AS far as Australia’s bishops are concerned there isn’t a problem for the Catholic Church when it comes to celibacy.
In a single paragraph in August it rejected the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommendation that celibacy should be voluntary for clergy rather than mandatory as it is now.
The royal commission gave compelling reasons for the recommendation after extensive evidence on the subject. It concluded mandatory celibacy was an “unattainable ideal” for many priests which contributed to a “culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” in the church. The bishops responded that it was a “long-standing and positive practice”.
No doubt the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is aware of evidence by clinical psychologist Dr Gerardine Robinson to the royal commission. After all she was engaged by the bishops conference in 1997 to work at the church’s Encompass centre for troubled clergy. For a decade until its closure the centre treated 1100 clergy and religious with problems like depression and alcohol abuse.
But Dr Robinson also treated many priests struggling with mandatory celibacy. Only some of them sexually abused children. As Dr Robinson said in her evidence in February, 2017, for every child abused by a Catholic perpetrator, her research showed there were twice as many adult men in abusive or exploitative sexual interactions with clergy, and four times as many women.
In quite confronting detail Dr Robinson explained how the mandatory nature of celibacy exacerbated other problems for many Catholic clergy. She described two types of clergy who engaged in sexual interactions with vulnerable, devout or troubled adults. The “intermittent offenders” had inappropriate sexual interactions with less than three vulnerable adults.
A second group, which she described as “compulsive offenders”, comprised men who were “narcissistic, antisocial, very clerical” who “used their position in power to get access to vulnerable men and women and kept repeating the pattern over time”.
“Their pathology was very serious and they were much more difficult to treat,” Dr Robinson told the royal commission.
In the United States the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has rocked the Catholic Church to the core and led directly to a summit called by Pope Francis for next February. McCarrick is alleged to have routinely sexually abused altar boys and adult seminarians.
In Australia many women have been involved in sexual relationships and interactions with Catholic priests and religious, despite the celibacy rule. Children have been born of those unions.
It is difficult for some to equate an adult’s sexual interaction with clergy as abusive. But the boundary violations which apply to doctors must also apply to clergy, whose breach of the celibacy rule can lead to devastating psychosexual consequences for both parties.