Omerta, the mafia code of silence, had, for centuries, wrapped the Roman Catholic Church in a cocoon of purity and kept a tight lid over the secret lives of the clergy. From time to time, there were whispers of wrongdoing by a local parish priest, or even occasionally of a bishop, but these were snuffed out quickly and the church succeeded in keeping scandals at bay for a long time. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, the veil was finally torn aside and stories of sexual abuse by these men of God, burst into the open. As the incidents of child abuse; of harassment of nuns; and, gay sex poured from all corners of the Catholic world, it was evident that the church was complicit in both protecting the priests and hiding the sleaze from the public.
The term Omerta, was first used by Italian academic, Lucetta Scaraffia, to describe the Catholic Church’s conspiracy of silence and its efforts to suppress news that could affect its public image of piety. Scaraffia was earlier the editor of a Vatican newspaper and in 2018, wrote a piece exposing the servitude of nuns in the Catholic Church, who cook and clean for bishops and other Vatican bigwigs. Scaraffia believed that if there were more women in the higher echelons of power, the veil of conspiracy could have been lifted much earlier. “We can hypothesise that a greater female presence, not at a subordinate level, would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past often covered the denunciation of these misdeeds with silence,” she wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, a Vatican newspaper.
The Secret is Out
With the secret world of priests ripped wide open, the Catholic Church is struggling to deal with the problem. Enquiries held in several parts of the world have exposed the trauma of many, who as children, were threatened not to speak of their trauma. An interim report released in December 2020 revealed that a quarter of a million children and young adults were systematically abused in New Zealand Catholic institutions from 1960 to early 2000s. The hearings, reported in the Los Angeles Times, were of three institutions in Christchurch. These were Marylands school, St Jospeh’s orphanage and the Hebron Trust.
One survivor of Marylands school, spoke of Brother Bernard McGrath, a habitual offender. Donald Ku, now an adult, recalled his trauma and the threats he received from his abuser. He was systematically abused for four years and came to accept his fate. “I was threatened by Brother McGrath to keep quiet about what was going on. Once, he took me to the hospital morgue and showed me a corpse as a way of silencing me,” he said, in his deposition before the Royal Commission, set up to hear the complaints. Imagine the frightening effect the sight of a corpse can have on a young child. He must have been haunted by images of the dead man and thought it best not to speak of it to anyone. McGrath, an Australian, is one of the worst sexual offenders of the Catholic Church. He is now in jail serving a sentence of 33 years after being convicted of 64 offences against 12 boys. These were the few who came forward, but many others have not yet had the courage to speak up. In all, there were 42 priests at Marylands at that time, and there are complaints against 21 of them.
But it was not just lowly priests who were involved in the sex scandals. One of the most prominent cases was that of a former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, one of America’s most powerful and celebrated prelates, who was known for his fundraising ability and his access to powerful political leaders such as the Archbishop of Washington. But he had been dogged with allegations of sexual abuse of young boys and fellow adult seminaries throughout his career. But he had powerful protectors within the Church. He escaped punishment, till he was forced to resign as a cardinal in 2018, after multiple accusations against him. He was finally defrocked in 2019 and expelled from priesthood. This was the first time that a powerful member was sent out of the church. Earlier this month a fresh case of sexual abuse against McCarrick was filed. He is now 92 years of age.
Outcome of Celibacy
Pedophilia is one of the results of celibacy, according to several experts. Having no other outlet to vent their sexual urge, the Catholic clergy starting from the ordinary priest at the local church to bishops and other higher prelates often misused children to satisfy their frustration. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, was the first senior Church official to make the connection between celibacy and child abuse and called for an “unflinching examination” of the possible reasons for pedophilia. “These include the issue of priest training, as well as the question of what happened in the so-called sexual revolution… It also includes the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole.”
The archbishop of Vienna was discreet in his writings. Much more forthright was Richard Sipe, a former American priest and expert on child abuse by the Catholic clergy. He had done extensive research and written a seminal book on the subject titled A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy. The book, published in 1990, declared that at any given time 50 per cent of priests, monks and bishops are celibate.
“Sooner or later, it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” he wrote in a letter in 2016 to the bishop of San Diego. “When men in authority—cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors and professors—are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviours within the system is made operative.” Sipe left the church and died in 2019. He was praised for his work in exposing the systemic cover-up by high Church officials of the predatory nature of many of its chosen flock.
