Observations On the Contrary

Catholic priests: it is better to marry than to burn (and beat up)

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b2142 (Published 27 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2142
  1. Tony Delamothe, deputy editor, BMJ
  1. tdelamothe{at}bmj.com

    Regardless of the benefits it may bring, should celibacy ever be part of a job description?

    The Ryan commission’s revelations of the scale of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in Irish schools and residential settings run by Catholic priests and nuns are staggering. More than 90% of the 1090 witnesses who gave evidence to the commission reported physical abuse:

    They frequently described casual, random physical abuse but many wished to report only the times when the frequency and severity were such that they were injured or in fear for their lives. In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked, and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned, and held under water.

    Half the witnesses reported some form of sexual abuse, including “vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time.” In general, it was a far greater problem at boys’ schools than girls’ schools.

    About 30% of witnesses say they now suffer from “a constellation of ongoing, debilitating mental health concerns” serious enough to require treatment. They claim never to have recovered from the rapes and beatings they suffered as children; and watching these broken adults testify on television it’s hard not to believe them.

    It’s hard to forget, too, that when it comes to sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests we have been here before—many times. This was not an isolated phenomenon restricted to Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. For instances of sexual abuse over the same period, Catholic dioceses in the United States have paid victims more than a billion dollars in compensation, while others have avoided paying out by filing for bankruptcy. Well documented cases have occurred in many other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom; and last year Pope Benedict XVI apologised for child sexual abuse by priests in Australia.

    And it seems unlikely that the practice is restricted to the past 50 years—that somehow the values of the permissive society, traditionally dating from the 1960s, corrupted the Catholic priesthood. The Vatican has been concerned about the issue for centuries, first raising it in the Sacramentum Poenitentiae, published in 1741. What is new is that the wider public discussion of sexual abuse has given victims a language to describe what happened to them. And they now have reliable routes to exposure that can’t be closed off by the powerful: a series of television documentaries sparked off the recent inquiries.

    So how did sexual abuse become endemic in so many of the boys’ schools run by the Catholic priesthood in Ireland? We know that those occupying positions of authority and power over children—whether as teachers, scoutmasters, or clergy—are at greater risk of abusing their charges. But is the priestly discipline of celibacy an additional risk factor?

    The subject is bedevilled by lack of data. We don’t know how the rate of abuse among priests compares with that among non-clergy. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops recently calculated that 4% of its priests had faced some from of sexual accusation, while the Roman Catholic church estimates that no more than 1% of priests are responsible for its sexual scandals. After the latest revelations, doing the sums for Ireland indicates a far higher prevalence: a forthcoming report examines allegations against at least 140 priests in one diocese alone (Dublin). It’s hard not to believe that many of these priests (not to mention those in their care) would have been better off if they’d ignored the call to the ministry and stayed at home like their brothers.

    The youth of Ireland may be doing just that. In his Holy Thursday homily previewing the findings of the Ryan commission, the archbishop of Dublin also lamented the fact that in his own diocese there were 10 times more priests aged over 70 than under 40. The demands of chastity may be relevant here, too; certainly, it’ s a significant factor for many priests leaving the church.

    And yet priestly celibacy is only a discipline of the Roman Catholic church, not part of the church’s infallible dogma, as Wikipedia’s entry on the topic explains. It achieved the status of law only with the Second Lateran Council of 1139, well into the second half of the church’s lifespan. It could be suspended, although this seems unlikely, given the pope’s belief that “a male celibate priesthood is morally superior to other sections of society” (as the Irish newspaper, Western People, described it.)

    The Roman Catholic church’s staffing problems and the fine print of its job descriptions may seem a long way away from the legitimate concerns of a medical journal, and yet both are relevant to the latest revelations from Ireland. Something went horribly wrong for thousands of its most vulnerable children, at the hands of its priests. The psychological and physical damage that was inflicted is the legitimate concern of medical journals, as is anything that may help to explain it. Of all issues, this is not the time to look away.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2142

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