Marie Keenan – Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church Book Review, Part Two: Was there a Cover-up?

keenan coverYesterday I began a series reviewing some key insights from Marie Keenan’s important 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 two, I focus on:

Why the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse should not be considered a “Cover-up”

For me, this was the book’s most surprising conclusion. Indeed, on this blog I have repeatedly referred to the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the abuse scandal.

I am not alone in this. As Keenan observes (p. 181):

“The conventional explanation of the hierarchy’s response to the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has become a theory of “cover-up” – a theory the simplicity of which is intuitively compelling and socially supported.”

The 2009 Murphy Report on abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin seems to support the cover-up theory, based on the evidence that “the Archbishop of Dublin took out insurance in 1987 to ensure against the cost of any liability that might arise from child sexual abuse by clergy” (p. 207). And then there are the multiple examples of abusing clergy being moved from place to place, so that their crimes could not be so easily discovered.

But what Keenan describes is a Church where chaos, not conspiracy, reigned. It is a Church where a perfect storm of “mistakes, misplaced loyalty, and errors of judgment” (p. 228) created the conditions where the abuse was concealed.

In short, she argues that the capacity of the institutional Church to deal with the abuse crisis was so limited, the system was so broken, that a cover-up is too generous an interpretation of what happened.

As discussed in Part One of my book review, the individualizing of the abuse problem played its part in concealing the abuse. The failure to acknowledge any systemic or cultural elements within the Church which created the climate where “sexual abuse is inevitable” (p. 255), meant that multiple small decisions were made to deal with individual offending clergy. This happened on a disorganized, ad hoc basis, in parishes and dioceses throughout the world. Keenan adds that Pope John Paul II failed to provide any coherent leadership on what to do about the abuse, barely recognizing the magnitude of the crisis.

Other factors that contributed to the concealment of abuse included:

A culture of secrecy and desire to avoid scandal

If Keenan isn’t willing to label the concealment of abuse a cover-up, she does acknowledge an endemic “culture of secrecy,” noting that (p. 204):

“All of the commissions of investigation into the handling of abuse complaints in both the United States and Ireland describe what they saw as a culture of secrecy as contributing to the problem.”

Related to this is the idea that creating “scandal” is seen as a serious sin, one that can lead people astray, so preventing scandal was often put forward as a reason for not dealing more transparently with the abuse problem.

The doctrine of “mental reservation”

An explanation of the doctrine of mental reservation appeared in the Murphy Report, and – it must be said – was met with some credulity by the media and the general public. One Irish Times headline summed it up: “Church Lied Without Lying.”

Keenan describes mental reservation this way (p. 154):

“It is believed that it is a legitimate justification for lying when the person subjectively decides the conditions to do so are present. While Catholic social teaching says it is never allowable to tell a lie, the traditional doctrine also says that people can, under an obligation to keep secrets faithfully, fulfil that duty by saying what is false. In essence, it amounts to something like not telling the whole truth, by playing with words. In the doctrine of strict mental reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words he utters, and the words, together with the mental qualification, make a true statement in accordance with fact.”

It seems that in many, many cases of abuse, church personnel justified what they said and did in public using the doctrine of mental reservation. In their minds, they were not covering up – they were telling the truth.

The misuse of the “internal forum”

In Canon law, a distinction is made between the internal forum, where an act of governance is made without publicity, and the external forum, where the act is public and verifiable. 

Keenan explains that conversations that take place in the internal forum “are generally regarded as having the status of the sacramental confession, with the seal of privacy and confidentiality.” It’s worth quoting an extended chunk of her analysis (p. 40):

Doyle (2004, p. 32) argues that the misuse of the internal forum by the bishops for matters of sexual abuse by clergy has led to some bishops claiming that their records were privileged and confidential, when in fact canon law dictates that the records belong to an external forum. He argues that the bishops either misused canon law or were not sufficiently knowledgeable of how to apply it. … Inglis (1998, p. 46), in contrast, argues that the existence of the external forum and the internal forum has been one of the organizational strengths of the Catholic Church. In practice, it means that the pope and the bishops may say one thing and the priests may state and do the opposite. Some priests argue that the existence of the external and internal forums provide a means for managing moral dilemmas, particularly regarding the pastoral issues involved in advising Church members on Church law pertaining to contraception, as determined by Humanae Vitae (1963). However, the current structure equally facilitates priests in being dishonest. In effect, clergy can pay lip service to one thing in public, but in the privacy of the confessional they can give alternative advice to the laity who seek their help. As the sexual abuse cases demonstrate, the gray area between the internal and external forum needs further exploration.”

Like the doctrine of mental reservation, the internal forum seems to provide a loophole where what is a lie to the proverbial person in the pew, can become the truth.

A lack of clarity about Canon Law

Confusion about the proper use of the internal forum provides some insight into what Keenan describes as “the disorganized chaos that appears to more accurately describe canon law since the mid-1960s” (p. 214).

She adds that the Murphy Report (p. 211):

“… found it was not easy to provide a coherent description of the relevant parts of canon law that related to child sexual abuse. This is because canon law had been in a state of flux from the 1960s onwards, “making it difficult for experts to know what the law is or where it is to be found” (Murphy Report p. 58).”

For Keenan, this created a context in which while the bishops in Ireland were trying to manage abuse cases, they were genuinely unsure about what canon law was, or how to apply it.

But was it a cover-up?

I think what Keenan demonstrates is that there was no organized, centralized, conspiratorial effort – with the Pope directing it – to systematically “cover-up” abuse throughout the Catholic world.

But she does not let the Vatican off entirely, citing the 2011 RTE documentary, Would You Believe, which (p. 193):

“… revealed documents to show how the Vatican blocked the Irish bishops’ efforts to improve child protection and bring clerical men who had abused minors to justice in Ireland.”

She adds (p. 195):

“The Vatican has never acknowledged its role in the problem of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland or that in 1997 it obstructed Irish bishops who were trying to deal with clerical perpetrators in difficult circumstances, trying to develop right policies and practices for responding pastorally to victims, deal justly with clerical perpetrators, and ensure that such abuses would not occur again. … on at least two occasions the Vatican overturned decisions by Irish ecclesiastical tribunals that recommended laicizing abusive clerics.”

… “Would You Believe raised the question whether there was a culture within the Vatican that put the rights of abusive priests over and above the rights of victims and their families.”

There might not have been a single, master “cover up.” But I still am not convinced that all the individual, cumulative efforts to conceal abuse do not warrant the moniker, “cover-up” or at the very least, “cover-ups.” For me, provisions like mental reservation and the internal forum seem like ready-made institutional mechanisms for covering things up.

(The Would You Believe documentary)

I am not ready to go all the way with Keenan with her argument about the Catholic Church’s response to abuse.

But I appreciate that she gives us some insight into how difficult it may have been, in particular, for Irish bishops to make decisions in what for them was a bewildering environment.

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


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