“Safeguarding What?” by Nicholas Peter Harvey

As a result of the crisis over sexual abuse of children by priests the episcopal leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in England is now fully committed to a brand new system of control.  There is an army of what are called safeguarding officers, parochial, diocesan and national, whose role and work, it is claimed, will ensure maximum protection of children.  The creation of this system was not preceded by any serious attention to the nature of priesthood,  or to questions about sexuality and the exercise of power in our Church.  All that has happened is a surrender of power by bishops and religious superiors to safeguarding officers in this one particular.  In theory the task of these officials is advisory, in practice their judgement seems decisive.  What is to be made of this?

There is a clear logic in play.  Given that bishops in general have been shown to be incompetent and sometimes worse in their dealings with abusive priests, what could be more sensible than to hand over judgement to independent experts?  Furthermore, given that the earlier priority was on playing down the seriousness of the offence and its consequences, priority must now be given to the interests of those abused.  This is known as the paramountcy principle, which has come to hold sway in the wider society.

This latter fact is sometimes adduced in defence of our new policy: at the very least we must show that we match society’s rigour, if not exceed it.  Yet on the issue of adoption by a gay couple the bulk of our leadership is happily and aggressively counter-cultural, to such  an extent that Catholic adoption agencies have either had to cease to operate or to distance themselves from the Church.  For all the outstanding work these bodies have done over the years they have now been sacrificed to a high-toned stance against the societal trend.  My point is that the paramountcy principle in child protection has not been subjected to any comparable critical scrutiny before becoming the cornerstone of Church policy.  This curious contrast merits further examination.

What seems to have happened is that our leadership has  been panicked by appalling publicity into a dramatic change of direction over sexual abuse alone, otherwise leaving the existing power-structure and its accompanying habits of mind  in place.  This shift has brought to an end our former preference for dealing with abusive behaviour in-house and in our particular way, without involving the criminal justice system.  Nowadays allegations with even the slightest degree of credibility must at once be reported to the police, while the accused priest immediately departs on what is euphemistically described as administrative leave.  This entails considerable restrictions on his freedom of movement and activity.  When  the police have completed their dealings with him the safeguarding procedure comes into play, seeking to decide in view of what has come to light whether or on what terms this person should be allowed to resume ministry.  Public perception is important here.  The official line is that administrative leave occurs without prejudice to guilt or innocence, but it does not look so.  It appears that in this one sphere the Church is inclined to believe that any accused individual is guilty until proved innocent.

When priests abusing children first became a headline bishops began to say that we must make the Catholic Church an example of best practice in this matter.  These pronouncements led Hugo Young, in what proved to be his last article in the Guardian, to note what he saw as the breathtaking arrogance of our episcopal leaders.  Rather than this somewhat moralistic observation I prefer to suggest that these remarks  demonstrate the same overriding concern for the image of the Church which drove the earlier and now discredited policy.  The pre-occupation seems to be with how, having failed so abysmally, we can now show ourselves in the best possible light.  This is not to say that there is no concern for children, but that such concern is clearly not the driving force here.  The brave new world of safeguarding was called into being by a discredited leadership who show no appetite for serious re-appraisal of the clericalist culture whose diseased condition is arguably at the heart of the ongoing crisis.  Sexual abuse by priests is approached as if it is a thing on its own, which can be stopped by an exemplary procedural rigour.  Our Church is now committed to treating the most horrifying symptom of what is wrong as if it is itself the disease.

I spoke to someone who was brought up in the parish of the Norbertine priest Brendan Smyth, who became the most notorious of the serial abusers of children among the Irish clergy, ending his days in prison.  ‘All the children knew what he was up to’, said my informant.  ‘Well armed with sweets, he tried it with everybody.  We didn’t tell anyone.  We were afraid of the priest, and afraid to tell our parents because in that world the priest could do no wrong’.  In the comparable case of Sean Fortune in Wexford it seems that grown-ups did know something, for there were jokes about the priest’s proclivity, but nobody was prepared to take responsibility by taking the matter further.  Passivity and deference remain factors in the continuance of clericalist domination of the Church.

A nun said recently, ‘We  seem to have replaced one set of injustices with another’.  Injustices to abused children and vulnerable adults have been succeeded by injustices to accused priests.  The most remarkable feature of this story is the readiness of our leadership to sacrifice priests to the paramountcy principle, in the name of which the most elementary considerations of justice are being denied to the accused.  There is a parallel injustice to those dependent on the ministry of these priests, who depart suddenly and without adequate explanation as investigations proceed.  What are parishioners and friends supposed to make of this?  Of course the sufferings of accused priests and their parishioners, relatives and friends are not commensurate with the ordeal of the abused, but they are not insignificant.

