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Sex Abuse and The Burden on Priests

CatholicIreland.Net - 15 September 2010

Tony Flannery CSsR writes that the fallout from the sex abuse scandals has had a traumatic effect on priests, who feel isolated, vulnerable, and wonder who will stand up for them if they are falsely accused.

I have participated in a number of priestly gatherings, formal and informal, in recent times. It seems to me that the present situation in the church in relation to clerical child sexual abuse is having a traumatic effect on many of us. The whole debate on the topic has been so emotionally charged that it is almost impossible to hold a rational, balanced conversation about it. I would like to reflect on some aspects of the situation that are of concern to me. 

“I don’t want to be a priest any more.” This is the sort of comment that can be heard now from men who have spent a lifetime happily ministering as priests. After being treated with honour and distinction for generations, we now find ourselves regarded with suspicion and condemnation. Maybe it is right that priests should pay some price for all our years on the pedestal, even if many of us were never comfortable there and did our best to climb down.

Should priests feel a collective guilt for the actions of some of our members? Most would say no. “I have never abused another person, child or adult, in my life. Why should I take the blame? Do all bank managers, guards, solicitors, teachers, feel tainted by the actions of a few of their profession? They don’t, so why should we?” But inevitably there is collective guilt, felt by some more than others, and this is hard to bear. “I hate the space I find myself in at this stage in my life,” said one mid-60s priest to me, “having my integrity impugned by the actions of others, and the organisation to which I belong.”

Feel vulnerable
Many priests feel very vulnerable. They know that one allegation of improper conduct with a minor is enough to have them removed from their parish, with a public statement issued to the people giving the reason for their removal. Most see this as very close to being considered guilty without any chance to defend oneself. How is it possible to recover your good name?

In the Ferns Report, Bishop Eamon Walsh guaranteed that no priest against whom an allegation was made would ever again serve in the diocese. Priests see this as blatantly unjust, and it angers them. The more recent document issued by the bishops and the Conference of Religious, Our Children, Our Church, tried to row back a little on this, giving some scope for the possibility of false allegations.

Some people believe that there is no such thing as a false allegation in the area of clerical child abuse. But priests I speak to believe that they are possible, and look with some scepticism at the Ferns Report. They do not contest the fact that horrible and widespread abuse took place in Ferns diocese, but they point out that the document contains statements by people presented as fact with no opportunity for the men who are accused to defend themselves or give their side of the story. I don’t know any other area of our legal system in which such a document would be automatically accepted as complete truth.

False allegations
The Redress Board has done great good, giving an opportunity to many victims to have their story heard, and to get some form of compensation. But are all the claims made, and the stories told, to the Board fair and balanced?  Has not the possibility of compensation tempted people to fabricate or exaggerate their story? 

I know a woman, now in her 70s and the daughter of a single mother, who has lived most of her life in religious-run institutions. Some years ago she discovered, and made contact with her relatives. Even though she vehemently and consistently asserts that she has always been treated with great respect and care, some of her new-found relatives are putting immense pressure on her to make a claim to the Redress Board, and are even suggesting to her what she might do with the money she’d get. Happily she is resisting their efforts, but we can only guess at how many times similar scenarios are being played out around the country.  

No confidence in church leaders
I regularly hear priests express a lack of confidence in the leadership of the church. They feel that the bishops, with a few exceptions, have gone underground. As one put it to me: “They have gone belly-up, and beyond an endless repetition of how sorry they are, they have little to say!” This leaves priests feeling isolated. Who will stand by them if they are accused? They feel they will be abandoned by the church leadership and pilloried by the media. If they are lucky, their own family might give them support. But there is no guarantee even of that. They eagerly await the day when a priest will successfully sue either his bishop or his accuser. This, they feel, is the only way that some balance will be restored to the situation. 

Yet, it is important to remember that there is legal redress for people against whom a false allegation is made, namely the 1998 Protection of Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act. This law makes it a crime to make an allegation of child abuse that one knows to be false. It would be good if priests who state that an unfounded allegation has been made against them would use this law.

It is also important that we do not become paranoid about the media. We have to admit that it was the media which highlighted the fact that some priests had abused children and that church leaders did not see this for the criminal activity it was. There is a sector of the media that has displayed fairness around this issue. When all her erstwhile colleagues were eerily silent, Kevin Myers spoke up for former nun, Nora Wall. Recently, when it was formally declared that she had been a victim of a miscarriage of justice, the Irish Times ran an editorial drawing attention to the fact that there is such a thing as a false allegation.

I can only speculate as to what effect all of this is having on young priests, seminarians, and those who might be considering their vocation. It cannot be positive. But time will gradually bring a balance. In the meantime, the challenge to those of us who are priests is to learn to accept our changed status in society and to remember that we are vessels of clay who are neither holier nor healthier than the people to whom we minister.

This article first appeared in Reality (March 2006), a Redemptorist Publication.