Scandals in the Church

Sean O’Conaill : Studies 1995

I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, when Fr Brendan Smyth’s clerical and poisonous career began, and have been trying since October 1994 to absorb the meaning of recent events. Unnameable, incomprehensible sexual predilections and practices now have a name that even children know, and are now therefore far less dangerous. Things that could not be discussed may now be discussed, and must be discussed. They are a matter of public record, and they implicate a small minority of Catholic clergy in a sphere of moral evil which, in the 1950s, was still top of the clerical agenda – sexual evil. (This was, after all, the decade when ‘mixed bathing’ at Salthill was the subject, for a time, of episcopal disfavour!)

Three questions, it seems to me, are most important now. First, how did it happen that these matters could, over such a long period, remain both known about and secret? Second, how exactly did it come about that this long, diseased silence was broken? Third, what can we learn from this about the essential features of a healthy church – one which identifies its own imperfections, makes them openly a matter of record, and resolves them with least injury to all concerned?

The long silence

Paedophilia did not originate in the 1950s, or in the church. It is, we know, part of the broad spectrum of human sexual behaviour, and was practised openly by the ancient Greeks. It is therefore likely that throughout human history, and the history of the Church, it has occurred. Presumably, historians of moral theology will now uncover literature extending back into the middle ages which mentions these practices as morally dangerous for the practitioners, if not emotionally and psychologically dangerous for the victims, and devastating for the Church. Given the indefatigable nature of moral theologians, and their long-standing fixation with sexual morality, it is not remotely likely that paedophilia is a vice new to the Church. Since Latin and Greek have been part of a clerical education since the middle ages, it cannot be alleged that the Church has lacked a vocabulary for discussing paedophilia. Why then has the phenomenon not been part of the overt moral education of all Catholics, a matter they would be both explicitly warned about, and prepared to speak about?

That it wasn’t in the 1950s I can bear witness. Like many of my classmates in one school I was subjected to mild tactile intimacies by a cleric which did me absolutely no harm, but this still remains vividly in my memory as part of the folklore attaching to the cleric and the school concerned. The most vivid memories of my religious education then are that (a) ‘Catholic apologetics has nothing to do with apologising to anybody’ (RE class), (b) that a past pupil had recently been spotted going into a communist meeting in Dublin (consigning himself inexorably to Hell) and (c) the most effective Christian educators were those (the majority) who showed an innate kindliness and humanity, when they weren’t even trying. Had RE class ever mentioned events like those which occurred when this erring cleric was present, I would remember it just as vividly.

Why, then, this reticence? I believe it has to do with two interlocking problems. First, clerical celibacy, and second, clerical authority. They interlock simply because, in our church, authority is exercised exclusively by celibate clerics. Whatever blessings celibacy may give the church, an ability to talk about sex without embarrassment has not been one of them. And since it is the same celibates who control the Church’s explicit educational program, this embarrassment has been an essential feature of Catholic education on sexuality. Clerics do not communicate well about sex, and so, as a consequence Catholic parents do not communicate well about it either.

I am a product of Irish Catholic schools and a very Irish Catholic home, and am now stuck with the same tongue-tied head-scratching embarrassment as an Irish Catholic parent. Ben Elton has probably taught my children more about sex than I have. At the age of fifty- one, I am still learning that an inability to talk openly about this matter is actually a greater evil than sexual sins themselves – and the Smyth affair confirms this. Had the children first exposed to Fr Smyth known what was happening to them, and belonged to a family culture in which the proper reactions had been rehearsed, that name would long ago have been erased from Ireland’s clerical directory, and would not even have caused a scandal at the time. Most important, the deep, intimate psychological harm to the victims would have been externalised and removed from that internal balance sheet we all keep on our own behaviour and experience – while the children concerned were still children, and could still be assured, lovingly, that the wrong was not theirs.

Instead, the evil to which the child (if not the priest) could give no name, continued – the Catholic priest, the primary source of moral authority, was also the perpetrator, so this behaviour had to be suffered and suppressed. This became a psychological time bomb under the individuals concerned, and a devastating depth-charge under the clerical Church. This secret sin was known at first only to the perpetrator and the victim, and the perpetrator was consciously empowered by the fact that the child was disempowered by a lack of knowledge and the absence of an open family culture on sexuality. This matter would not be spoken about to the child as part of the child’s education. It therefore would not necessarily have to be accounted for. If it did, sure one would only have to account for it to another priest – and the church would be far too scared of the publicity to make a song and dance about it! Whatever happened, the thing would not become public. It would be contained within the professional culture of which the perpetrator was a part.