Much of the lies and subterfuge arise from the vow of celibacy that priests have to take to enter the various Catholic orders to serve Christ. By insisting on celibacy and bottling up the natural urge for sex to perhaps show a priest’s commitment to Christ leads to frustrations that take a sinister turn with abuse of children entrusted to their care for religious instructions by unsuspecting parents. The renunciation of sex by men fits in well with the patriarchal denigration of women through the ages. In the Bible, Eve is the temptress who entices Adam to take a bite of the apple and commits the original sin that leads to their having to leave paradise. The parable itself is flawed against Eve, and major religions of the world have often viewed women with jaundiced eyes.
But celibacy has little to do with the Gospel. In fact, for the first 1,000 years of its existence celibacy was not a part of the Catholic code for priests. In fact, Peter, the most important of the 12 apostles of Christ was married. At least seven popes were married. Several others had children either before or during their papacies. Pope Julius II, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, fathered three daughters. Pope Hormisdas (514-523) was father of Pope Silverius (536-537). Silverius is said to have had an illegitimate daughter. So, celibacy was not enforced by the early Catholic Church. Much of this early history is forgotten. What is remembered, however, is the 1123 decree passed at the first Lateran Council, where the vow of celibacy for priests was officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. This was reinforced by the second Lateran Council held in 1139.These decrees were brought also for practical reasons: to ensure that Church property, which was often given to families by married priests, remained with the church. After 1139, celibacy became an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church. Like in other religions that advocate celibacy, it is seen as an act of self-sacrifice forgoing wife, children and sexual fulfilment in the service of God. The Church believes that celibacy is a “special gift of God,” which allows a priest to closely follow the example of Christ who was a celibate.
This has continued, despite the unfolding controversies and the fact that celibacy has encouraged a culture of lying to cover-up the misdeeds. Most Popes, in recent times, have stuck to the doctrine of celibacy for priests. Aside from seeing celibacy as God’s gift, Pope Paul VI, termed it as God’s “brilliant jewel” and asked all bishops and priests to retain it, despite changes in the world’s current value system. The term, brilliant jewel, has stuck as it showed the very best that a Catholic priest had to offer as his single-minded commitment to Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II, too, was equally supportive of celibacy for priests. To the Catholic hierarchy, living a life of complete sexual abstinence implies a complete service to God.
Pope Francis, generally much more open-minded than his predecessors, has also not endorsed dropping the celibacy clause, possibly for the push-back within the Vatican against reform of the Church tradition. Yet today, more and more voices within the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America and Africa are calling for change.
In 2019, Pope Francis took a baby step for reform by passing a new law in the Vatican that every diocese across the world will now have to report sex abuse by the clergy to their superiors. The church will now have a clear system of reporting, though secrets revealed during “confessions” cannot be breached. While announcing a new papal measure, the Pope said that the “bitter lessons of the past” cannot be forgotten, and “it is time to learn from our mistakes,” in an obvious reference to the scandals that have tarnished the image of the Church.
Pope Francis held a Synod of Bishops in October 2019 to address other problems faced by the church, including the issue of the shortage of priests in the Amazon region of Brazil. During the discussions, the question of mandatory celibacy, which was preventing people from joining the Church, was debated. In a vote that was taken on celibacy, the majority of bishops voted for removing the celibacy clause for priesthood. Despite the overwhelming opinion against celibacy, Pope Francis was not in a position to change it because of the large section of the powerful clergy from the upper rungs of the Catholic hierarchy opposed the move.
Yet this is a real crisis for the future of the Church. The biggest opposition to celibacy comes from the African continent, where Catholic numbers are growing the most. But the problem in Africa is that priests are averse to celibacy with many within the fold keeping secret families. Father Peter Njogu, broke away from the Church on the issue of celibacy and founded a breakaway Renewed Universal Catholic Church in Kenya. “No one in the Vatican understands the African soul. They do not understand that for the African man, priest or not, the worst sin is to leave this world without siring a child,” The Washington Post quoted Njogu. “Mandatory celibacy is thus the root of priestly sin, but they pretend all is well while their house is burning to the ground.” Njogu is married and at least 20 other priests followed him to join his order.
Pressure is building from both inside and outside the church for reform of the Catholic Church and the need for dropping the mandatory celibacy clause. Priests are urging for this unnatural clause that was not originally a part of the Catholic Church.
“Mandatory celibacy for the diocesan clergy of the Roman rite should be abandoned immediately. It is a necessary first step in the reforming of Catholic priesthood. It will make us more mature, more honest and more virtuous. It will also give the church the shepherds she needs for the flock,” says Father Peter Daly, a retired priest of the Washington Archdiocese and a lawyer. After 31 years of parish service, he now works with Catholic Charities.
(This appeared in the print as as 'Children Of Abuse')