Marie Keenan: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church – Book Review, Part 4: Addressing Clerical Sexual Abuse

bbc image graveToday I post my final review in a series on Marie Keenan’s book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I don’t think that the book has received as much attention as it should have, so I am focusing on four key areas, which I think deserve greater public debate:

  1. The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem
  2. Why the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse should not be considered a “Cover-up”
  3. The Irish Model for “Doing” Priesthood of “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity” and its Consequences
  4. The Complexity of the Abuse Problem and How it can be Addressed

Today, in part four, I focus on:

The Complexity of the Abuse Problem and How it can be Addressed

For those who have read the first three parts of my review, it should be fairly obvious that the problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is much more complex than is usually assumed.

As detailed in part one, there is a widespread tendency – in the media, among the public, and even in the church itself – to “individualize” abuse, reducing it to the problem of flawed individuals or reverting to the trope of the “paedophile priest.”

But as Keenan demonstrates throughout the book, internal church structures, practices and theologies; the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Irish state and Irish society; the power dynamics between the Vatican and local bishops, and more make for a problem that cannot be solved merely by focusing on the abusing priests.

Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church is an academic book, and Keenan explains the complexity of the problem in the way of the academic: by constructing a “framework.” She calls it “A Multilevel Relational and Contextual Framework” and it includes four levels (p. 251-254):

  • First level: “… the breakdown in the fiduciary relationship between the clerical perpetrator and the abuse victim. Children and their families believed they would be safe, and they were not.”
  • Second level: “… the relational context that existed between the Catholic clergy and the people of Ireland. … A culture of deference marked these relational interactions.”
  • Third level: “… the local Church organization and its relational governance. This in turn was influenced by Rome.
  • Fourth level: “… the relationship between Church and State, canon and civil law (including criminal law).

Keenan argues that action at all of these levels is required. But she laments that the structural issues – those that go beyond dealing with individual perpetrators – continue to be ignored.

It is not entirely clear if the Catholic Church is ignoring the structural issues out of a failure to grasp their importance, because it is easier to deal with individuals than to try to change church structures and power relationships, or because of fear or hostility towards reforming the church.

Keenan cites Peter Seewald’s remarkable 2010 interview with Pope Benedict, in which the former pontiff, she argues, demonstrates a much better grasp of the abuse crisis than his predecessor Pope John Paul II. But, Keenan reckons, Pope Benedict still did not recognise many of the theological and systemic dimensions of the abuse crisis (p. 226):

“The pontiff leaves out of his sphere of analysis a number of human factors that limit the confidence one can have in his full understanding of or approach to the problem.”

For Keenan, the human factors include (227):

“institutional conditions in which clerical men live and are trained work; the theology of sexuality, including clerical celibacy; Church governance and the exercise of power, authority, and obedience; clerical culture, the template for which is set in the seminaries; the distinctions between the ordained and non-ordained, which arises from the “ontological change” that is said to occur in an individual at ordination; and finally the model of Church in which the ordained and laity are not equal by virtue of baptism but are distinguished by virtue of ordination, thereby creating two Churches within the one: an elite Church of the ordained and a second-order Church of the laity.”

In the Conclusion of the book, titled “Prospects, Visions, Agendas,” Keenan shares her ideas about how the abuse problem might be addressed, in all its complexities. Some measures, such as changes in seminary training, are obvious throughout the book. But here, she stresses “the need for a critical theology,” claiming (p. 267):

“Anything less than structural reform and a new model of the Church will be seen in the eyes of many believers as a missed opportunity.”

For her, a key aspect of reform should be critically analysing the present distinction between clergy and laity. She questions the validity of the terminology of “laity” and the two-tiered Church it seems to create.

Keenan also advocates a “relational approach to therapy and rehabilitation” that draws on the practices of restorative or transformative justice, rather than relying solely or primarily on retributive measures. She claims that litigation does not always satisfy victims and that there is potential in exploring how better to facilitate hope, forgiveness and reconciliation within the church.

Echoing other commentators, such as Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, she also calls for a synod in the Irish church (O’Hanlon writes of a national assembly) and a Third Vatican Council (p. 267):

“I cannot see how anything less than a Third Vatican Council, and at the very least a Synod for the Church in Ireland (and perhaps other countries) will adequately address the complex but nevertheless urgent issues involved in considering a new ecclesiology, partly brought to a head by the child abuse crisis. Other issues, such as sexuality, the position of women, and inter-religious dialogue, are also in need of reformulation”

Ireland is preparing for yet another inquiry, this one into abuses at Mother and Baby homes, including “burial practices, high mortality rates, forced adoptions and clinical trials of drugs on children.” While the focus of this inquiry is not sexual abuse, these other types of abuses are surely also products of the systemic problems Keenan describes.

Keenan’s research remains a deeply relevant source for understanding the origins and dynamics of abuse. More than that, it provides a glimpse of the vision needed for the ground-breaking change that is required to root out the problem.

(Image of grave sourced here.)

Read Part One, “The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem”

Read Part Two, “Was there a Cover-up?”

Read Part Three, “The Irish Model of Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity”





One thought on “Marie Keenan: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church – Book Review, Part 4: Addressing Clerical Sexual Abuse”

  1. Thank you so much for this four part book review. From a Catholic reform point of view this really gets below the surface to the deep roots of the problem, not just of Child Sexual Abuse, but of all the issues facing the Catholic Church at this time.

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