We do not yet know precisely when the first accounting of this kind took place. We do, however, know that Abbot Kevin Smith was aware that Smyth had a problem before some of the families deeply affected by his behaviour had even been formed. It is at this point that the link between celibacy and authority again prevented the reaction which now seems so necessary. Yes, ignorance about the psychological harm for the victim played a part, but the sense of inviolability which Fr Brendan Smyth could feel must also have helped to paralyse the Abbot morally. The family, or families concerned, would probably not make the matter public, neither would Brendan Smyth, so why should the Abbot either? What good would it do?

What good would it do? We will probably never know how many people asked themselves this question in the years that followed. Yet we are all now convinced that the matter should have been, and could have been confronted then, both for the sake of the children and of the Church, for the very best of Christian reasons. And it wasn’t confronted not just because of the lack of knowledge of the psychiatric harm to the victims, but because those who held this knowledge would not be required to share it – because the clergy do not have to account for their stewardship to the faithful.

The Revelation

Whatever else may be obscure about the Brendan Smyth affair, one thing isn’t. Its revelation was an achievement of the secular world, not of the church. When I was a student in the 1960s the clerical church was turning its baleful gaze away from communism and mixed bathing in Salthill to that dreadful moral Cyclops, Television, and, of course, to what would happen if we accepted the Permissive Society that TV would inevitably reveal. How strange and salutary it now is to reflect that it is to these awful manifestations of a broader evil, secularism, that we owe our deliverance from the Brendan Smyths and the culture of secrecy (at least in this area)!

Freud has also played a part, of course. Without him, the sciences of psychology and psychiatry would be even more primitive than they still are. Clerics on the defensive now often join in a refrain of ‘but nobody knew about paedophiles and the damage they could do until just recently’. Do they understand how devastatingly damaging this is for a clerical Church which claimed, until this event, that it knew everything, especially about sex and the human soul? The universe of knowledge has throughout our lives been divided into two spheres – on one side the things the church knew about and approved of, and (far larger) the things, including Freud, it knew about and disapproved of. My head is stuffed full still of ‘isms’ from liberalism to ‘naturalism’ and communism and materialism and modernism that the church condemned, and only one it fully approved of – Catholicism.

Secularism was a kind of hold-all for all the world’s evil ‘isms’. It would turn your gaze away from the next world to this one, damning your eternal soul. With eyes focussed firmly on the next world, the eyes of the church were closed to the secular world, and to Brendan Smyth. Until the secular world revealed him.

Secularism as an ideology originated in the eighteenth century. The French philosophes were agreed on very little, but did agree upon at least two things – freedom of expression and anti-clericalism. Fixated by the success of Newton in discovering universal natural laws (e.g. the laws of gravitation) they believed that science, without the church, could create a perfect world. One of them, Montesquieu, studied the contemporary British constitution, admired the intellectual freedom it provided, and reached the conclusion that power must be divided to protect the citizen, with no single agency controlling legislative, executive and judicial power. This central idea of the enlightenment – the separation of powers – is a cornerstone of modern liberal and secular society.

It was these principles – the separation of powers and the freedom of information, together with a corollary of both – separation of church and state – which brought an end to the shameful career of Fr Brendan Smyth after thirty years of complicity within the clerical church. Probably the principle of intellectual freedom was most important. Although the media were beset from the 1960s by a clerical campaign to ban sexual matters from public discourse, the problem of where exactly to draw the line baffled and divided and ridiculed the censors (c.c. discussion of honeymoon nighties on the Late Late Show), so that by the 1980s the broad range of human sexual practice became a matter of public knowledge and even popular childish humour.

It was, I am certain, the new freedom this gave to discourse on such matters that allowed the children concerned, now young adults, to speak out, and their parents to act on that knowledge. The enlightenment and the permissive society had finally rounded upon its clerical critics and proved them bankrupt of wisdom and, it seems, in some cases, of integrity as well. The appeal to voluntary lay Catholic agencies followed, and from there the matter moved inexorably within the ambit of the secular state. Insofar as justice has been done, belatedly, to these children, and a process of healing initiated, this has been done therefore by secularists, not by the church.

