21 March 2012

Vincent and the Visitation, or Confusing Correlation with Causation

I feel uncomfortable commenting on Vincent Browne's article in today's Irish Times, because I've not read Marie Keenan's Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organisational Culture. It's clearly an important book, and one I'll need to read. 

I've read mountains of statistical data and other research on abuse over the years, with special reference to Ireland and to the Church, but also more broadly, and it does seem to me that this is essential reading. I must know at least a couple of people who have copies, so perhaps I'll see if I can borrow one of theirs at some point.

That said, if Vincent Browne's representation of the book is fair, it seems to have at least one utterly colossal failing. Vincent's article consists of, in the main, two things: a potted summary of Marie Keenan's book, and a completely misguided criticism of the summary report of the recent Apostolic Visitation of the Irish Church. I'll quote his summary of Keenan's book at length:
'Clerical sexual abuse is inevitable given the meaning system that is taught by the Catholic Church and to which many priests adhere.

Contradictions in that system lead to failure, increase shame and a way of living that encourages deviant behaviour.

This is the thesis of a revealing book on sexual abuse within the church by an Irish academic and therapist who interviewed, at length, nine priests and brothers convicted of child abuse, who counselled several other clerical abusers and who undertook extensive research on the issue for her book Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organisational Culture. The author is Marie Keenan of the school of applied social science at UCD.


The culture inculcated in Catholic clergy is that they are separate from other human beings because of their special “calling” from God, because of their sole capacity to administer the sacraments, to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, because of their power to forgive sin and administer the last rites.

From the moment of their ordination they are apart, apart in the minds of other convinced Catholics and apart in their own minds. And they are also celibate, because of that “calling”. Abjuring intimate sexual relations, sublimating their sexual urges and widely admired in the communities they inhabit on account of that sublimation.

Keenan says this theology of sacrifice eclipses all human considerations. She says her argument is not that clerical celibacy is the problem but a Catholic externally-imposed sexual ethic and a theology of priesthood that “problematises” the body and erotic sexual desire and emphasises chastity and purity, over a relational ethic (how as human beings we should treat each other).

She says this theology of sexuality contributes to self-hatred, shame and a sense of personal failure on the part of some priests.

This tension is often exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness on the part of many priests within a hierarchical, authoritarian church, subject to the authority of bishops or heads of religious orders, often allowing them with little sense of being in control of their own lives. And this is further added to by loneliness.

Some priests cope with this by easing off on the celibacy bit. Some ease off the celibacy bit with guilt, some with a sense of doing their best with their human frailties.

According to Keenan it is often the priests who aspire to priestly perfection and are hugely conflicted with the demands of such perfection that resort to child sexual abuse, usually, she says, not opportunistically, but consciously and deliberately over time. And this seems to be confirmed by other research.

Moreover, in many ways, the release of the confessional – the opportunity to dispel guilt in a secret ritual – compounds the problem. The “external” imposition (by the church) of the priestly ethic, rather than the cultivation of an internal ethic, also contributes to the propensity to abuse; for the construction of an internal ethic involves reflection on the impact of one’s conduct on the lives of others and that seems to have been missing in the make-up of many of the clerical abusers.'
While I've no doubt that there is something to this analysis, I don't see that it can possibly make sense. The statistics don't allow for it, as two considerations should make clear.

Firstly, clergy seem to abuse at a rate that is no higher and that may be significantly lower than the general male population. Yes, we all know that abusive clergy and those who've protected them and callously or naively facilitated their activities have done a nightmarish amount of harm, but the fact remains that in Ireland, clerical abuse is but the tip of a massive national iceberg of sexual abuse. The 2002 SAVI report found that for every person abused by a priest, 59 people were abused by people who weren't clergy. As Fintan O'Toole has said, the sex abuse scandal in Ireland has nothing to do with Catholicism.

Secondly, insofar as Catholic clergy have abused children, they don't seem to have abused at a more-or-less uniform rate. In America it seems about 4% of clergy have been subject to credible abuse allegations, and according to the first Murphy Report, accusations may have been levied at as many as 6% of priests who served in Dublin from the 1940s on. Damning though these figures are, it's striking that accusations seem only to have been levied at 0.6% of Catholic priests in England and Wales; given that the theology of the priesthood is no different in England than in Ireland, one wonders why Irish clergy seem to have been ten times more likely to abuse, or be accused of abuse, than their English brethren. 

It really looks to me as though Marie Keenan's book, at least as represented by the likes of Vincent Browne, eschews statistics for anecdotes, begs a few questions, and above all confuses correlation with causation.

On the Visitation
As for the rest of Vincent's article, well, it seems as though he rather missed the point of the Visitation, which was never intended to focus on the precise issue of abuse. Rather, it's worth revisiting how Benedict first announced plans for the Visitation, in his 19 March 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland:
'Furthermore, having consulted and prayed about the matter, I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference.'
The purpose of the Visitation was to help the Irish Church towards  renewal. It would hardly within the remit of the Visitation to consider how society treats priests who had been found guilty of abuse or to have weighed up how the theology of the priesthood contributes towards a culture of abuse when the statistical evidence suggests it does no such thing. 

It should be recognised, though, that the Visitation clearly looked into the Church's current safeguarding procedures and found that they're up to scratch now. Of course, we know that; the Cloyne Report found that the Church's child protection policies are superior to those of the State, and on the basis of the various reports Ian Elliott had conducted into how those procedures are being implemented, it seems that Cloyne had been the weak link in an otherwise -- if belatedly -- strong chain.

That said, it is hugely unfair of Vincent to have said, as he did:
'In general there seems to be little interest in why this clerical abuse has occurred and what it is within the Catholic culture that has engendered it. The dismissive explanation that it is all due to the "flawed" personalities of the abusers ignores the cultural and formative factors that at least contributed to the phenomenon.'
Over the last day or so I've heard no shortage of snorting and sneering about the summary's focus on seminaries and the issue of fidelity to the teaching of the Church. The fact is that these are crucial to ensuring that the Church is renewed in Ireland and that abominations like the abuse scandal don't happen afresh. It's clear that both selection and priestly formation must have been deficient in the past, and there is widespread dissent from the teaching of the Church, not least among the clergy.

There's a sense in which there's a straightforward equation at work. Careful selection and better formation should lead to better priests, and better priests will be less likely to abuse, better equipped to deal with allegations of misconduct of whatever form, and better able to minister to their people.

The Visitation also addresses the issue of clericalism when it talks of a new focus on the role of the laity; it's asking ordinary Irish Catholics to step up to play a responsible, faithful, informed, and active role in the Church, rather than being passive figures.

The Summary should be recognised as being but a summary; it deals in broad brush strokes when it says that if we want a better Church we need a better clergy and a better laity, and while it hints at how these can be achieved, it doesn't dwell on detail. We can assume the detail is, has been, and will be a matter of serious discussion. Matters will become more clear.

In the meantime, we shouldn't be criticising the Visitation's summary for not being something it was never meant to be.

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