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Language, power and harm in clerical sexual misconduct

Stephen de Weger |  15 February 2017


Three years ago, when I began my research Masters into clerical sexual misconduct involving adults (CSMIA), I wrote an article for Eureka Street on this issue. I have now completed that study.

Woman in confessionalIt revealed highly relevant and crucial information towards the understanding of CSMIA. One conclusion based on my and other studies is that three major aspects need to be included in any discussion of CSMIA, in order to reach a fuller understanding of how CSMIA is able to occur, how it is interpreted, how it affects people's lives, and how it is dealt with. Those three aspects are language, power and vulnerability, and harm.

Language and definitions surrounding CSMIA, consent, celibacy and vulnerability are of major importance in coming to a balanced understanding of this phenomenon. CSMIA continues to be commonly defined as simply a mutually consensual affair, albeit sinful and canonically illegal. However, when perceived as abuse of power, abdication of fiduciary duty, or the crossing of ethical and professional boundaries, a very different discussion emerges.

For example, when defined as such, instead of the focus being on the victim/survivor and whether they consented to such a relationship or not, it shifts to the behaviour and role of the professional/cleric. All the experts reviewed agree that the responsibility for all professional sexual misconduct lies with the more powerful person — the professional/cleric.

Until such behaviour is discussed and defined under these more professional concepts, aspects such as consent, power, vulnerability, and harm are not considered seriously or intelligently enough to do justice to the reality of victims/survivors.

However, such a concept is still quite foreign to both common and official language surrounding CSMIA. The major Church document, Integrity in Ministry, at least, is partly acknowledging this more professional approach when it states that clerics must 'exercise caution in the use of one's status or institutional power, never using these for one's own advantage'.

That fact that clerical positional power has been used as a tool for the abuse by both male and female clerics is obvious — the evidence lies in the stories of victims/survivors themselves. Clerics are the respected and trusted religious professionals ordained by the church to minister to the needs of its members. In the course of Catholic life, women and men often divulge very private vulnerabilities to these clerics which becomes, by nature, a relationship based on a power imbalance.

The power imbalance is not the issue — all professional interactions are based on such an imbalance, and indeed this is why professionals are sought out: for their expertise. However, in such a professional context, the more vulnerable person can easily be manipulated and abused.


"Statistically, young adults and young male and female Religious usually figure very highly among victim numbers; this group also often express some of the most painful accounts of the harms they experienced as a result."


But clergy are not only religious 'professionals' — they become family friends, youth group leaders, and are involved in any number of everyday activities in parish life. This mixing of professional power with more personal or intimate roles can lead to a blurring of boundaries and can contribute to the ability of a potentially abusive cleric to sexualise relationships, an action that in other professions would be seen as a gross violation of trust and professional boundaries. As such, clerical/professional power, and the corresponding 'positional vulnerability' of the laity, and, 'lesser' clerics, needs to be included if any deeper understanding of CSMIA is to occur.

What also, most importantly, needs to be factored in is the state of personal vulnerability with which adults come to their expert clerics for help. Until positional and personal vulnerabilities in relation to clerical power are included in discourses on CSMIA, the common perception of CSMIA being simply 'affairs' between power-equal adults will remain the common and official fall-back position, and the harms that CSMIA creates will remain unresolved.

The harm that CSMIA produces needs to be seriously and transparently investigated. The fact that CSMIA causes serious harm is more than evident. Statistically, young adults and young male and female Religious usually figure very highly among victim numbers; this group also often express some of the most painful accounts of the harms they experienced as a result.

However, all survivors of CSMIA revealed harms resulting from their experience/s of CSMIA. Those harms included deep and life-long psycho-spiritual disorientation, a breakdown of trust, physical illnesses and sequelae of practical consequences. These harms are then only compounded when Church responses neglect to define CSMIA correctly and do not take complaints seriously.

When the elements of language, power and vulnerability, and harm are included in discourses on CSMIA, a broad range of hitherto unaddressed dynamics are revealed such as grooming, consent, and disclosure issues. Also, clearer distinctions between overt assaults, the more grooming-based CSMIA, and clerics 'falling in love', are more clearly delineated.

Without the inclusion of these three elements, CSMIA can never be accurately or rationally discussed or understood, and a resulting lack of drive for justice and compassion-driven change cannot help but result. Justice and compassion are not needed if CSMIA is believed to be only an 'affair between mutually consenting adults', often simply because the victim was over 18 years old. According to such a definition, the event is now an 'affair', not abuse; it involves a 'consenting adult', not a groomed, vulnerable person, and it is 'mutual' and, therefore, not exploitative.

