Addressing Sexual Abuse

Rev. Peter Timmins

When it comes to the sexual abuse issue in the church, I admit to having considerable difficulty in identifying, analysing and assembling all of the building blocks.

I was ordained in the spring of 1961. Long before that, I was aware that some priests had been rumoured to have "fooled around" with boys. I do not recall having considered the kids involved as being victims as much as having done nasty or dirty things with a priest. The priest was generally transferred to another parish or diocese and that was the end of it. It was very much like stealing or getting drunk. No big deal and soon, so I thought, forgotten.

I remember when in grade 6 or 7 in a private, non-denominational boys school, one of my teachers, who was as strange as they make them, was involved with one of the boys in my class. The boy who shared his experiences with us was, at least in our view, something of an entrepreneur!

Years later, as a young priest, I was shocked by the amount of incest that I encountered. That a father would impregnate his own little girl revolted me but that the occasional weird priest got his "Jollies" from fondling some kid seemed to be, though sick and unacceptable, without long term consequences. I recall one priest who arrived on the scene from England. I now know that he brought with him a long, long record of abusing boys. In Montreal he was to be given another chance! He sure took full advantage of it! Before being sent scurrying back to England with the R.C.M.P on his tail he had increased his score significantly.

That was in the late '60s or early '70s and that was the first time that I remember having heard of children being seen by psychologists in an effort to minimize the long-term effects of this kind of abuse. From that time on, I heard more and more about individuals and groups surfacing with stories blaming their dysfunctionality on traumatic experiences at the hands of clergy. The acceptable solution for this was and remains money, lots and lots of money. Some money has been used to buy silence and some to compensate for the damage done.

Within the Catholic clerical culture, the primary focus has been to protect the church from scandal no matter what the cost. In time this policy has become, in itself, the greatest cause of scandal. Those involved have been told by the church officials that they must make any sacrifice required to protect the honor and reputation of Holy Mother Church. For offenders, that meant: "Go somewhere else and straighten up!" For victims and their families it meant: "Forget it!" In the name of loyalty to the church they were to forget it and if it took a few dollars to cement the bargain, so be it!

We have now reached the stage where sexual abuse by a priest is a collectable. People are scouring the depths of their closets to come up with a real or perhaps not so real moneymaker. At the same time, society recognizes that there is nothing trivial or short lived about sexual abuse and we all agree that where possible, it must be stopped. I agree with those who say that men with such urges ought not to be ordained into the happy hunting ground of pastoral ministry and I would add that those who have offended and are ordained should be denied the credentials and the opportunities which would seriously over-challenge their best intentions. But, I also believe that some, if willing, could function in very limited non-public ministries.

I share the opinion that any substantive complaints should be referred to civil authorities as we are dealing here with crime and not just sinfulness. The habitual abuse of power by a number of those who have risen to the upper echelons of the clerical culture must be thoroughly and frankly addressed, as must those values and priorities of that culture, which have proven to be inimical to Christianity.

In my quest for truth and understanding I have combined the actions of the sexual offenders, those of some bishops and the victims of both and to this mix I have added the naivety and ignorance common to a bygone era which formed such a large part of my own past. But this has not been enough to leave me with an unclouded picture of the reality with which we are faced. There remains the thorny issue of homosexuality.

I have been carting around several questions and I am earnestly in search of answers. Those who know me well know that I reject the premise that God intends some men to copulate with women and some with other men. I do not believe in the creation of Adam and Steve. They also know that I believe that those who are inclined to homosexual activity are suffering from a disorder which in no way limits their fundamental value and their consequent right to respect.

My own pastoral experience indicates that homosexual men are far more preoccupied with genital activity than is the average heterosexual and that their friendships and their social and professional networks form the essence of a sexual orientation based culture. A culture which has a lot in common with the clerical culture which continues to dominate the church today. In some cases they appear to overlap. Is there any truth in these observations? Is it indeed harder for a homosexual to live a celibate life? Are the demands made upon a homosexual celibate in an all male environment such as a seminary anything short of cruel? Does the fact that the majority of sexual abuse cases involving a male priest also involve a male youth indicate that these men are by definition homosexuals? By this I am not suggesting that ALL homosexuals are potential abusers. Authoritative, objective replies to these questions would greatly help to inform me and I suspect, a number of others.

One way or another I think that this question and reported trends in seminary enrolment require careful analysis.

To those of you who have come this far with me and are angered by the tone and content of my questions and observations, I assure you that I seek clarity of vision and depth of understanding but above all, I seek a truly compassionate attitude. I am one priest who is trying to put aside the anger once associated with perceived betrayal and I have embraced, within my very real limitations, a compassionate and hopeful vision of the future. A future blessed with a gathering of the church's many gifts and the harnessing of its collective wisdom.

Your comments are welcome.

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