Marie Keenan: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church – Book Review, Part 3: The Irish Model of “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity”

keenan coverToday I continue a series reviewing some key insights from Marie Keenan’s important book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I don’t think that the book has received as much attention as it should have, so I am focusing on four key areas, which I think deserve greater public debate:

  1. The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem
  2. Why the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse should not be considered a “Cover-up”
  3. The Irish Model for “Doing” Priesthood of “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity” and its Consequences
  4. The Complexity of the Abuse Problem and How it can be Addressed

Today, in part three, I focus on:

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 “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity” 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.”

While this is not the only model of “doing” priesthood in Ireland which Keenan identifies, she contends that it is very hard for priests to escape it and its demands, as she writes (p. 249-250):

“For some seminarians, contact with the home world, level of maturity, age, experience, or just pure luck sometimes in having a wise mentor provides immunization against the bleak world of the institution and its demands for the mortification of the self. They adapt to the institutional demands for self-mortification in clever and mature ways, developing alternative models of priesthood, either by sheer luck, pure intellect, or sheer cunning, or for reasons to do with psychological and emotional resilience.”

In the chapters that precede her description of this model, Keenan writes about how Irish seminaries were “total institutions” which (p. 50):

“ … set the tone for clerical life which included silence and denial, an atmosphere of deference and submission, and an environment in which conflict and emotion were permitted to find expression only in covert ways.”

Seminary training focused on a rational, intellectualized moral theology, and there was little training in human development or how to cultivate healthy adult relationships. Sex was a preoccupation, as one interviewee said (p. 135):

“I believe we lived in the seminary as though there was no other commandment. … There was nothing else moral. … So the word morality was sex.”

Although Keenan acknowledges some significant changes in seminary training, she outlines features of seminary life that seem “more enduring” (p. 147):

“ … women portrayed as temptress; few laypeople involved in the training; homosexuality carefully monitored; child sexual abuse never mentioned until the late 1990s; little real preparation for the complexities involved in establishing a healthy emotional life within the context of establishing and maintaining professional boundaries. “The Blessed Virgin Mary and prayer were to be the focus of female intimacy.” Hobbies and interests were encouraged to deal with loneliness, as were involvement in priestly fellowships and brotherhood, prayer retreats, class reunions, and spiritual direction. The men were encouraged to be honest with their spiritual directors, but the consensus view was that sexuality was not a comfortable topic of conversation.”

Their training also seemed to prime the clerics to think of sex in terms of “acts” rather than sex as in relationship with another person. They were more likely to see themselves as sinning against God, rather than sinning against those they abused (p. 167):

“What is interesting here is the revelation that when they were abusing, the clerical perpetrators focused on the moral or sin aspects of their behaviour and not on the personal or psychological consequences for the young person. … They adopted an approach to morality that was based on rules and rational thought rather than personal or relational engagement. … From their study of Catholic sexual ethics they understood sexual sin as direct offense against God but not as a direct offence against a person, who happened to be on the receiving end of the sex “act,” and who was a minor.”

For Keenan, this all contributed to a distorted theology of clerical sexuality (p. 234):

“In effect, attempts to control sexual desire and sexual activity have led to sex-obsessed lives of terror, in which the body is disavowed, sexual desire is a problem to be overcome, and the moral superiority of vowed virginity is presumed.”

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.

She also provides evidence that change is possible.

Keenan points out that when “human formation curriculum” was introduced in US seminaries from the 1950s onwards, it “correlated with a low incidence of reported sexual abuse” (p. 49). She  sees potential for developing new theologies in the Irish Catholic Church, which could provide hope for the future – a theme which will be taken up in the fourth and final part of this book review.

Read Part One, “The Dangers of Individualizing the Abuse Problem”

Read Part Two, “Was there a Cover-up?”


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