/ 8 March 2019

Sex scandals divide the Catholic Church

Members of Ending Clergy Abuse
Members of Ending Clergy Abuse, a global organisation of survivors, protest in Rome during the February 2019 papal summit on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)


Nearly 200 leaders of the Catholic Church from around the world met at the Vatican last month to consider the scourge of clerical child sex abuse. Most of those attending were presidents of their respective episcopal conferences, including Sithembele Sipuka, Bishop of Mthatha and president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC).

Pope Francis summoned the February meeting in September last year after a series of particularly damning revelations about clerical abuse and cover-up on a global scale: Australia, Chile, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, the United States. Perhaps most disturbing was a Pennsylvania grand jury report, which criticised bishops in six American dioceses for mishandling hundreds of instances of sexual abuse, and the scandal surrounding Theodore McCarrick, former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, DC.

An additional scandal, relating to the conviction for sexual abuse of Cardinal George Pell, the third-highest-ranking cleric in the church, made headlines just two days after the conclusion of the Vatican meeting on February 26.

The scourge is not limited to the Americas, Australia and Europe. Sister Hermenegild Makoro, secretary general of the SACBC and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, confirmed in October last year that the South African police are investigating 35 cases of sexual abuse of minors, mostly boys, by Catholic priests.

To compound the sense of outrage that characterised the atmosphere in the build-up to the Vatican meeting, late in 2018, the sexual abuse — including rape — of girls and religious sisters by priests in the southern Indian state of Kerala made international headlines.

The publication of a salacious work by the French journalist Frédéric Martel, although a red herring, given the focus of the Vatican meeting, a mere week before the meeting commenced further inflamed global indignation. Titled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, with limited evidence in support, Martel alleged that 80% of Vatican personnel are homosexual.

Although it was well nigh impossible to identify the cause for clerical child sex abuse during the Vatican meeting, Pope Francis made it abundantly clear where he thought the fault lay.

“[I]t is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness.” He attributed this abuse of power to “the plague of clericalism — the fertile ground for all these disgraces”.

The pope’s belief in the link between clericalism and the abuse scandal has long been known. Clericalism, he asserts, is an illness or ailment in the church; it promotes the idea that “the church” means “priests and bishops”, and ignores the contribution of lay people.

In an address to the 2018 Synod on Young People, Pope Francis suggested that clericalism interprets vocation as an exercise of power rather than the giving of service; “it is a perversion at the root of many evils in the church”.

The sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion provokes a secrecy that often protects the perpetrators of abuse, with little concern or compassion shown for the victims of that abuse.

Opposition to clericalism is a rallying cry for one faction in the various ideological battles being waged in the church. Although the battle lines are not always clearly defined — on some issues they are particularly blurred — the clerical sexual abuse scandal exposes a fundamental division.

Some, because of their commitment to the supremacy of clerical status and adherence to a strict Catholic position on issues such as marriage and sexual morality, are labelled “conservatives”. The conservatives link the scandal directly to what they see as the church being too accommodating of homosexuality, whether among the clergy or the laity. They argue that homosexuality is an intrinsic evil that must be rooted out if the abuse scandal is to be addressed — this, despite the fact that medical science suggests that there is no link between homosexuality, an orientation, and paedophilia, a psychiatric disorder.

The conservative position is exemplified by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until he was removed from that powerful position by Pope Francis in 2017. In advancing his conviction that there is a connection between sexual abuse and homosexuality, Müller holds that the root cause for the abuse scandal “lies in the depraved character of the perpetrator and has nothing to do with his office”.

Let us pray: Pope Francis attends a Eucharistic celebration at the Regia Hall of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on the fourth and last day of the sex abuse crisis summit. The pope urged all Catholics to help liberate the church from clericalism to address the crisis. (Giuseppe LamiI/Pool/AFP)

Of similar mind are Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller, two senior cardinals, who, in an open letter addressed to the bishops of the world two days before the Vatican meeting convened, referred to “the plague of the homosexual agenda [that] has been spread within the church”.

Liberals, on the other hand, emphasise that the church is not just its bishops and priests: rather, it is the laity who are the church and, as such, are deserving of a greater role in church structures; the voice of the laity must be heard in respect of a range of issues, not just homosexuality and the sexual abuse crisis, but, for example, the position of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, women’s equality and racism.

Champions of the liberal position include Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, both of whom expressed strong opposition to clericalism during the Vatican meeting. Gómez was particularly outspoken, noting that clericalism represented “a distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest”. He demanded a “change of mentality”.

Radical proposals for change, such as an end to mandatory clerical celibacy (only introduced into the Western church in the 11th century) and the ordination of women, are unlikely to be sympathetically received.

A less threatening issue identified by a number of those at the Vatican meeting related to the selection and formation of candidates for the Catholic priesthood.

In many countries, including South Africa, aspirant priests are selected by their bishops and are trained in seminaries, a model described by Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, as one of “quasi-monastic isolation from the rest of society”.

This model, introduced by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), reflects “the premodern idea that the faithful have no rights before the hierarchy: seminarians still depend totally on their superiors for their future”.

The head of the Jesuit Institute in South Africa, Father Russell Pollitt SJ, suggests that the model promotes a “climate of immaturity”; priests are dependent on the power of their bishops. Writing in the Daily Maverick in August last year, Pollitt argues that this system “no longer equips [aspirant priests] for the church and the world they are going to work in”.

“In fact, the present system still teaches men who are preparing for ministry that they are ‘set apart’ and somehow ‘special’. This ‘separation’ bestows on the clergy a privilege and status that distances them from the realities of life and lays the foundation for clericalism.”

Faggioli is stronger still, suggesting that “the anachronistic and unhealthy culture of seminaries has made them a place where vocations often go to die”.

An alternative model, and one embraced in many countries, accords a much greater role to lay Catholics in the training of aspirant priests. Thus, although aspirant priests might receive their human and spiritual formation from fellow priests, lay Catholics contribute to pastoral formation, encouraging and assisting aspirant priests to be of service to the surrounding community.

Further, intellectual formation is provided in academic institutions that are not exclusively clerical; lay Catholics constitute an important proportion of both faculty and the student body. Aspirant priests are obliged to compete with lay people, with women, with people from different faith traditions. This, after all, is the reality that will be lived after ordination.

In a personal letter addressed to the world on August 20 last year, Pope Francis urged all Catholics to help to liberate the church from clericalism and so address the current crisis. Lay Catholics might contribute with support for an alternative model for the intellectual formation of aspirant priests.

Professor Garth Abraham is head of St Augustine College of South Africa, a Catholic tertiary academic institution. These are his own views