VOTFI advises Murphy Commission on Clericalism

On March 5th 2007, Voice of the Faithful (Ireland) made the following submission to the Irish State Commission of Inquiry into Clerical Sexual Abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese:

Catholic Clericalism and Clerical Child Sexual Abuse

The Ferns Report had the following to say about lessons to be learned from the state inquiry into clerical child sexual abuse in the Ferns diocese that would help in the protection of children :

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime and protects him from subsequent detection.” (‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ F 13)

The respect in which Catholic clergy are held is greatly influenced by the phenomenon known as clericalism. The protection of children within the church cannot therefore be fully achieved without an understanding of the role played by clericalism in clerical child sexual abuse.

The term ‘clericalism’ is used in this document to denote a presumption by too many Catholic clergy that they are entitled to the unquestioning compliance of lay members of their church. It denotes also a tendency on the part of some laity to grant that entitlement to their clergy.

Nowhere does Catholic teaching explicitly endorse this entitlement. In fact Catholic teaching emphasises the equal dignity of all members of the church. This is why Voice of the Faithful considers it vitally important to distinguish clericalism from Catholicism.

We in Voice of the Faithful believe that clericalism is:

  1. a contributory cause of clerical child sexual abuse (and therefore a danger to children);
  2. a cause of the administrative abuse that has too often followed clerical child sexual abuse;
  3. a continuing obstacle to child protection in the church;
  4. an obstacle to healing and reconciliation.

1. Clericalism as a contributory cause of clerical child sexual abuse

As an expectation on the part of the priest of compliance from Catholic children, and as a trained disposition towards compliance with clergy on the part of Catholic children, clericalism was and is an essential feature of the power-imbalance that led and leads to clerical child sexual abuse. The priest’s official roles as an interpreter of right and wrong, as an agent of divine forgiveness and as a Christ-figure, give an ordained paedophile or ephebophile a unique power to manipulate his Catholic child victim. This is especially true because of the likelihood that the child’s family will greatly reinforce this idealised image of the priest in the child’s mind. It is also this image of the priest that makes clerical sexual abuse uniquely damaging to the child’s belief system and spiritual identity.

2. Clericalism as a cause of the administrative abuse that has too often followed clerical child sexual abuse

It was primarily the desire not to ‘scandalise’ laity – i.e. to preserve our naive image of the priest and our compliant attitudes toward clergy – that led to the hiding of the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse by too many bishops and the consequent endangerment of other children. It was also the desire to preserve the clerical institution that led bishops to adopt legal advice vis-á-vis victims that often caused further trauma to them. The administrative abuse that has so often followed sexual abuse is therefore also inseparable from clericalism.

3. Clericalism as a continuing obstacle to child protection

Failure to identify clericalism as a factor in clerical sexual abuse and in subsequent administrative abuse, and to eradicate clericalism from the culture of the church, will mean that (1.) and (2.) are likely to remain as disabling features of any system of child protection in the church. Catholic children will remain less safe than they should be if they continue to be trained to see the priest as an unquestionable authority. Failure to embrace the principle of immediate reporting to civil authorities of all allegations against church personnel (as recommended by the working group that prepared the document that was then adapted and published by the hierarchy as Our Children, Our Church), seems to us to embed clericalism in this document and to place Catholic children in continuing danger. Lay personnel selected to manage the church’s child protection system may all too easily tend to continue to comply with clerical wishes – e.g. in relation to the reporting of allegations to the civil authorities, unless unquestioning deference to clergy is identified as potentially dangerous.

4.  Clericalism as an obstacle to healing and reconciliation

Our experience with victims is that they have totally lost their naivety towards clergy, see clericalism as an essential component of their abuser’s former power over them, often see it also operating in their problems in seeking redress from the hierarchy – and are therefore totally incapable of seeing Christ ever again in a clericalist pastor or institution. So, their reconciliation with their church also demands that their church separate itself definitively from clericalism.


For all the reasons given above, we believe it to be especially important that lay Catholics should hear their hierarchy and clergy emphasising the difference between clericalism and Catholicism. We are convinced that the key to this differentiation is the abandonment by clergy of unaccountable status on administrative matters in the church, and the establishment of structures of accountability to laity to achieve this. The safety of Catholic children, the reconciliation of victims and the future health of our church, all hinge on this.