The way CSMIA is being perceived and dealt with at present is similar to how the clerical sexual abuse of children was dealt with just a few decades ago. Then, the spotlight was shone on the issue. CSMIA now needs to be spotlighted because its victims, like their abused-as-children counterparts, are not being believed, they are suffering, mostly in silence, and they need their Church and society to hear them.


Stephen de Weger headshotHaving just completed his Master of Justice (Research), Stephen de Weger is about to continue his research into clerical sexual misconduct involving adults, as a PhD student. His main areas of focus will be Church, and criminal justice responses to victims/survivors of CSMIA, with some focus on male victims/survivors.


Stephen de Weger

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Submitted comments

Stephen it is not just about abuse of power and inequality. The Church is steeped in degrees of status rank. It is a wealthy medieval political organisation which refuses to answer to secular authority. It beggars belief that the "Church", (if you can call the members of the Catholic Congregation that), decrees men take a vow of celibacy when it is clearly incapable of being kept. If nothing else, the scandals uncovered by the Royal Commission should show that priests and religious must have the right to marry. Why persist with the celibacy charade?

francis Armstrong 16 February 2017

Sexual misconduct by professionals involving adults who trust them damages both people. This is so for clerics as well. Abuse of power can be very complicated. Those adults who have been abused by someone in the more powerful position have had their personal integrity violated, their body has been violated and their sense of trust has been very significantly damaged. The path back to mental and physical health is arduous and as painful as life gets. No one who abuses other people escapes consequences either. Hopefully, studies such as Stephen's will educate people about this very complex issue.

Pam 16 February 2017

It seems to me that an un-reported consequence of the sexual abuse revelations and the consequent huge loss of confidence in clergy, is a further and dramatic fall in participation by lay people in the sacrament of reconciliation. Even among regular mass attenders in my diocese, only a tiny fraction attend reconciliation. If the sacrament is to survive at all, - and I do not doubt its value - the third rite must come back. Burying heads in the sand about this, like clerical celibacy, and contraception, is just daft. The laity are voting with their feet.

Lew 17 February 2017

What you say rings true, Stephen. The former Cardinal in Scotland was removed from his position because of his abuse of young seminarians. The current Cardinal has said he does not want this man back in Scotland. A Cambridge cleric, who was both an academic and an assisting priest at a church in the city, as well as a Canon of Ely Cathedral - a Canon Theologian in fact - was suspended from duties due to his conduct with vulnerable young men at the university. This problem is quite frequent and has a devastating effect on the victims. A former Anglican clergyman - himself gay - did not attend one theological college in England because the older gay students there treated new students as fair game. He was not prepared to accept this. There are 'clerical cultures', assumptions and practices which are extremely unhealthy and which need to change. Some of the conduct is positively criminal and when so needs to be prosecuted. You are right, the language, mode of thought and action in clerical circles are in urgent need of reform. Perhaps the Church/es could do this before more scandals engulf it/them?

Edward Fido 17 February 2017

In this discussion of clerical abuse, during the weeks of the Royal Commission's "Catholic Wrap-up", Mr de Weger rightly alludes to the power of language -- and thus of the ways in which we all think -- as everyone tries to understand this appalling story and its causation. One of the most widely-used words during these hearings has been religious "formation", though as I listened to the evidence I decided that "malformation" would be a better term. Why not simply say "education" or "training" (it was good enough for me in my days as an educator of young doctors)? A few people spoke as if they believe that seminarians should be like putty in the hands of the seminary staff and that those staff know perfectly (even uniquely) how to "form" them. In the Cold War era we would have called that "brain-washing", and, as with that time, what I heard convinced me that many of those people were the very worst ones to have any role in the "formation" of priests, their world view seemed so narrow and cocksure.

Dr John Carmody 17 February 2017

Stephen. Did your research include the cohort of clergy and religious who were not the instigating seducer but rather the victims of seduction to their disadvantage with subsequent long-lasting personal and professional damage? I have had personal and professional experience of four priests and one brother who became victims of predatory women. I have not had personal experience nor heard of women religious being victims of predatory males but imagine it also happens.

john frawley 17 February 2017

Thank you for this article. This is a difficult and sensitive issue which you have explored with determination and skill.

