A WOMAN groomed for sex by the head of a Catholic order said it is time for women and men in abusive and exploitative sexual relationships with clergy to speak up in their own “Me Too” campaign as the Catholic Church deals with challenges to mandatory celibacy.
“Celibate priests, it’s a sham,” said the woman from a devout family who was in her 20s when Discalced Carmelite head Father John Venard Smith* requested she “pleasure” him while he “reverenced” her body during spiritual sessions at the order’s Varroville priory.
The late Father Smith was in his 70s when he singled her out for attention as she trained to join the Carmelite secular order in the early 1990s, when she believed Carmelite priests were “about as close to heaven as you’re going to get”.
“I was a sitting duck,” she said.
I was a sitting duck.Woman from devout Catholic family in a sexual relationship with a priest
The Catholic Church had to take responsibility for clergy who preyed on vulnerable adult male and female victims as it had been forced to acknowledge child sex victims, the woman who wanted to be known as Ann said.
“He put his arms around me. He held me. Then he asked ‘Is this how you would like to pray to God?’. He knew I was married. Women don’t want to talk about this because they’re ashamed, they’re scared they won’t be believed and they blame themselves, but God knows how many other women he’d been doing that with,” Ann said.
She came forward as the National Council of Priests of Australia confirmed its support for optional celibacy and married priests after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found mandatory celibacy was an “unattainable ideal” for some priests which contributed to a “culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” in the church.
Clinical psychologist Dr Gerardine Robinson, who worked with the Australian Catholic Church’s Encompass program for a decade until 2008 treating 1100 clergy, said research suggested at least 5000 men and 10,000 women had been in secret sexual relationships or interactions with Australian Catholic clergy over decades, with “horrendous” consequences for some.
Her Australian research replicated American findings that “clearly indicates four times as many adult women and twice as many adult men are sexually abused by clergy than children”, Dr Robinson told the royal commission in February, 2017.
The research clearly indicates four times as many adult women and twice as many adult men are sexually abused by clergy than children.Clinical psychologist Dr Gerardine Robinson
About 2500 people gave evidence at royal commission private hearings about being sexually abused as children by Catholic offenders. Dr Robinson used the figure, acknowledged as an under-representation of the actual number of children sexually abused, to estimate the number of adults in sexual interactions with Catholic clergy. Evidence to the royal commission included research indicating only 50 per cent of clergy practise celibacy at any one time.
“Children are not the primary target; vulnerable adult men and women are,” Dr Robinson told the royal commission.
While some Catholic clergy were able to have healthy consensual sexual relationships with men and women, despite breaking their celibacy vows, others had abusive and exploitative sexual relationships with vulnerable, devout or troubled adult men and women that the church had difficulty recognising as abusive, she said.
Celibacy did not cause sexual abuse but was a contributing factor, she said. For some priests “filled with shame” about their sexual needs, held up on a pedestal and with ready access to devout and emotionally vulnerable adults, mandatory celibacy was “a recipe for disaster”, Dr Robinson told the royal commission.
”My personal opinion is that I think celibacy should be optional,” she said in evidence.
In a speech to the National Council of Priests of Australia last week Dr Robinson was more blunt.
“Those who resign themselves to mandatory celibacy as a necessary ‘sacrifice’ required at ordination are hugely at risk of sexual boundary violations,” she said.
It came only weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged the church’s duty to protect minors and vulnerable adults after damning allegations about the grooming and sexual abuse of altar boys and adult seminarians by American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
In 2015 Victorian Blessed Sacrament Congregation priest Tom Knowles became the first Australian Catholic priest defrocked for having a “long-term inappropriate sexual relationship” with NSW Central Coast woman Jennifer Herrick. She sought redress for a relationship that began with grooming by the priest when she was a vulnerable young woman with a disability.
In a 2018 study involving 23 women and six men who experienced clergy sexual misconduct as adults, Queensland University of Technology researchers argued the Catholic Church maintained “an overall attitude of victim blaming” by focusing on adults “consenting” to sexual interaction, while failing to acknowledge abusive clerics taking advantage of the vulnerable.
“Clergy sexual misconduct against adults does not occur because there is a vulnerable adult but, rather, because there is a cleric willing to misuse their powers to abuse adult vulnerabilities,” researchers Stephen de Weger and Jodie Death said.
Clericalism within the Catholic Church led to an “institutional tolerance for sexual misconduct and the protection of perpetrators” and a failure to see the sexual abuse of adults in the context of professional misconduct and boundary violations, they found.
