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.

  • Abucs

    Another thesis would be that the ‘sexual liberation’ of the 1960’s and onwards together with the associated rejection of sin made its way into the church. There should not be leadership positions in the church for those who do not take sin and God seriously.

    The Church should be vigilant in living a Christian culture and discriminate against those bad behaviours which both ignore the reality of the grace of God and cause unjust suffering.

  • AMS2013

    “Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture,”
    Thank you, I have read enough.
    Anybody who uses such marketing speak deserves to be ignored.
    It’s pretension on stilts.

  • terence patrick hewett

    It is fairly obvious now after the shennanigins in England that pederasts have targeted any institution which offers them scope to prosecute their activities unheeded: the BBC and the Houses of Parliament are infested with them. Toleration of pederasty is not an exclusive or an institutional consequence of the Chuch. As the corresponent AMS2013 rightly says it is “pretention on stilts.”

  • nilehenri

    Readers would be better directing their attention to the minority voices who didn’t jump on the outrage bandwagon and instead focus on the facts and intricacies of the scandal that engulfed ireland. I can recommend SIGNIFICANT TELEVISION: Journalism, Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church in Ireland by Colum Kenny. At twelve pages it puts to bed a great many myths surrounding the issue.
    Indeed a quick google search serves well to remove much of the hysteria. For example:

    So were thousands of children – in particular boys, the main focus of the media reports – raped in Irish reform schools? No – 68 were, allegedly. Two-hundred-and-forty-two male witnesses made 253 reports of sexual abuse against the staff of Irish reform schools at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse – and of these, 68 claim to have been raped. Once again, not all of the allegations resulted in convictions. Some witness reports involved priests who had died, and out of the 253 male reports of sexual abuse, 207 related to the period of 1969 or earlier; 46 related to the 1970s and 1980s. How did 68 claims of anal rape made against the staff of Irish reform schools over a 59-year period translate into headlines about thousands being raped? Because once again, everything from being neglected to being smacked to being emotionally abused – which thousands of Irish reform-school kidswere subjected to – was lumped together with being raped, creating a warped image of a religious institution that rapes children on an almost daily basis. BRENDAN O’NEILL EDITOR, SPIKED


    I’m also currently following the ‘threatened’ historical abuse enquiry over on

    Some of the witness statements are deplorable to say the least. We have people attempting to apply modern day rationale and pop psychology to situations that occurred up to ninety years ago. Madness, but a grand wee mortgage payer for the lawyers sure.

  • Mike17

    If the sex abuse was ‘inevitable’ given the ‘power structures, etc, etc, etc’ in the Catholic Church how does the author explain two things. Firstly, the lack of any evidence of sex abuse on the same scale in earlier centuries. Secondly, the significant decline of sex abuse in recent decades. The ‘power structures, etc, etc, etc’ have been the same throughout all this time but sex abuse was only a major problem in certain countries during a number of decades.

    As for the celibacy issue, how come we are still hearing this one from supposedly informed people. Has the author not bothered to examine sex abuse in churches which don’t insist on celibacy?

    Could it possibly be that the author’s thesis just ever so conveniently supports her campaign to change those things in the Catholic Church that she does not agree with?

  • carl marks

    Both Abuccs and AMS2013 give the illogical argument that the abuses of the Catholic Church is a recent thing (apparently it was those trendy liberals in the that sixties started it, they seem to be the blame for everything).

    But it isn’t is it? The horror stories of abuse only come to light when the power of the church waned and those who were abused and had the courage to speak out against the organisation that had treated them so inhumanely.

    It is very doubtful that the armoury of dirty tricks used to keep the abuse secret and shut those abused up was not the result of long experience in covering the tracks of abusers.

    And because abusers have infiltrated many of the organisations that make up our society it does not make the widespread evils of the Catholic Church any less vile, organised or inhumane.

    I should point out that acting as the Church apologists in this matter, with so much overwhelming evidence against it is perhaps not the wisest strategy.

  • carl marks

    sorry for AMS2013 read Mike17

  • Lucy Yoni

    Support the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests!

  • FatherJohn George

    And Lucy, thereby reject Christs choice of male priests?. And Jesus could have been counter-cultural and rolled over to pagan priestess ambiance .
    There is a remnant of Early Church heretical Gnostic association of priestesses living at Tigris River

  • FatherJohn George

    #The aetiology of incurable pedophilia[machismo or married variants ] derives from DNA genetic pathology it is not a derivative of celibacy-machismo or effete,[there are married pedos]. Thr horror is that the latest psychiatric bible DSM5** regards the pedophilia disposition as no mental disease unless it disturbs the pedo or others

    #**The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is the 2013 update to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification and diagnostic tool. In the United States the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnosis. Treatment recommendations, as well as payment by health care providers, are often determined by DSM classifications, so the appearance of a new version has significant practical importance.

    #The Holy See noting the correlation[causal or not] of pedophilia and same sex focus initiated a weeding out of deep seated gays from USA seminaries
    #Any discussion of abuse issue mist incorporate incontestable statistical data that most present abuse reporting is of historical abuse
    # After the election of St JP2[assisted by CDF Cardinal Prefect Ratzinger clergy abuse plummeted. Most abusers are incarcerated or dead. Welcome to reality
    # Even the highly critical UNO praised the Holy See for its present zero tolerance strategies.

  • FatherJohn George
  • FatherJohn George

    Not forgetting Charol Shakeshaft report to Congress substantiating that 4.5 million children were sexually molested in USA State Schools, and teachers recycled with glowing references[No celibate macho RC priests, but plenty of married pedos]

  • FatherJohn George

    Another 2007 abuse report after shakeshaft report of 1994 Shhhhhhhhhhhh[no celibate priests!!!!!]

  • FatherJohn George

    The conceptual underpinning of Keenan thesis is awry, the solution to clergy pedophilia tragedy [now plummeting despite media] is simply vetting/screening candidates for priesthood. . In my seminary we were required to obtain a medical certificate of health. Time now, or soon, to screen out candidates with pedophilia DNA/genetics. [Italian researchers have discovered a possible genetic origin for pedophilia,] forget Keenan relatively cosmetic solutions.]