Ross 17 February 2017

Francis |Armstrong:”a vow of celibacy when it is clearly incapable of being kept”.... The story of David and Uriah (2 Samuei 11), throws a lot of light on aspects of this topic. Uriah’s wife,Bathsheba ,while Uriah is serving in the army, bathes herself in view of David, who is struck by her beauty, and sends for her, and makes her pregnant. To try to cover his deed, he summonses Uriah from battle, and bids him “Go home and enjoy yourself”. However Uriah, from a feeling of dedication and solidarity with his fellow fighters declined to enjoy himself while they were still suffering. In desperation, David arranged for him to be exposed to the enemy and killed by them, effectively murdering him. David blinds himself to his crimes, until Nathan contrives to make him face them. Uriah could remain celibate from dedication to a cause, as could many clerics, but when modern scholarship and changed circumstances revealed flaws in their beliefs, they became disoriented and a prey to base and basic instincts. This helps explain, while not excusing their conduct.

Robert Liddy 17 February 2017

Robert Liddy's comment is perplexing. Is he blaming "modern scholarship" for a centuries-old crime? When did this "scholarship" appear compared with even 20th-century clerical paedophilia? And did those criminal priests and brothers really read that professional literature, thereby becoming "disoriented". And how on earth would that fact make them (in his somewhat lurid language) "a prey to base and basic instincts"? That potentially applies to everyone -- but it is no excuse (nor, really, a plausible explanation) for criminal (not to mention exploitative and egotistical) actions. Of course, he's right: celibacy (however captiously many priests define it to exculpate themselves) is a "Charade" and should be abandoned, no matter what any individual thinks might be its "contribution" to this appalling catalogue of clerical criminality. The fundamental sin is, surely, the abuse of power and that (though unrecognised by the perpetrators) had been going on at every professional and hierarchical level in the Church for centuries. There are none so blind (or perverse or evil) as those who will not see. Regrettably there are still many -- clerics and laity -- who want to keep their eyes shut. This immensely important Royal Commission has made that odious truth all too plain.

Dr John CARMODY 17 February 2017

Robert Liddy, your analogy is hardly relevant since neither Uriah nor David had taken a vow of celibacy. It was a simple case of a king smitten by the beauty of another man's wife and using his position and influence to seduce her. The later facts of Uriah sleeping with the guards at the palace rather than return home to Bathsheba, reveal he was in a state of battle readiness and believed he should bivouak with his troops rather than indulge himself with comforts denied to them. If that is what you mean by celibacy, it was temporary chapter rather than a lifetime vow. The cover up by David and his decision to send Uriah to be where the fighting was most intense, was despicable. He later married Bathsheba and the child died (as Nathan predicted) because he offended the Lord. The point of the story is that David acknowledged his guilt before the Lord and the Lord forgave him.

francis Armstrong 17 February 2017

I agree wqith Francis Armstrong- The conclusions of Robert Liddy to my mind are complete red herrings in the context of this article. My broader comment is that I hope Stephen's study does not fall astray by concentrating only on clerical abuse - to avoid that , I hope he is also comparing with abuse by non-clerics, in oder to find what is peculiar to the clerical cases. In particular, I trust that he is also looking into the significance of the many cases in churches where celibacy is not the rule, and those aspoects of the power syndrome whereby the cover-up perpetuates the harm for decades. This latter phenomenon is found among all institutuinal bureaucracies including those with nothing to do with either clerics or celibacy- such as the police, armed forces/ defence academies, state institutions etc.The Catholic church stands out because it has far more clerics and far more institutions where power can abuse the fiduciary relationship than others-and cover it up, and it is world-wide. This is not at all to excuse the abominable statistics, but it needs to be recognised if the proper root causes are to be identified.

Dennis 17 February 2017

An enormously valuable article by Stephen de Weger; and many good comments. A close friend was propositioned by a senior priest chaplain of young adults. He has never been able to completely reconcile that event which inhibited him from following a call to priestly vocation. How often do our archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons strongly communicate the 10 commandments? Last Sunday's Holy Mass readings emphasised them. Yet, our homilist completely distorted them and then assured us if we had love we could do what we wanted. It's time for a full liturgical year concentrating on the 10 commandments and how they resonate with Jesus' obedience and sacrificial love. Homiletic effeteness has probably contributed to a corrupt church culture in which "anything goes" and where many of the powerful do whatever they like. A smudging of New Testament clarity does not bring caring into a parish or a church but alienation.