Along  with the folly of those who refuse to believe any ill of their priest, we now have the matching and opposite unwisdom of seeing any hint of abusive behaviour through the lens of a one-size-fits-all reductionism.  The tendency is to regard anyone who has ever done anything which comes into this category as thereafter, and for ever, a danger to children.  In the present climate any hint of abusive behaviour, of whatever kind and however long ago, induces a readiness to believe that the suspect is a serial predator on the watch for further opportunities.  Allegations against priests, not surprisingly, cover a wide spectrum of sexual behaviours, many from a long time ago.  Yet the ill-informed mantra persists that any such behaviour indicates an addictive pattern which, if not incurable, is at best extremely intractable.  It is hard to ensure a hearing for those experienced people who know this is far from true.

Of course one abused child is one too many.  But ought we not also to deplore the irreversible destruction of a priest’s way of life by over-reaction to or misinterpretation of a particular charge?  Our Church needs urgently to learn to transcend the punitive ethos which generates such injustice.

It might well have aroused suspicion, but does not seem to have done so, that an authority which for so long has practised concealment and denial in a form which often precipitated further abuse should have been so suddenly converted to aggressive safeguarding.  What has happened is that our leadership has opted for the easy course of procedural rather than fundamental reform.  Furthermore, the safeguarding process is extra-canonical, so that it lacks the checks and balances characteristic of a well-established legal system.  Much in canon law is designed to protect the interests of the individual, but there appears to be no appeal to those provisions from the findings of the safeguarding officers.

This observable readiness to allow canonical provisions to be set aside suggests what is really happening.  The previous policy of sacrificing children’s well-being to the maintenance of the Church’s good name has been replaced by the sacrifice of accused priests to the attempted restoration of that name.  The controlling factor throughout has been a concern with image rather than substance.  The crisis is seen as something to be managed rather than as an opportunity for creative learning.  In theological terms  the chance of further conversion of the Church is being missed.  But the authoritarian ecclesiology which rules our Church militates against any readiness to allow this possibility.

The sexual abuse crisis, grave as it is, is only the latest and most spectacular sign that we have a problem of priesthood and therefore of authority.  This problem has been brewing for most of my lifetime in the decline of the iconic, set-apart, quasi-monastic, all-male, celibate priestly caste, which for so long had seemed the unquestioned heart-beat of the Catholic Church.  As late as the 1950s this form of priesthood, essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent, had not lost its potency.  Since then there has been a waning of its ability to inspire and channel the energies of young men in significant numbers into life-long priestly service.  It is true that within the world of what are known as the new religious movements recruits for priesthood are coming forward, but despite superficial similarities these are not the same breed as before.  The choice they are making is not to serve the Church as we have it but rather a kind of post-modern nostalgia for an idealised version of a Church  which never existed.

The steep decline of mainstream priesthood over the last fifty years has a variety of causes.  Two seem especially germane to our present turbulence.  Firstly, seminary life so insisted on conformity in matters of doctrine and behaviour to a single over-arching ideal as to be inimical to the healthy development of personality.  A senior priest summed this up recently by saying that his seminary formation amounted to abuse, though not in a directly sexual sense.  For a significant number psycho-sexual immaturity was part of this effect.  A second and related area of difficulty was that a considerable number of aspirants, troubled or at least confused about their sexuality in early manhood, imagined and in some instances were led to think that priesthood would provide them with a safe haven in which that whole problematic could be set aside.  In the post-Freudian world of today such assumptions seem naïve, but the theocratic world of the seminary was slow to recognise the wisdom of psychoanalytic insight into the power of the unconscious.  A dualistic theology of divine grace tended to say that whatever turmoil you were in would be stilled or at least made manageable when you committed yourself to the priestly state, provided of course your commitment was sincere.  This invited disaster, which duly came in many guises, including abuse of children.