In the context of the clergy’s long-expressed idealisation of the family as the most vital social unit, the revelation that these families were not protected by the church, were instead its victims, has been shattering. Far more than the Bishop Casey ¹ scandal it has damaged visibly the moral integrity of the church as an institution.

The Lessons

Thus the clerical church must now record for all time that it has no monopoly of wisdom, still less of integrity. Always in its own mind the guardian of the faithful from the most appalling evils, particularly sexual ones, it always found those evils meticulously and ridiculously outside its own ranks, and outside its own control. It has now discovered that it has both harboured the greatest evil its children could suffer within its own ranks, and made it impossible for them to break free by its own clerically-dominated culture – until they were delivered by those evil agencies the clerical church had been attacking all along! The irony is total, and the lesson is inescapable.

Many questions about this matter remain unanswered. I am certain that all can be answered truthfully in ways which do far less damage to the church than the present embargo on the truth. Secrecy about matters of grave public concern is destroying the church, because it has only one final justification, the concealment of information that should be known. It fuels only the wildest rumours and is therefore the father and mother of scandal and despair. It vitiates the whole of Catholic education, because for a child an ocean of theology will drain through a fault in the integrity of those who deliver it. The facts adduced above are a matter of public record, part of a vast reservoir of scorn for the world’s secular media, as well as another scandal to the laity.

Doesn’t this affair prove that the secular principle of freedom of information is merely a corollary of the older principle of the sacredness of truth? There could not be a better time for revelation and healing. If the bishops want to know why the church lacks credibility, why so many young people are disillusioned with it, why so many of its educated members, clerical and lay, are despondent, let them reflect on issues such as these.

And when (and if) the church looks at models for radical structural reform, it should examine the political and administrative science of the past three hundred years with minds as open as those now focused upon modern psychology – another fruit of the enlightenment. It could learn from the separation of powers, and realise that even without the current scandals a church exclusively controlled by an oligarchy of male celibates is doomed. Starkly revealed as less effective than secular agencies in delivering justice to its most innocent and vulnerable members – its children – what claim does the church have left on the loyalty of any Catholic family if it does not commit itself to radical institutional change?

At last – An Open Church?

These recent scandals in the church come from a culture of secrecy and oligarchy which lies also at the heart of the Church’s failure to appeal to a modern, secular society. They involve the exercise of power in a way which harms individuals, and so raise the question of how power and authority in the Church should be exercised. For that reason, although they create enormous shock and suffering for the Church, they create also an opportunity for reshaping its culture For the church’s authority in the world springs not from Popes, bishops and priests but from its response as an entire community to a moral challenge laid down by Jesus Christ. Insofar as the church becomes identified with any minority within it, such as the clergy, (and more especially the hierarchy and central bureaucracy), its witness is compromised if their witness is inadequate.

Furthermore, any such identification reduces the dignity of the broad mass of believers, makes their witness less important, and focuses the attention of the media upon spectacular failure, rather than upon undramatic, but far more frequent, success. This is why the Church today is on the defensive, its enormous potential for good half paralysed by scandal and structural weaknesses. But our salvation as always lies ready to hand. There is in the gospels still a crystal clear moral vision, and also a vision of ideal relationships. Those relationships are characterised by a discourse which is, to use a modern idiom, entirely ‘up front’ and informal. Jesus never in his life had to write a single pastoral letter – his text and his agenda were decided by the world in which he lived, and the people, friend or foe, whom he met. He responded magnificently, without recourse to canon law, but with total integrity. Could we all now, me included, aspire to the same thing?

And since most secular liberals aspire to that also, could we maybe stop regarding them as agents of perdition? In rejecting the church they are rejecting especially all empty sanctimony.

But, lastly, let it be said I am conscious of a vast personal debt to the priests who have helped to shape my own mind and heart, and beyond that of a debt owed by our Irish society in general to their entire corps. Had I no affection or respect for the priesthood, or the church, I would not have been half so indignant over these events: I would merely have joined the many cynics in asking ‘what else do you expect?’. In truth the betrayal of innocence has been inflicted upon most of the priesthood too by these recent catastrophic failures of our closed authority system. It is their pain also that now cries out for an open church.

Notes:

  1. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before.

(© Studies 1995)

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