Dr Marty Rice 17 February 2017

In all fairness, this is one instance Brigidine Angela Ryan deserves plaudits. Her balance and integrity on the issue will never make the front pages and deserves to be made mention of here.

Lynne Newington 18 February 2017

Dr John CARMODY: “Is he (Robert Liddy) blaming modern scholarship for a centuries old crime? (a), There is no blame on modern scholarship. But it was the occasion for the disillusionment and disorientation of many clerics. If there is any blame to be allotted it is on the religious leaders who were carried away with the success of The Way, which was mis-named ‘Christianity’, and exalted to seem to be a God-guaranteed and unique interpretation of God’s relationship with people. (b), we agree that the disopientation is no excuse for abuse, but I contend that it was one of the contributing factors in the recent widespread outbreak of abuse. There were, of course many other contributing factors. ( c), the ‘scholarship’ involved has been growing for many years, but it only lately that its impact on the entrenched ‘tradition’ of the Church has become more effective.

Robert Liddy 18 February 2017

francis Armstrong: " what you (Robert Liddy) mean by celibacy.... Celibacy means abstaining from sexual relationships; whether undertaken for life or temporarily. Analogously, soldiers can endure hardships when they believe their cause is just and their efforts are effective, but if they lose commitment there have been many cases when they have turned feral, and resort to abuses.

Robert Liddy 18 February 2017

@ john frawley 17 February 2017 Hello again, John. It is easy to fall into absolutism and myopia when studying any topic or group of people especially ones that you feel strongly about. The ability to be objective, (total objectivity is not possible), needs to be constantly monitored through personal reflection and peer-reviewing both official and unofficial. The issues you raise, firstly that of predatory women (and perhaps men as well) seducing male clergy, and secondly, women religious being victims of predatory males are very real, while statistically speaking, occurring nowhere near as often. With the latter, you will find some information on this in a 1998 study by Chibnall et al. Some very interesting material there. In regards to the former, it is an aspect I have thought long and hard about. I also know it exists. To think that such a reversal of at least personal power cannot or does not happen is unreasonable. However, I have tried to study up why some women might choose only clergy as their 'targets '(if this is the assumption you make here). Not many experts and no researchers have tackled the aspect of the sexual attraction to, or abuse of clergy, but some have connected it to an attraction, not so much to the person but to their positional and personal or spiritual power, and also, unresolved father-need. Predatory behaviour, I suspect (and I’m not a psychiatrist), is also simply based on a need to regain something lost, somewhere along the line. Some such as Janice Russell (see "Out of Bounds") do discuss the issue of attraction to clergy/professionals. If you are referring to 'predatory women' going particularly after clergy, again, you have to ask, why? In such cases Schaeffer points out that there are often issues of transference and very often backgrounds of child sexual abuse. While some of my participants expressed small elements of this 'attraction to priests' these were always women and one man who had at the time, unresolved child sexual abuse traumas or needs of some sort, and/or, who were more ‘attracted’ to the spiritual prowess and expertise of the cleric. As I said, I am not a psychologist/psychiatrist but I have friends who are. Some have referred to a psychological phenomenon called repetition compulsion stemming from unresolved sexual abuse in their past. Often, women (or men) behaving sexually towards a cleric/professional is a form of this. However, if this is not understood by the cleric, such behaviour may be misinterpreted. However, any cleric worth their weight and with enough training would never ‘go there’ anyway (and the belief that men can’t stop themselves once turned on, is a cop-out, a myth). Having said this, there are two major points to be made: a) there is no room here for victim blaming, none at all; b) if a cleric is being seduced by someone, it is their responsibility to stop this. If they can't, don't know how to, don't have the psycho-sexual maturity to do so, then they need help, because the position they are in calls for such knowledge and maturity. Of course compassion is also called for in such cases, for both the clergy and the other person. This is no room for any narrow-minded, one-group-always-bad/other-group-always-good absolutist dichotomy. Predatory behaviour can be found in any social group against any other social group and the more we understand it as a phenomenon in itself, the better equipped we are to stopping it. At the heart of all predatory behaviour is not so much sex but the need to over-power. My question is always, “why does that need exist”. In my case, I have chosen to study the predatory and/or impulsive behaviour of clergy, and for good reason. I need to finally say here that not one of my participants could at all be classes as ‘predatory’ in an way – all were indeed victims/survivors of the behaviour of a clergy person who seriously failed in his/her commitment to their calling. So, while I have written at length here on this, I don’t want to deflect from them and would like to keep the focus on them. They need to be heard.

