Marie Keenan: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church – Book Review

keenan cover“The major thesis of my work is that sexual abuse is inevitable given the meaning system that is taught by the Catholic Church and to which many priests adhere. The contradictions force failure and increase shame and a way of living that encourages sexually deviant behaviour.” – Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 255, emphasis mine Marie Keenan’s Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church is the most important and insightful book yet to be published on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Her central conclusion – “that sexual abuse is inevitable” – is both startling and chilling, and adds a sense of urgency to her advocacy of widespread and systemic reform in the Church. Over the last several days, I’ve written an extensive, four-part review of this book on my specialist blog, “Building a Church without Walls.” I post rather intermittently on Slugger, but some readers of my specialist blog have suggested that Slugger’s more general readership would be interested in a review of this book.

So I’m offering an abridged version here, with links to the more extensive reviews.

Keenan is a lecturer at the School of Applied Social Science at University College Dublin and a registered psychotherapist who has worked for over twenty years with survivors and perpetrators of sexual crime and their families. Keenan’s conclusions are based on wide-ranging comparative research on clerical abuse in the US, Canada, Australia, and some European countries, as well as her own clinical interviews with clerical abusers in Ireland.

Although Keenan’s book has been on the shelves for nearly two years, I haven’t observed a lot of evidence in the media, public debate, or church circles that her insights and ideas have been recognised, debated, or digested.

In reviewing her book now, I focus on four key areas, which I think deserve greater public debate:

The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem

brendan smythMost of us are familiar with the moniker “paedophile priest.” Keenan writes that in Ireland this phrase emerged in media coverage of the Brendan Smyth case (p. 109):

“In Ireland, the coverage of sexual abuse by clergy led to the emergence of a new media template, “Brendan Smyth.” … While reporting this case, a new category of sexual offender, “the paedophile priest,” was invented by the media (Boston Globe, 2002, p. 7; Ferguson, 1995, 248). Furthermore, the media relied heavily on a powerful visual image of Smyth. From the outset, the media repeatedly used the same photograph of Brendan Smyth’s bloated and angry face, staring straight into the camera, so that he become “the living embodiment of the greatest demon in modern Ireland” (Ferguson, 1995, p. 249). Long after his death this photograph often accompanied media reports of sexual abuse by other clergy.”

Keenan argues that focusing on “evil” individuals allows us to disassociate from the child sexual abuse problem. Within the Church, focusing on individuals means those in authority could dismiss abuse as the sinful acts of sinful individuals. Then, the solution to the problem is admonishing or reforming the individual. The danger is that any structural and theological aspects of the Church that created the conditions for abuse to occur are not recognized, and therefore remain unchanged. (Read Part One in Full Here)

Why the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse should not be considered a “Cover-up”

For me, this was the book’s most surprising conclusion. Indeed, on my blog I have repeatedly referred to the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the abuse scandal. I am not alone in this. As Keenan observes (p. 181):

“The conventional explanation of the hierarchy’s response to the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has become a theory of “cover-up” – a theory the simplicity of which is intuitively compelling and socially supported.”

The 2009 Murphy Report on abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin seems to support the cover-up theory, based on the evidence that “the Archbishop of Dublin took out insurance in 1987 to ensure against the cost of any liability that might arise from child sexual abuse by clergy” (p. 207). And then there are the multiple examples of abusing clergy being moved from place to place, so that their crimes could not be so easily discovered. But what Keenan describes is a Church where chaos, not conspiracy, reigned. It is a Church where a perfect storm of “mistakes, misplaced loyalty, and errors of judgment” (p. 228) created the conditions where the abuse was concealed. In short, she argues that the capacity of the institutional Church to deal with the abuse crisis was so limited, the system was so broken, that a cover-up is too generous an interpretation of what happened. (Read Part Two in Full Here)

The Irish Model for “Doing” Priesthood of “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity” and its Consequences

One of the unique, and valuable, aspects of Keenan’s research is that it involved in-depth interviews with clerics who had abused, providing insights not only into how the men described their decisions to abuse – but their experience of being priests prior to, during, and after the times they abused. Based on this, as well as other published research on “normal” clergy, Keenan constructs what she calls the dominant or “hegemonic” model of priesthood in Ireland: “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity.” Her most complete description of this model is on page 245:

[Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity] “… sees the identity of the priest or religious brother as based on the priestly or religious role, and gender or maleness is merely a secondary consideration. … the individual is a priest or religious bother first and only secondly is he a man. … masculinity is based on purity and chastity. Celibacy is seen as a gift from God, for which the individual must pray. Sex and sexual expression is construed as a set of “acts,” and the list of sexual sins is based on lists of rules and regulations regarding the sex “acts.” Sexual desire and emotional intimacy are seen as less relevant for priests and religious brothers than they are for other individuals. Women and girls are seen as a threat to the celibate commitment. Intimacy with men is also construed as threat, in particular because of underlying Church policy on homosexuality … Clergy are seen as set apart and set above. … Human perfection is the aim in serving God, and failing to achieve perfection is interpreted as personal failure and must be covered up.” … The consequences of the model of “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity” are clear: it is a model that it is impossible to live up to. It fosters an environment in which “sexual abuse is inevitable” (p. 255) and in which “abuse and violence becomes “normal practice”” (p. xiii).

For Keenan, “the big surprise is why more Catholic clerics are not in trouble, rather than why some are” (p. 70). For Keenan it is also clear that seminary training and theologies need to change so that this model of the priesthood loses its position of dominance and its grip over the lives of so many priests. (Read Part Three in Full Here)

 The Complexity of the Abuse Problem and How it can be Addressed

In the Conclusion of the book, titled “Prospects, Visions, Agendas,” Keenan shares her ideas about how the abuse problem might be addressed, in all its complexities. Some measures, such as changes in seminary training, are obvious throughout the book. But here, she stresses “the need for a critical theology,” claiming (p. 267):

“Anything less than structural reform and a new model of the Church will be seen in the eyes of many believers as a missed opportunity.”

For her, a key aspect of reform should be critically analysing the present distinction between clergy and laity. She questions the validity of the terminology of “laity” and the two-tiered Church it seems to create. Keenan also advocates a “relational approach to therapy and rehabilitation” that draws on the practices of restorative or transformative justice, rather than relying solely or primarily on retributive measures. She claims that litigation does not always satisfy victims and that there is potential in exploring how better to facilitate hope, forgiveness and reconciliation within the church. Echoing other commentators, such as Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, she also calls for a synod in the Irish church (O’Hanlon has called it a national assembly) and a Third Vatican Council (p. 267). (Read Part Four in Full Here)

In sum, Keenan’s research remains a deeply relevant source for understanding the origins and dynamics of abuse. More than that, it provides a glimpse of the vision needed for the ground-breaking change that is required to root out the problem.

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