Difficulties of this kind were heightened by the fact that in the Catholic system an ordained priest has no real accountability to those he serves.  A power-trip is always on the cards, facilitated by the inadequacy in this regard of canon law, and still more by the infantilisation of the laity which characterises our Church.  Given that sexual abuse is commonly in some part an abuse of power, it has found a relatively favourable ethos in our priesthood.  Still on the theme of power, the crisis is much more about inadequate and misguided oversight than it is about abuse as such.  It is fatally easy to lose sight of this in the midst of understandable, justified revulsion at particular abuses.  It gives the worst possible signal that bishops such as Cardinals Bernard Law and Murphy-O’Connor, whose earlier attitudes led to the continuance of horrifying abuse, are still honoured by the Vatican and in the Church at large.  The former presided, until his retirement, over a Roman basilica, and remained a member of several Roman dicasteries, while the latter was recently appointed by the Pope to head up the apostolic visitation of the archdiocese of Armagh following revelations of clerical sexual abuse in that region.  You couldn’t make it up!  Appointments such as these make clear that our present leadership has no serious intention of pursuing any radical scrutiny of the clerical state.

The dubious role of sacramental confession in the whole saga also merits reflection.   There is evidence that some serially abusing priests were able to quiet their consciences  while knowing their secret was safe because of the seal, which binds the confessor to absolute confidentiality.  Sacramental confession was seen as setting to rights the individual’s link with God rather than promoting any serious address to the delinquent behaviour in question.  No doubt they convinced themselves at each confession that they had what we used to call ‘a firm purpose of amendment’, and who is to say that they were not sincere?  In these circumstances confession becomes a device for precisely not having to face the consequences of abusive behaviour.  An imprisoned abusive priest made the point succinctly: ‘The sacrament gave us permission to sin’.  This is a pointed epitome of the penitential practice of my religious childhood.  No wonder the Irish government is seriously considering legislating against the seal!  Can confidentiality ever be an absolute in the sense in which we were brought up to believe?

At work here also is the tendency of all professions, and indeed of all human groupings, to close ranks in protection of their own.  In our present sacramental discipline only a priest can hear confessions.  Up to the fourth Lateran Council early in the thirteenth century it was permissible to confess to an unordained person.  Might such a person have been more ready than a priest-confessor to insist that for sexual abuse of a minor the appropriate penance, without which absolution would not be given, was that the penitent should tell the relevant authorities in Church and state what he had done?   Penance used long ago to be a serious component of this sacrament, and this suggestion would certainly make it so again.  But the abuser, faced with such a prospect, would presumably cease to go to confession.

It is beginning to be recognised that research into the childhood experiences of perpetrators and a recognition of the importance of treating the victim in the perpetrator are key to understanding child abuse.  This is an invitation to think beyond the manichaean categorisation of abuser and abused, as if individuals can only be one or the other.  As long as the Catholic authorities continue to give absolute priority to the paramountcy principle this humane perspective can find no place.  This principle militates against justice by absolutising one element in the situation, namely the supposed welfare of children, as if this can be adequately considered apart from everything else.  This insight in no way lessens the seriousness of sexually abusive behaviour, but suggests a context in which it can be understood and guarded against with the cooperation of the offender.  While it may be true from a social work perspective that there are situations in which appeal to the paramountcy principle can be defended, it should not have become a rule of thumb for the Church in its quest for renewed respectability.

A sinister recent development comes in the form of pressure from the Vatican on bishops to get rid by way of enforced laicisation of some abusively-inclined priests.  This desire to wash our hands of abusers will be lauded in some quarters, but hardly manifests a real concern for children.  It suggests rather a desire on the part of the institution to rid itself of responsibility, while being seen to be tough on defaulting priests.  The primary aim here is to re-furbish the image of priesthood, as in the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s interregnum homily to the assembled cardinals, and of course to the world, saying that we must get rid of the rubbish from the Church

Celibacy was intrinsic and central to the image of the iconic priesthood.  Its symbol-power within that image sprang from an assumption, prevalent for most of Christian history, that the celibate state was superior to any other.  It was therefore seen as an appropriate and indeed necessary concomitant of priesthood, though its observance was predictably patchy and never fully enforced.  In the twentieth century the Church began to emerge from its long neo-platonic captivity into a more positive appraisal of embodiment in general and sexuality in particular.  It is amusing now to recall the old ‘penny catechism’ putting a question about the human likeness to God: ‘Is this likeness to God chiefly in my body or in my soul?’  The predictable answer was of course the soul, a reply dictated by the dualism implicit in the question and now abandoned in favour of a more integrated approach.