Stephen de Weger 18 February 2017

@ francis Armstrong 16 February 2017 Hello Francis. The issue of celibacy as a cause is, in my view, a distraction, sort of. Let me explain. Celibacy, is a state of life found in many religions, e.g. Buddhism (which, by the way is not at all free of its own sexual/power abuse issues, against both children and adults). It is meant to free a person for spiritual pursuits and service. When approached correctly it can achieve this. However, one major issue I have personally had is that it took me decades to truly believe that I could also achieve this as a married man, with children. Indeed, true poverty, chastity and even obedience are not that unusual in the married life. But that’s a little beside the point. Firstly, in response to your statement, I am convinced that even if the Church allowed married priests, CSMIA would still occur; it does in all religions which allows their minsters to be married. In such cases (married ministers offending) there are also, sadly, many other victims such as one’s partner and children. So, celibacy, in and of itself, is not a major cause. However, it is a major contributor and in a number of ways. Firstly – ‘clericalism’ or the establishment of a clerical class. In such a context, there develops a mindset that somehow the pursuits and lived realities of this more ‘noble’ class are somehow more important than those of us mere married or single lay people. This results in the neglect of the victims when celibates fail in their celibacy. This brings us to the second point: Celibacy, complete celibacy from when vows/promises are made to when the cleric dies, is extremely difficult and if Sipe’s figures are to be believed only around 5% of clergy achieve this. Shocking figures indeed but not to me, and I am sure, many if not most clergy/Religious Brothers and Sisters. Many may beg to differ but either way, the issue of non-celibacy rather than celibacy is a major problem which the Church has failed and continues to fail to deal with. Furthermore, how does the Church deal with a predominance of lifelong non-celibacy amongst its clergy? There are two major aspects here which so need serious attention: Firstly, As Kieren Tapsell has shown, the Church a few hundred years ago only, decided that is was best to develop a code of secrecy by which to contain the reality of clerical sexual offending away from public knowledge and discourse. As a result of this secreting away of a very real problem, there has been such little discussion and research into the phenomenon. As well, when it happens victims have little or no language with which to frame their experiences except in the predominant one of ‘somehow, they must have caused it because clergy don’t do such things’. The second major issue that remains hidden just below the surface if the culture of secrecy that results from official secrecy. Within this culture, failures of celibacy are fed by intense guilt or often outright rejection of guilt, blaming the church for imposing such a harsh requirement on its clerics. Either way, but especially because of the guilt aspect, because there are so many sexually active clergy at any one time, (and clergy do gossip) the prospect of blackmail against action, and/or simple inaction when sexual abuse of either children or adults occurs and is reported, is all too possible. How much then, can the sexual activity of clerics be blamed as another direct cause for the covering up of clergy sexual misconduct in all its forms? This is another question I hope to explore in my PhD. So, is celibacy, or mandatory celibacy a cause or problem? Yes, but not for the usual reasons people think. Yes, celibates become lonely and seek love – who can blame them in one way – it’s a discussion few are allowing (see Maltese Married Catholic Priest). Some have even suggested that the definition of celibacy be widened to include occasional sexual activity (see Bordisso pp. 63-66). My question is (and it’s a very seriously neglected question), “what becomes of the other person involved in the ‘noble’ pursuit, the ‘journey to celibacy’?” Also, what of the whole issue of gay clergy and seminary sex (see Thinking Catholicism), and those victims caught up in this form of CSMAA? Regardless of what one may think of such websites or authors, the reality is that CSMAA has victims and we need to hear from their side, their experiences, to get a more realistic version of this whole issue. Hence my study.

Stephen de Weger 18 February 2017

John Carmody is on the money albeit let's not get celibacy / chastity mixed up with abuse of positional power and predatory exploitation. Perhaps it's an amalgamation and that is something Stephen can further examine.

Jennifer Herrick 18 February 2017

Marty, the 10 commandment are Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus actually overturned many of them or reinterpreted them. Loosenes in the RCC, Yes. but let's not confuse Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures and basic prolific immorality within out Christian Heirarchy.

Jennifer Herrick 18 February 2017

One ASPECT i would encourage Stephen to further in his study is the notion of targeted rather than vulnerable. Karen Howe CEO of Disabilities Vic pointed this out to me. To speak of vulnerable adults puts the onus on the victim. To speak of targeted puts the onus on the predator. She said "we have to shift this language". I agree.

Jennifer Herrick 18 February 2017

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