MICHAEL MULLINS. The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse

NZ bishop Charles Drennan was forced to resign after a young woman complained about his sexual behaviour towards her. The #MeToo movement has forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power between clerics and lay Catholics. This is a major cause of clerical sex abuse. Recently Cardinal John Dew encouraged the NZ ‘faithful’ to call him by his first name, as an antidote to clericalism. But many baulked at the idea. This suggests the actual source of clerical abuse could be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy’s hands with a self-deprecating ‘Yes Father’ attitude.

In recent days I’ve had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she’d been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan’s part. The resignation came after the Church’s investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country’s most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: ‘In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.’

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

‘However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.’

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order’s schools 30 years ago. While I wasn’t technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents’ homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they’d whisper behind the cleric’s back that he was a ‘sleaze’.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: ‘Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.’

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

‘Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently “Call me John” about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.’

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish ‘dismissed it’.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy’s hands with a self-deprecating ‘Yes Father’ attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to ‘Geoff’ in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they’re a race apart – and take sexual liberties – because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and we live with the consequences.

Michael Mullins is former editor of Eureka Street.


Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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8 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse

  1. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Well, Call Me :Late for Lunch but I read fully the first few paragraphs of this piece and sensed a distinct implication that the clerics are the victims here. They were ‘forced to resign’ absent any proof of the veracity of what was alleged. The actual source of clerical abuse is ordinary Catholics playing into the hands of clergy with ‘self-deprecating’ attitudes. Nothing has changed. The Church – or the Mullinses – or both – or all of them – have no will to face the reality of the warped thinking and ‘formation’ which has brought the contemporary Church into disrepute. And you can’t change what you fail to acknowledge before correcting.

  2. Avatar Michael Furtado says:

    Catholics can learn a great deal from Anglicans and the Uniting Church about open and accountable structures, cultures and modes of address that counter clericalism. Having had the privilege to observe synodal processes in action at both of our above sister churches, as well as on recently attending the Brisbane Catholic Archdiocesan Assembly (in preparation for next year’s Plenary Council) I can honestly say that, notwithstanding the attention paid by Assembly organisers to engage the faithful in ‘spiritual insurrection’, the proliferation of ‘Father-knows-best’ Catholics at the Assembly ensured – at least from my intimate vantage point – that the suggestions on offer would do bugger all to counter those aspects of clerical culture that are known to trigger power abuse. In short, its not the clergy but, I noted, Catholics of a certain generation, conditioned to value docility and engage in inappropriate and toadying ascription, that have actively ‘incubated’ the abuse that so many clerics perpetrate. In my first Listening & Discernment Session at the Assembly, under the heading of (How do we build) A Joyful, Hope-filled and Servant Community, all our focus group could discern was ‘More Name Tags’, ‘Coffee Afterwards’ and ‘A Welcome to Country’ at every Mass. When I protested that we already did this at several parishes, and that we actually sang a congregational solemn doxology (as the Anglicans do, emphasising the essential contribution of the laity in eucharistic celebration) I was advised by the facilitator not to be “obstreperous, as this would never be permitted”. When the sole priest at our table (who had objected to my doxological theological point) eventually ventured the view that a blessing should be given to all couples who sought the same, regardless of their gendered or divorced status, his reflection, offered towards the end of the session, got nowhere fast. Sensing that facilitators had been briefed to “keep an eye out for trouble-makers”, I was instructed by the person facilitating Session 2 -about (How do we build a Church that is) Humble, Healing and Merciful – to be silent, until it registered in her that my proclivities were progressive and that I had worked with the Prioress General of her Congregation. In short, I’m ashamed to say that I was forced to play the clericalist game in order to press my anti-clerical synodal agenda. In my view Michael Mullins is undoubtedly correct in his exhortations: those of us who are Catholic have such an almost pathological distaste for anything that smacks of equality, liberty and democratic decision-making that we have turned the discernment process into a reactionary parody of the critically-reflective exchange (aux style Jurgen Habermas) from which it is surely intended to benefit.

  3. Sadly the great leveling of all things hierarchical that possesses the progressive mind is alive and well in the Catholic Church. At times it appears, or sounds, of a Greens branch feminist collective at work.
    There is a hierarchy in place. A hierarchy of service, not that of power. Although too often the latter purpose is exercised where the spirit of Christian discipleship is lacking.
    I call my PP by his first name in communication and dialogue with him, but introduce him, or address, him as Fr. x in formal situations.
    Let’s follow Pope Francis’s injunctions to not let formality of process or position act as a blockage of our task; to proclaim the Word, to worship our God and to let these flow in our lives through action of charity in service at the level we find ourselves.

  4. Avatar Jim KABLE says:


  5. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    I have a remote memory of – I think it was J.M. Hammond saying: Time for the Church to let go of being an Empire and start to embrace the fact of it’s being a congregation of individuals – or words to that effect.

  6. Avatar Ed Cory says:

    Michael, I am surprised that you seem surprised by this.

    As an older practicing catholic, I still have to ‘force’ myself to address the local priest by name (at his request), such is the ingrained training. It will take a generation to erase this habit, longer probably as few priests are prepared to take this step, and fewer still actively encourage it.

    However, calling ‘father’ by his given name is the easy (!?!) part. The church has taken great pains to entrench its authority over the laity (aka the people). It continues to resist ‘the sense of the faithful’ on matters such as sexuality; the role of women, especially women priests; and married priests. There is no sense from the church that it is willing to really listen to the people – ‘we know best’ prevails.

    The preparations for the council are a great illustration of this. We are supposed to stand in the place of god, and say what he wants. Really? What better way to muzzle the people, to inhibit them from saying what they want, in terms they consider appropriate? If that is not enough, the composition of the council, and the decision making arising, is a fine example of clericalism in action – again, ‘trust us, we know best’.

    I can only conclude that the institutional church is failing, and that notwithstanding Francis’ efforts, seems determined to continue down that path.

    • Avatar Garry Everett says:

      The subservience of the laity towards clergy is part of clericalism, but is not the cause of it.
      In all walks of life we need to speak truth to power
      The cause if clericalism is the abuse of power, and is built on lack of transparency and lack of accountability.
      Until the Chirch establishes proper accountability structures, especially for bishops and priests , the power games will continue.
      The bishops and priests in Australia have shown no real interest in establishing any new structures or processes which might ensure that accountability for one’s decisions and actions is required, with appropriate sanctions for failed performances.
      It is well beyond time when all in the Church need to get tough. If we don’t, we should expect more of the same.

      • Avatar Rosemary Lynch says:

        Yes, Garry. I came in on the end of a theological discussion where the lay theologians were struck dumb by the folksy Bishop, because of the terminology FOR the Bishop, who was having a bit of a power fluff about authority and bps. So I adopted the Irish (republican) approach, and said, Yes, bp, I’d listen carefully to what you have to say, think about it, even pray about it perhaps, but then I would choose my perspective. It was so good to see his balloon deflate, and smiles behind him.

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