This change, while good news for the Church, was bad news for consecrated celibacy, at least as obligatory for priests.  Once being celibate ceased to be central to the Image of the ideal Christian it became something else, losing much of its mystique in the process and becoming a kind of life-style choice, or at least something that was no longer sustained by the unquestioning support of the Catholic culture.  It ceased to be theologically respectable to assert that committed celibacy was the supreme expression of total commitment to God, everything else being somehow second-best.  A  justification was needed other than St Paul’s conviction, which had proved remarkably long-lived, that having a wife is a distraction from attention to God.  A more utilitarian argument was advanced by Basil Hume and others: the celibate could be at all times more available than the married man for the responsibilities and opportunities of pastoral priestly work.  Such a notion, whether defensible or not, is a far cry from the image of the iconic priest, with far less purchase both on the psyche of the aspirant and on the devotion of parishioners.

As a Church we have not yet faced the far-reaching implications of this shift to a more positive appreciation of bodiliness and sex in relation to God.  To the extent that they are products of the old priest-culture our leaders are still seeking to sustain priesthood in the iconic sense. Sexual abuse of a child is the worst imaginable affront to the traditional image of the priest, and it is therefore perhaps unreasonable to expect a balanced response to such behaviour from those still invested in the continuance of this form of priesthood.  The earlier secrecy and denial were part of a desperate, doomed attempt to preserve the status quo.  The strategy has had to change, but the project remains the same.  Hence the cruel severity of the attitude to accused priests now that the previous strategy has been exposed.  At all costs priesthood in its shining purity must be preserved, even as there are fewer and fewer actual priests around.  Our late bishop here in East Anglia wrote us occasional pastoral letters about priesthood which could have been written fifty years ago but for a token sentence about scandals.  The individual is being sacrificed to the maintenance of the ideal.  An acquaintance of mine, an elderly French priest, these days refuses to attend priestly ordinations because he sees it as already an abuse to demand celibacy of these young men.

There is no alternative to the present ruthless defence as long as fundamental questions about priesthood, about sexuality and about power cannot be revisited.  Here we encounter a road-block, insisted on by this Pope and his predecessor, colluded with by local leadership and allowed to continue by the silence and widespread inadvertence of the unordained.  In those cases where the law of the land has run its course, bishops and religious superiors rely on the safeguarding officers for a further decision.  The trouble with how the investigation proceeds from this point is that despite the appearance of novelty the old Catholic system comes into play once more.  The English judicial system, for all its limitations, has clear, known rules of procedure, with considerable safeguards against possible abuse of power by the police.  In the Church, by contrast, an authoritarian spirit comes into its own again: secrecy, a marked lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the investigators, and no possibility of an appeal.  In conjunction with uncritical allegiance to the paramountcy principle these features form a toxic combination which, together with the protracted nature of the proceedings, stacks the odds heavily against justice.   A former social worker said to me the other day, ‘You need to be clear that these new procedures in Church and state are not about the protection of children, but about protecting the good name of the institution’.

James Joyce has a remark somewhere about an old sow devouring her children, in reference to the oppressive side of the Catholic Church as he, a layman, observed and experienced it.  An additonal bizarre and terrible feature nowadays is that it is priests who are liable to be devoured as clericalism in the guise of safeguarding turns on its own.


As I was completing this article my attention was drawn to Marie Keenan’s newly published book, ‘Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church:  Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture’.  This is a very rich resource for understanding the states of mind of priests who abuse, and of those bishops who have ‘protected’ them, with a view to change for the better in the Church.  There is a striking convergence with and development of some of the material in this article, not least her measured but chastening conclusion that while current safeguarding procedures may prevent some abuse they do not touch the roots of the problem in the organizational culture of the Church.   This work speaks with the distinctive authority and carefulness of a psychotherapist who has worked for some twenty-five years both with priests who have abused and with those they abused.  It is salutary that Keenan’s quest is for insight beyond stereotyping.   It could hardly be better done at the moment.

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  1. Just brilliant. Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. There is so much insight in this article for ongoing reflection and expansion. Does Nicholas Peter Harvey talk as well as he writes? If so he might be worth considering as a conference speaker.

  2. What an excellent article. It has certainly helped to broaden my understanding of what is going on at the moment and helps to explain the new diligence being shown by our bishops. Thank you for sharing the article with us.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    It is a great pity that Vatican II did not do away with mandatory celibacy. This would have overthrown the angelistic idealization of the Priest which this article discusses.

  4. Therese Fennessy says:

    “Safeguarding What?” by Nicholas Peter Harvey

    At present I am reading the book by Nicholas Peter Harvey called The Morals of Jesus. It is excellent and confirms all my studies on Jesus. I am a lay Chaplain….called to live my life fully..exactly as it says in this wonderful book…I have this book for years…read it once before…now can’t leave it out of my hands…is the author alive and well…thank u for such an in-depth study of Jesus…

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