The priests who fell to Earth

As clerics face sex abuse charges in Ireland, Clare Garner wonders how much longer the Catholic Church can avoid facing up to reality
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The Independent Online
BARELY a week goes by without more lurid headlines reminding us of the depressingly sordid side of the Roman Catholic Church. This week five members of a Catholic order will appear in Galway district court facing a total of 76 charges of abuse.

"All of us sit in dread that something's going to come in the morning post or newspapers," admitted Christopher Budd, Bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Portsmouth, who is responsible for handling the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. "I don't read the News of the World, but sometimes I have to."

Yesterday the Christian Brothers, an international Roman Catholic teaching order, came clean about the sexual abuse which has been going on for years in its schools in Ireland. In a national newspaper advertisement, it apologised to any victims "who complained of abuse and were not listened to".

The notion of not being listened to will undoubtedly strike a chord with other victims of abuse by clergy in this country. All too often, the Church's response to sexual abuse allegations is to hope they will go away. Priests are quietly sent off for treatment or moved to another parish. They are not struck off.

Much of the sexual abuse involving clergy occurs in a counselling context. Anyone who leans on their parish priest is entitled to feel that he, of all people, should understand the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship. He has, after all, taken a vow of celibacy. But if the boundaries are crossed and a relationship develops, in many cases the Church refuses to accept vicarious responsibility.

Mary Edwardes, an advocacy worker for the Abuse in Therapy and Counselling Support Network, finds fighting cases involving clergy the hardest of all because the Church is so obstructive. "If I take someone to the British Association of Counselling and they find someone guilty, they are struck off. It's a pro-active investigation. With the Church, the situation is no better than with unregistered astrology counsellors," she says.

"How long can one go on saying that the Church is not responsible when it makes every other decision which relates to these men's lives? It just moves them to another parish. That is putting other people at risk."

One of Ms Edwardes' clients is Pamela Brown, 43, who turned to her parish priest, Father Terence Fitzpatrick, for counselling about sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Fr Fitzpatrick, who had accompanied Ms Brown to see the psychologist who had been treating her for mental problems brought on by the abuse, proceeded to coax her into having sexual contact with him.

He has admitted in police statements that Ms Brown's allegations were essentially true, yet Ms Edwardes cannot get the Church to assume any responsibility for the damage inflicted on her client. Fr Fitzpatrick is still practising as a priest in four parishes in the Reading area.

The Church has argued the legal aspect of "consenting adults", but last week Bishop Budd commented on the Fitzpatrick case. "I would share your alarm," he said. "Whatever diocese it is may well think: `It's not children', but we have to be very careful because a lot of adult women are very vulnerable, particularly if they've been abused themselves. I'm surprised he's still in the ministry. As a bishop, I would hope to be more interventionist - get him out of the diocese. He obviously needs help, as indeed does the woman.

"I suppose we've learnt the hard way that abusers don't tend to change if you just move them around."

What action should the Church be taking in terms of treating the known perpetrators - and is there such a thing as a cure for abusing clergyman? Ray Wyre has looked at the problems of sexual abuse as they relate to the clergy. He was the director of the pioneering and controversial Gracewell Clinic, Britain's only residential centre for sex offenders, in Birmingham, and has devoted his career to working with men like the notorious child murderer, Robert Black. Mr Wyre is internationally recognised for his work with sex offenders, religious and otherwise.

One of the key reasons why the problem of sexual abuse is so acute in the Catholic Church is, Mr Wyre believes, the celibacy rule. Celibacy, he says, should be voluntary. "Priests who were sexually abused as boys see celibacy as a place of safety, but soon discover that they are not going to escape the problem in that way. There is a personality type which likes the concept of never laying with anyone," he said.

"Celibacy is about a choice and a decision about sexuality, not a denial. The moment you repress and deny there can be a problem of how it leaks out. I talk about `fantasy leakage'. It's amazing how priests' sexual fantasies leak out in the context of women. A lot of priests, once they start to fail sexually, take the attitude `once I fail I might as well fail'. They target whoever is available - men, women and children."

Mr Wyre believes that some direct instruction at seminaries about the difficulties surrounding sexuality would also help. "You can still train to be a priest without sexuality and celibacy being discussed. Theological colleges should be looking at the issues surrounding boundaries and counselling."

Mr Wyre is astounded by some of the attitudes to sexual sin that he comes across. " You have people in the Church who think masturbation is a greater sin than having a relationship with a child."

Bishop Budd agrees with Mr Wyre that sexually abusing priests are ultimately better served by treatment in a secular, rather than religious, setting. "I think, at a certain stage, the priest has to face quite bluntly - without the cushioning of faith or religion - what he has done."

And in a radical departure from the Church's position in the past, Bishop Budd suggested that abusing priests should pay the price of their ministry. "At the end of the day, someone who has an active faith and wants to discover it in a wholesome fashion has to show repentance. For a priest, that may be to say `I'll give up my ministry'."