The other form of abuse in the Catholic Church

Aug 13, 2023
Pray to God, faith, religion and spirituality concept. Prayer, woman hands over an open Holy Bible book, wooden desk background.

When we hear the term “abuse” in relation to the Catholic Church, we immediately think of crimes of a sexual nature committed against children by the clergy.

But there is another form of abuse taking place in the Church and it’s just as real. It’s called emotional abuse, and is most evident in the attitude of the Church hierarchy towards women.

It is characterised by such things as patronising language, silencing of voices, refusal to engage and failure to empower.

It can be subtle and may even go unnoticed. That’s because it is structural in nature, camouflaged within the rules and guidelines of the institution.

An example of this structural abuse is the Church’s exclusion of women from ministry, particularly ordained ministry, and the silence that surrounds it. There is no dialogue, no come back. Women are simply told that the Pope has spoken. The case is closed. No discussion will be entered into.

The silent treatment is often used by the Church hierarchy as a way of avoiding an uncomfortable exchange. I have experienced it myself.

Over my thirty-eight years as a priest in the Sydney Archdiocese I have written four personal letters to various bishops. Some of the issues I addressed were certainly contentious, but the letters were written respectfully and affably.

I didn’t receive a reply to any of those four letters.

A friend told me recently that some years ago she wrote to two consecutive parish priests in her parish asking for an explanation as to why women couldn’t be formally instituted as acolytes or lectors. She received no response from either priest.

It is true that Canon Law has now been changed to formally allow women to be instituted as acolytes and lectors, but the long delay in implementing the new policy seems to be another exercise in power and control by the hierarchy.

It is more than eighteen months since Pope Francis made the change, but no bishop has yet installed a woman as acolyte, at least in the Sydney Archdiocese, and no satisfactory explanation has been given for the delay.

Earlier this year I enquired as to the reason for the delay but only received a vague response saying that there is still no plan of how to exactly proceed with the matter.

Clearly there is a lack of will on behalf of the bishops to do anything to support women’s greater participation in the Church, even when the issue pertains to lay ministry rather than ordained ministry, as in the case of acolytes and lectors.

The same attitude was seen at last year’s Plenary Council when the Australian bishops voted down a motion asking them to accept women deacons in their dioceses if at some stage the Pope should allow women to be ordained to the deaconate.

In essence the bishops were prepared to defy the Pope rather than welcome women into their dioceses as deacons.

They later changed their vote after seeing the response by other members of the Council, particularly the women members, but how could they not have anticipated the hurt and sense of betrayal that would follow their decision.

The bishops’ unwillingness to bend in the area of inclusive language in the liturgy is another example where women are being subjected to indignity, and constantly having their self-esteem undermined.

Being told that words like “brothers” and “men” actually refer to women, is akin to saying “You are not important enough to even be mentioned.”

How easy it would be to make a change to more inclusive terms, but the bishops refuse to compromise in any way and expect women to simply grin and bear it.

Why is it that the Church hierarchy shows so little empathy with Catholic women and their struggle for greater participation in the life of the Church? Why do they never advocate on their behalf?

At least part of the reason is that most Catholic clergy spend little time conversing with women in any depth. Their world is a very male world.

They don’t understand the hurt experienced by women who feel let down by the hierarchy. They never feel their pain.

Added to that, most clergy have little or no experience of being marginalised. They don’t know what it’s like to have their voice silenced.

Bishops in particular have never felt the distress of being excluded, of being ignored, of being disempowered.

Then there is the broader patriarchal culture that pervades the Church hierarchy. It produces a club mentality among the clergy that is exclusive and elitist.

In the context of structural abuse in the Church, it’s a perfect storm.

The Catholic Church sees itself as a promoter of human rights. Pope Francis has spoken on numerous occasions defending the rights of women.

But there is an inconsistency here. As long as women are excluded in our Church, whether it be from ministry, from language, or any other type of exclusion, we are giving a message to the world that women should not have the same recognition and opportunities in life as men.

Until that changes, until women are given the same dignity, respect and opportunities as men, the Church will continue to contribute to the scourge of emotional abuse against women, which sadly is still so prevalent in our world today.

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