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Eminence, the emeritis cardinal archbishop of HGN

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Will The Bishops Ever Learn

Finally, a study that tries to understand the child sexual abuser and some of the institutional causes for the condition.  I was interested in this book review by John C. Seitz, Fordham University Associate Professor of Theology that appeared recently in the National Catholic Reporter. He was reviewing the book Child Sexual Abuse and Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture by Marie Keenan.

Book Review by John C. Seitz 'Perfect' priests and their 'sacrificial lambs'

There should be more reviews and research like this one by Marie Keenan.  The bishops should fund this sort of research. It would be money better spent than trying to defeat civil marriage equality for gay and lesbian persons. 
Seitz's review highlights how Keenan has studied the worlds that formed clerical sexual perpetrators.  The core of her studies were interviews with nine retired or laicized Catholic priests and brothers from Ireland. After caveats about not excusing the abuse, she is able to direct the light of her research on the environments in which these men were trained.
Keenan argues that the men she interviewed were not bad men, they were just trying to be perfect priests and brothers. Seitz states that it is in the second half of Keenan's book where she focus her investigation on the worlds of seminaries and seminarians as incubators for sexual abuse.
Seitz writes: “Her focus is on seminary culture and education (in the period before the 1990s) and the kind of living it enabled and disabled. In these spaces priests learned to fear sexuality, disavow their bodies and emotions, bury non-priestly components of themselves, and adapt to emotionally isolated and lonely lives.”
Seitz indicates there is another theme that Keenan takes up that grows an environment for an abuser. The reviewer then describes what Keenan found out about the education and formation of these men. 
"The other most compelling theme concerns moral education. The church, Keenan argues, has offered poor tools for making judgments. Instead of judging out of a context of relationships with particular others and dynamic processes of introspection and empathy, seminarians were instructed in the technical and intellectual application of fixed, universal and external rules. Impersonal and abstract, this moral theology enabled abusers to treat their behavior as a matter of sin against God and purity and not as a matter of harm for others. Moreover, the confessional, with its seal of secrecy, further enabled the abuse by providing a context for expiation of this sin. Regular confession helped convince the priests that they were at least trying to meet God’s standards. All of the nine priests confessed their abuse in confession -- according to their reports, only once did a confessor alert the abuser to the criminal nature of the offense. The system advanced a purity ethic at the expense of a relational ethic."
It seems to me that after Vatican II there were men in charge of formation who must have had some intuition that the closed seminary system Keenan describes was not healthy. One friend who came through formation in a religious order during those years used to tell the story with just a bit of amusement how his directors tried arranging dates for the novices. I suspect there is some element of truth to the story. These directors must have known at some level the dangers of the closed seminary culture. I also suspect back then these same directors probably would not have wanted to find or even thought about finding dates for any gay seminarians in their programs.

These were the years when dioceses and religious orders wanted to move seminarians from that closed culture. This was the time of rise of the Theological Unions like the ones in Chicago and Washington, D.C. There was also a movement to train seminarians and religious at University Campuses and Catholic Divinity Schools on University Campuses because those places, it was assumed, offered places of more normal interaction. Here a Catholic man preparing for priesthood or brotherhood would benefit by regular contact with lay students and women. In recent years what seemed to be movement in a healthy direction has been replaced by a growing clericalism. This has all been reinforced by the recent decree from the Vatican that bishops and priests should wear cassocks.

Clericalism Is Alive and Well in the Roman Catholic Church

A few years ago I was with a diverse group of priests who were not directly involved in preparing seminarians for ministry, but would be informed enough about what was happening in seminaries. I asked has much changed in the preparation of men for the priesthood after all the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious? Their answer was: "No".

It might be wise for the bishops to spend some time and money looking at the clerical system that prepares men for ordained ministry. I know the bishops seem to think marriage equality is the real evil. So bishops waste money trying to force everyone into their bubble of so called "religious freedom" and amuse themselves worrying about clerical dress and bringing back meatless Friday's.

Works like Marie Keenan's deflates all the self adulation of the bishops on how they have dealt with the abuse crisis. It seems that Keenan is on to something that the bishops do not want to address. They should. Here is Keenan's judgement as reported by Seitz in his review.
"The stunning conclusion of this work is that for those who embraced the idealized model of perfect celibate clerical masculinity, seminary and priestly life were in themselves abusive contexts"
They still are. 


  1. "The system advanced a purity ethic at the expense of a relational ethic."

    Absolutely true, and it's both sad and laughable that this is the same rationale the Vatican is using to defend marriage. Sexual purity and the expense of a relational sacrament. I guess it is kind of stupid to expect something different from men trained in the seminary system.

    I am really curious to see what Australia does with the Sacrament of Penance and the confessing pedophilia. Given that all nine of her subjects used Confession to cleanse themselves of relational responsibility, Australian authorities may be getting to the heart of the problem.

  2. Another really interesting blog, Wild Hair -- one of many you've written. During the past week I was reading the reviews of Keenan's work. No hope for the increasingly regressive, clerical gallop back to solutions that never worked. But these solutions did confer lots of power -- perhaps the ultimate goal.

  3. I have been thinking about this statement from Seitz's review.

    "The stunning conclusion of this work is that for those who embraced the idealized model of perfect celibate clerical masculinity, seminary and priestly life were in themselves abusive contexts".

    If this last statement is true then bishops or anyone setting up a seminary based on the "model of perfect celibate clerical masculinity" were and are creating "abusive contexts".