Marie Keenan: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church – Book Review, Part One

keenan cover“The major thesis of my work is that sexual abuse is inevitable given the meaning system that is taught by the Catholic Church and to which many priests adhere. The contradictions force failure and increase shame and a way of living that encourages sexually deviant behaviour.”

– Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 255, emphasis mine

Marie Keenan’s Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church is the most important and insightful book yet to be published on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Her central conclusion – “that sexual abuse is inevitable” – is both startling and chilling, and adds a sense of urgency to her advocacy of widespread and systemic reform in the Church.

Keenan is a lecturer at the School of Applied Social Science at University College Dublin and a registered psychotherapist who has worked for over twenty years with survivors and perpetrators of sexual crime and their families.

Keenan’s conclusions are based on wide-ranging comparative research on clerical abuse in the US, Canada, Australia, and some European countries, as well as her own clinical interviews with clerical abusers in Ireland.

Keenan departs from much of the standard work in the field, which sees clerical offenders as “sexual deviants or moral degenerates or suffering from psychological dysfunction” (p. xix). Instead, she argues that individualizing the problem of abuse to a few “bad apples” or “paedophiles” prevents us from understanding how the structures and the practices of an institution like the Catholic Church created the context in which the men abused.

Lest her aims be misunderstood, Keenan states repeatedly that she is not trying to excuse the crimes committed or minimize the trauma suffered by those who were abused.

Rather, as she urges us not to individualize the problem to one of evil and deviant priests, she also demonstrates the complexity of the child sexual abuse problem in the Church. And she makes a case that current responses, such as child protection measures, do not go far enough in addressing the problem. Rather, what is needed is wide-scale reform at multiple levels of the Church, and new theologies and ecclesiologies to support it.

Although Keenan’s book has been on the shelves for nearly two years, I haven’t observed a lot of evidence in the media, public debate, or church circles that her insights and ideas have been recognised, debated, or digested.

In reviewing her book now, I want to focus 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 one, I focus on:

The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem

Most of us are familiar with the moniker “paedophile priest.” Keenan writes that in Ireland this phrase emerged in media coverage of the Brendan Smyth case (p. 109):

“In Ireland, the coverage of sexual abuse by clergy led to the emergence of a new media template, “Brendan Smyth.” … While reporting this case, a new category of sexual offender, “the paedophile priest,” was invented by the media (Boston Globe, 2002, p. 7; Ferguson, 1995, 248). Furthermore, the media relied heavily on a powerful visual image of Smyth. From the outset, the media repeatedly used the same photograph of Brendan Smyth’s bloated and angry face, staring straight into the camera, so that he become “the living embodiment of the greatest demon in modern Ireland” (Ferguson, 1995, p. 249). Long after his death this photograph often accompanied media reports of sexual abuse by other clergy.”

brendan smythKeenan argues that focusing on “evil” individuals allows us to disassociate from the child sexual abuse problem.

Within the Church, focusing on individuals means those in authority could dismiss abuse as the sinful acts of sinful individuals. Then, the solution to the problem is admonishing or reforming the individual.

The danger is that any structural and theological aspects of the Church that created the conditions for abuse to occur are not recognized, and therefore remain unchanged.

Within Irish society, focusing on individuals means that people could rationalize that the abusers were paedophiles, unlike the rest of us. Then, the solution to the problem is removing those men from social life and contact with children. But this overlooks important facts about the nature of child abuse, which is that the majority of abusers are not paedophiles. Keenan offers evidence from multiple studies to support this point (chapter one), noting that the important John Jay College Study in the US “worked hard to discern the evidence of paraphilia in the data they studied and concluded that most of the priests who had allegations of abuse made against them were not pedophiles” (p. 14).

The danger is that reducing the problem to paedophilia means that the aspects of Irish society (including its relationship with the Church) that contributed to the conditions in which abuse could occur are not recognized, and therefore not addressed.

One key difference which Keenan found between “normal” clergy and those who abused was that those who abused were more likely to be “strict rule-keepers, “systems” men, high on religious and devotional practice and unquestioning of the institutional Church” (p. 169). She also observes that priests’ social position in Irish life presented opportunities to abuse, opportunities which were “helped by a number of factors” (p. 171):

  1. the power position they occupied both as adults and as ministers of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, which itself occupied a strong power base in Irish society (Inglis, 1998; Kirby, 1984; McDonagh, 1995, p. 5);
  2. the effects of clericalism on the men themselves and on the Catholic laity; and
  3. the lack of support, supervision, and accountability for lower-ranking clergy within the structures of the Roman Catholic Church.

Again, individualizing the child sexual abuse problem means that the consequences of these three factors are simply not taken into account by those who are attempting to address it.

In part two, I will explore why Keenan thinks the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse should not be thought of as a “cover-up.”




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

  1. A disturbing yet most interesting subject not confined to the Catholic Church.
    A friend mentioned his old granny who was an old fashioned protestant with a bigoted approach. She would insist that they ate fish on a Friday, she said why should the Catholics have all the good fish. Yet Kincora has again raised its ugly head and the involvement of abusers linked to the Orange Order. Perhaps open investigation will reveal more widespread involvement – Politicians, Police and MI5.
    Corruption and Cover-up.

Leave a Reply