In the Vineyard :: August 26, 2016 :: Volume 16, Issue 16


Few knew about such abuse in the Church and even fewer believed it existed and this was due to the nature of the Catholic Church at the time. Back in the forties and fifties there was only one Catholic Church and it was the visible monarchical structure, a stratified society with a clerical aristocracy that was made up of celibate men and the vast ocean of lay commoners. The wall between the clerical caste and the “faithful,” as the commoners are known, was steep and almost totally impenetrable.

Catholics were programmed, either from birth or from the process of conversion, to believe that the bishops and priests were exalted, privileged beings because of their ordination and the fact that God had chosen them to be his representatives on earth. They were taught that priests were “ontologically different” and “conjoined to Jesus Christ,” magical thinking that Pope John Paul II heavily emphasized in his theology.
The Church we knew was often referred to as the “Church Triumphant.” The Vatican II definition of the Church as “The People of God” was an unknown and alien concept … alien because it could be construed to lead people to believe there was some degree of equality with the sacred clerics, a threat not to be tolerated. The Church was totally identified with the external structures and the clerical establishment.

Bishops, priests and religious were an aristocracy within a vast monarchy with the pope presiding over all as an absolute ruler, answerable to no earthly power. Priests and bishops lived behind the mists of the clerical citadel. Their private lives were shrouded in mystery but one thing was certain and it was the presumption that these private lives, like their public lives, were clearly marked by holiness, virtue and knowledge. We took this all for granted because for most of us it was simply inconceivable to think of it in any other way.

In this pre-Vatican II Church there were victims of sexual predation and violence by clerics just as there had been throughout the centuries. They were emotionally isolated and spiritually adrift. They were trapped in a dismal, hopeless state of fear, guilt and shame. Many were chronically unhappy, depressed, aimless and lonely. They lived without hope of support, recognition or therapy successful enough to help them find a strand of hope that they could find a path that would lead to a normal life.

In some instances, the sexual violation became known to Church authorities. These were a small minority. Sometimes parents would report it and somehow it would reach the bishop. Occasionally a particularly compulsive perpetrator would be careless enough to get caught by law enforcement and usually this ended by turning the priest over to the bishop who in turn would assure the authorities it would not happen again. Father was chastised and then quietly transferred to a new parish either within the same diocese or, in more problematic cases, to the diocese of one of the bishop’s sympathetic friends. The victim and his or her parents were assured it would be taken care of and encouraged, coerced or threatened to bury the incident and speak of it to no one. Devout, obedient and anguished Catholic parents believed this was the only possible outcome.

The bishop sent the errant priest off, hopeful that this was the last of Father’s transgressions. The victim was an irritant and a minor source of worry but not a source of pastoral concern. He, or she, went home and life would never be the same. Most would experience a variety of seriously debilitating emotional and psychological problems for the rest of their lives. In some cases, the victim would be able to make the connection between the sexual violation and the pain and trauma that had captured his or her life.

In others the victim might never make the connection. The majority would never be able to disclose the sexual violation to anyone, but in a minority of cases the person would, after many years or even decades, find the motivation to reveal the source of his or her life’s pain.

Nothing hidden by this 20th century blanket of secrecy was new. Documents from the Church’s own archives have revealed that sexual violation of minors (and adults) by clerics has been occurring since the early years of the primitive Church. The Didache, a teaching document that dates from the 1st century, included an admonition that forbade adult men from engaging in sex with minor boys. The earliest actual laws, or canons, that criminalized sex between adult males and minors as well as between ordained clerics and either minors or adults, were enacted at the 4th century Synod of Elvira (309 A.D.)  There is ample documentation of edicts, condemnations and regulations passed by individual bishops and abbots, gatherings of bishops, popes and general councils. All acknowledge the problem of sexual misconduct by clerics and seek to find some way to either eliminate it or at least control it.

