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.

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Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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