“In comparison to other professional bodies the Catholic Church has not yet fully, officially or culturally accepted a framework for clergy sexual misconduct of adults that begins with the behaviour of the power-abusing cleric/professional, instead of with the status or behaviour of a vulnerable adult.”
Clergy sexual misconduct against adults does not occur because there is a vulnerable adult but, rather, because there is a cleric willing to misuse their powers to abuse adult vulnerabilities.Queensland researcher Stephen de Weger
Mr de Weger said the findings of a small but growing body of literature on the sexual abuse of adults in the church required a response from Australia’s legal profession “to investigate this form of professional sexual misconduct more closely”.
Sydney lawyer Jason Moody of Artemis Legal said his firm had received many inquiries from adults alleging abusive sexual relationships with clergy and “we have seen evidence of considerable harm arising out of this type of adult sexual abuse”.
In many cases there was a legal duty of care on the clergy and church, particularly where there was evidence of a power imbalance, he said.
A major barrier for personal injury claims against the church was they were often made out of time, Mr Moody said.
“The law was recently changed in most jurisdictions in Australia to largely remove the limitations period of child abuse, but for those who were adults when they were abused claims in NSW need to be made generally within three or six years from the date of the act,” he said.
In 2002 the Discalced Carmelite order gave its “deepest apologies for the grave wrong that has been done” to Ann, after she reported Father Smith’s “reverencing” of her body following his death in 1994.
The apology letter included acknowledgement of “the steps you sadly had to take to bring this case to light”.
The sexualising of her spiritual sessions with Father Smith at the Carmelite Varroville priory started during their third session when he invited her from his office to his adjoining private room, and linked the contemplative life of the order with the spirituality of the “reverencing” of the body.
“He would talk about Mary (the mother of Jesus) and tell me I was blessed because this was the purity of the contemplative life. He would tell me I had to believe in this. He would say ‘I reverence you like I would be reverencing Mary’,” she said.
He would talk about Mary (the mother of Jesus) and tell me I was blessed because this was the purity of the contemplative life. He would tell me I had to believe in this. He would say ‘I reverence you like I would be reverencing Mary’.Ann, singled out by Carmelite head Father John Venard Smith
He stressed it had to be kept a secret and telling anyone about it would be “like throwing pearls to swine”.
Their extended sexual interactions did not include intercourse but he requested she “pleasure” him through oral sex. From that point the spiritual meetings focused on his requests for her to “pleasure” him.
At their last meeting only months before his death in 1994 Father Smith was depressed and said he was in a dark place, but asked Ann to “pleasure” him.
Ann said she experienced a breakdown after a psychologist described how child sex offenders groom children.
“I was able to see the experience with Father Smith for what it was because I had a perspective about it I didn’t have while I was in it, that he had groomed me,” she said.
“I felt such shame and guilt. I blamed myself.”
In 2009 Discalced Carmelite leader Father Greg Homeming wrote to the Carmelite secular order to advise of Ann’s complaint and that “I find no reason not to believe the allegation”.
Father Homeming acknowledged it was “a grave matter… which could seriously undermine the bonds of charity within our order”.
The secular order in February 2010 noted Father Homeming’s letter but treated the matter “with confidentiality within our community”.
Hunter priest Geoff Mulhearn, who supported Ann, said Father Smith did “a great deal of harm” by sexualising the spiritual sessions of a woman whose devout family background made her much less likely to challenge the head of an order.
In the wake of the royal commission’s findings about aspects of Catholic culture that contributed to child sexual abuse, the church “has to look at the whole issue of sexuality and the body in a healthy way”, Father Mulhearn said.
In her speech at the National Council of Priests of Australia conference last week which considered the royal commission’s findings, Dr Robinson urged priests to “find your voice and be an agent of change” because “the system has failed its seminarians and clergy”.
“It is easy to point the finger of blame at individual clergy who have breached boundaries either with children or vulnerable adults, labelling them as ‘bad apples’,” Dr Robinson said after pressing for reforms including voluntary celibacy, an understanding of sexuality, an end to clericalism and the screening, teaching and on-going development of priests.
“We need to look closely at the barrel in which these apples decayed,” she said.
The Discalced Carmelite order was contacted for comment.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference did not respond to questions.
*Not to be confused with Marist Brother John Venard Smith who died in January, 2018.
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