VATICAN – The Vatican is hosting a three-day symposium on the Catholic priesthood this week amid new public attention to scandals involving sexual violence in the clergy and new research on abuses of priesthood that harm both children and adults.
Pope Francis opens the symposium on Thursday, and at least half a dozen Vatican cardinals are scheduled to address the conference or chair its sessions.
The high-level composition believes that this topic is particularly relevant as the Catholic hierarchy struggles with a shrinking number of priests in Europe and America and calls for reform of everything from celibacy to the role of women in the church.
But scandals of sexual abuse continue to be reported in the news, most recently with allegations that Pope Benedict XVI ruined affairs when he was archbishop. Although such revelations have been around for decades, new attention is focused on clergy who abuse their power to engage in sexual activity with adults, often abusing them spiritually in the process.
Recent events have shed light on a problem that the Vatican has long tried to ignore. These include the #MeToo movement, the discovery of nuns abusing priests, and the scandal with the disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was stripped of his dignity in 2019 after the Vatican determined he was putting adult seminarians as well as minors to bed.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis told his fellow bishops more than a year ago that the McCarrick scandal gives us a moment to “talk about” adult abuse in the Church and “mature thinking” on how to deal with their trauma and the clergy that causes it. .
The Catholic hierarchy has long insisted that these are “deeds” between adults by consent, sinful for the priest but not criminal. But recent Catholic science emphasizes that such behavior is related to professional sexual abuse, and that victims are traumatized by both the actions themselves and the abusive response of the church.
Recently, a group of German researchers published an anthology of 23 women describing the spiritual and sexual violence they suffered from priests, many of them current or former nuns, but some also secular women.
The women described being trapped in a toxic relationship with allegedly unmarried, holy men who were unable to break free due to the injuries they had committed with their abusers.
These stories were the subject of a conference this month organized by the Center for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons at St. Paul’s Catholic University in Ottawa.
“There is a growing community, a network of scientists, scholars and survivors,” said Doris Reisinger, a former nun who has experienced adult abuse and has become a leading researcher in the field.
Australian researcher Stephen De Weger recently published a thesis on sexual abuse of adults, in which he also considered the role of alleged celibacy of the priesthood in this problem. As a starting point, he took the assessment of the late Richard Saip, a former priest and researcher, and confirmed by other studies that only about 50% of priests keep their promise of chastity and that clerics are much more likely to engage in sexual abuse with adults than children.
He noted that an investigation by the Royal Australian Commission on Institutional Abuse found that nearly 30,000 adults had been “having sex” with Australian Catholic clergy since the 1950s. Much of the scandal surrounding sexual abuse of minors, De Weger argued, was related to a culture of secrecy created by religious authorities who did not take action against pedophile priests because they had their own sexual skeletons in the closet.
“They don’t want these things exposed,” De Weger said in a telephone interview. “Why? Because the male clergy, who supposedly maintain celibacy, are the main central force of the church. If you start exposing the fact that, as Saip says, 50% have renounced chastity, it will really shake their power to the core. ”
While the Vatican conference this week is not expected to address such issues, celibacy and the role of women in the church are on the official agenda.
One of the speakers, theologian Micheline Tenas, told a news conference in the Vatican that the abuse scandals suggest that the whole process of recognizing priestly vocations and training seminarians needs to be rethought.
“One way to reaffirm the vocation to the priesthood is to never seek power,” she said.
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