The historical documentation, including several unofficial yet crucial writings such as the Book of Gomorrah of St. Peter Damian (11th century), shows that Church leadership from popes down to bishops and abbots, all knew that inappropriate sexual activity between clerics, monks and minors took place and was seemingly impossible to eradicate.

Through the centuries, the official literature was uniformly legal and prescriptive in nature. Its purpose was to publish laws that would discourage sexual acting out or decrees that imposed punishments on offenders. There is no evidence of any research into why sexual abuse happened nor is there any evidence of any writings, official or not, that treated the pastoral response to the victims. In fact, the victims of clergy sexual abuse appear to have been invisible from the 1st century through the middle of the 20th century.

There is documentary evidence from the early Renaissance period (14th to 16thcenturies) that in some areas in Europe the Church officials collaborated with secular officials in dealing with clerics accused of sexually abusing minors. The accused clerics first were tried before an ecclesiastical court and, if convicted, were then “defrocked” or removed from the clerical state. They were then turned over to the secular authorities for trial and subsequent punishment. Punishments included imprisonment and in some locales, death.

In the late 17th century the Church became rightly concerned with the widespread phenomenon of priests who solicited some form of sex from penitents during the process of sacramental confession. The Church authorities were more concerned about the sacrilegious abuse of the sacrament than they were about the sexual violation of those victimized in confession. Catholics were most vulnerable in the context of confession and thus the sexual abuse or even unsuccessful solicitation was all the more loathsome. Accused priests were tried before ecclesiastical courts, many of which were administered by the Roman, Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Sexual abuse was not consistently covered in deep secrecy throughout since there is ample documentary evidence of widely publicized papal and episcopal edicts issued against offenders. Since the 19th century, however, it has been deeply buried in a heavy vault of ecclesiastical secrecy. This secrecy was more than a custom or an unwritten mandate. It appears to have become a canonical obligation with a papal instruction issued by Pope Pius IX on Feb. 20, 1866. The decree required that any cleric involved in processing cases of solicitation take an oath of absolute secrecy about all matters connected with the case.
Sexual abuse of minors as well as solicitation for sex in the confessional were included as specific crimes in the first Code of Canon Law, issued in 1917. In 1922 the Holy See (Congregation of the Holy Office) issued a special set of instructions for the judicial processing of cases of solicitation. The instruction specifically stated that cases involving the sexual abuse of minors were also to be processed according to this instruction. All who took part in a case were required to take an oath of absolute secrecy. The penalty for violating the oath was immediate excommunication, the removal of which was reserved to the pope. The 1922 decree, commonly known as Crimen sollicitationis, was reissued in 1962 with no substantial change.

For the first eight decades of the 20th century, the sexual abuse of anyone, minor or adult, by a Catholic cleric, was almost universally unheard of by the laity and by most clerics. Those instances of abuse that came to the attention of bishops or religious superiors—and these were a minority—were buried in deep secrecy. Bishops rarely employed the processes for investigation and prosecution required by Church law. The common solution was to secretly transfer the accused cleric, obtain an assurance that the victim and his or her family would never disclose what had happened, and then quietly banish the event to the mists of history.

Some have argued that the bishops’ universal silence was a response to the canonical mandate of absolute secrecy. This explanation would be far more believable if the bishops had been observing the rest of the canonical requirements for responding to reports, but they weren’t. In reality the secrecy was due to a combination of factors, not the least of which was―and is―the obsession with avoiding any publicity that would in any way tarnish the image of the institutional Church, the bishops, and the papacy and consequently threaten the powerful control the hierarchy has had over all aspects of the Church, as well as the deference and influence they enjoyed in secular society.

As far as most lay Catholics and the general population were concerned, sexual violation of minors by clerics simply did not happen. Those of us who recall the pre-Vatican II church with its monarchical culture would probably not have had the cognitive capability to even process a report of sexual abuse by a priest.

If you can’t wait for Parts 2-5, you can find the entire speech here on our web pages.


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