestly practitioners visited the seminary. Work experience in parishes was never organised. We were on trial to see who could tough it out. Wastage was extraordinary. We were forbidden to have personal friends; forbidden to speak to the nine nuns caring for our material needs. Our families were gradually made redundant. We were given a new heavenly mother.
In a shocking sense we were forbidden to love. I suppose we were trained to see who could live alone. Some of us were on the road to narcissism.
My research makes clear that the seminary system, devised by Rome and traced in a direct line back to the 16thcentury, led to many seminarians reaching ordination as psychosexually immature humans. Little better than adult-children, many were unable to form mature relationships; too many found their peers with children. Because of the church’s obsession with misogyny and celibacy, sex and sin, (masturbation rated five pages in some moral text books; rape rated a third of a page; the former was judged to be unnatural, the latter natural), many priests lived (and I quote a world expert, Marie Keenan), ‘sex obsessed lives of terror’.
Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, but note this: historically, mandatory celibacy has always been problematic and child abuse in the Catholic Church has a long and dirty history.
My argument is that the causes of clerical sexual abuse have little to do with claims made by recent popes including Francis. What are we to make of his recent comment that child sexual abuse is widespread throughout the community? We are not dealing here with a few ‘bad apples’, i.e. personal weaknesses, private sins, in an otherwise sound organisation; clerical sexual abuse is not the work of Satan, or Original Sin, or the mystery of evil, or homosexuality, or the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The essential causes of clerical sexual abuse have all to do with clericalism and the sick culture of the institution.
So that you know where I am coming from in what follows, I wish to assert six points.
One, the current clerical institution is incapable of reforming itself.
Two, the institutional church is dysfunctional and hopelessly split at the top.
Three, the clerical church lives now within its own narcissistic self-image, light years removed from the life and message of Jesus.
Four, a paradigm shift in the church is required. The problems are as much theological as administrative. Present structural and governance issues follow naturally from the church’s self-understanding.
Five, faith is a loving relationship, not a set of propositional statements about beliefs.
Six, we are the church. I’m interested in the empowerment of the whole church, the People of God church, the Pilgrim church. I’m more interested in a grass-roots Jesus Movement either within the present structure if that is possible at the local level, or without if necessary. I’m content to let the clerical church get itself out the hole it has dug for itself.
Author of ‘Trapped in a Closed World. Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse’.