Jude Collins

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Methinks the gentlemen doth protest too much

Iranian clergymen chant anti-U.S and anti-Israel slogans while they attend a rally to support Gaza near the Palestine Embassy in Tehran, Iran on December 29, 2008. (UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

I got verbally mugged yesterday. By three men of the cloth. Let me tell you about it.

UTV have a programme called ‘The Issue’ , hosted by Jim Dougal. This week they were discussing the Pope’s visit to Britain and I was invited to be in the audience at the Navan Centre outside Armagh.  So I went along and tried not to feel intimidated by the number of serious-looking men in round collars standing around outside the theatre where the programme was to be recorded. So in the course of the show Jim Dougal asked me what my thoughts were and I asked if maybe the pooled wisdom of the panel could help me: was there any research which showed that there was a higher incidence of child abuse by Catholic clergy than by clergy of any other Christian Churches, and was there any research showing a higher incidence of Catholic clergy abuse over that in the general population? The panel, which included the Rev Lindsay Allen, the Rev Lesley Carroll and Nuala O’Loan,  said they didn’t  know of any.  Why then, I wondered, was there an exclusive focus on the child abuse within the Catholic Church?

And that was that. Or it was until I emerged after the programme. In the lobby, I felt a hand on my arm and that’s when the verbal mugging began.  Two Church of Ireland clergy (one of whom remained silent but stony-faced throughout) and one Presbyterian minister informed me I had the wrong end of the stick.  There was no sexual abuse by Protestant clergymen, it was a vice peculiar to the Catholic clergy, and the reason was because they were celibate.  I asked how it was, then, that  there was considerable abuse among the wider population, from uncles, brothers, grandfathers, cousins of the victims?  I didn’t really get an answer to that but I was assured that they ‘knew’ there was no abuse to speak of among Protestant clergy and that it all came down to the celibacy issue along with the deliberate cover-up of abuse by the Catholic Church. No need to look for research on such matters: they just knew.

What shocked me a bit, in my innocence, was the absolutist, almost angry tone that the clergymen adopted. They weren’t discussing this, they were telling me. What’s more, they were telling me because they knew, not because they had evidence to support their argument.  Who knows – maybe they’re right on all counts. Maybe there are higher levels of child abuse by Catholic clergy than by their Protestant counter-parts.  But isn’t consideration of such matters supposed to be conducted in a rational, open manner – questioning rather than informing?

Clerical arrogance. Maybe that’s another sin not peculiar to the Catholic clergy.  


  1. Clerical arrogance is, unfortunately, definitely not something reserved for any particular denomination (thus spake the COI employee...)

    In terms, however, of cases of child abuse (and from hereon in I'm probably only half right), it may be significant that the Church of Ireland was (I think) the first denomination to heavily invest in child protection policies and training, way back in the dark ages (i.e. the early 1980s.) Whilst this would have nothing to do with possible prior offences, it has, I believe, led to the Church actually being a little ahead of the curve and preempting the growth of media awareness of such things, stamping out any possibility of evil transgression before the general public would be consciously looking out for it.

    I've heard, on more than one occasion, clergy and staff admit their relief that the COI appear to have escaped, thus far, with a clean bill of health. And whilst some of this might be considered down to good fortune, I personally reckon the huge weight of Safeguarding Trust over everything has played its part.

    As for celibacy - a short bit of familiar theology. Off the top of my head, it's 1 Cor 7 where Paul makes that massive comment, 'It is good for a man not to marry.' Which is true. But it is also said in the same tone as if I were to say, "It is good for a man not to cry." We're all big tough men and don't want to be seen crying, but sooner or later we will find ourselves unable to stop. And such is what Paul goes on to say in his letters. Old Paul had the gift of celibacy - and that's a debate for another day - but he points out that it is "better for a man to marry than to burn with the fire of passion" (or something like that!)

    Point being - the choice of celibacy isn't the problem. But, as the Bible points out, mandatory celibacy is impossible, because everyone is different. That a Pope decided at some point that because Jesus said (Matt 19:12) that for some men it would be possible for some men to stay celibate in order to focus on God, said Holy Father then decided he could then use it universally. Thing is, the very verse before that (Matt 19:11) Jesus himself also said, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given." However, as with many churches at many times, it's a lot more convenient just to acknowledge the bit you need to prove your point.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  2. Good to hear from you, Pete. My God you're a learned chap. Quick point re Catholic Church and celibacy - I am agin compulsory celibacy myself (not for myself, just 'myself') but it being compulsory for all Cath priests still does involve an element of choice. I think your point about from the 80s on and Cof I protective structures is a good one, and your acknowledgement of possible stuff having happened prior to that - a point I tried to raise in the course of my verbal elbowing-session, but I don't think anyone was listening...
    Keep the faith, as they say...

  3. It would be naive and unfair to suggest that there are no abusive protestant clergy - Indeed some have been prosecuted and convicted of same. I think the real issue today is not the fact of child abuse but fact of its systemic cover up.

  4. Important point, paddyanglican - but I still would like some firm answers re prevalence of abuse across the churches and society generally. If the Catholic Church is just one of many, then it's presently a bit like singling out one bald man in a room full of baldies and berating him for his lack of hair...(Not that any one would ever do that - people are kind to baldies in my experience)