Catholic Women Speak does not campaign on any single issue, other than the right of women in the Church to speak honestly and to be listened to attentively and respectfully. We have decided to issue this public comment because we believe that it is right for us to take a collective stand on an issue that strikes at the very heart of all that we stand for and all that we believe as Catholics, as human beings, as women, mothers, daughters, religious and people of God. The comment has been endorsed by members of the group, though it does not of course claim to speak for every member.

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (1435) – detail

CWS member Mary Pezzulo has written a hard-hitting blog on the latest revelations of criminal priestly abuse in Pennsylvania. More than 300 Catholic priests have been found guilty of abusing more than 1,000 children in one US state alone, in some cases involving extreme forms of torture, pornography and humiliation. The Grand Jury Report can be read here. Meanwhile in the UK, a report issued by the Independent Inquiry on Sexual Abuse details decades of abuse at two prominent Benedictine boarding schools, Ampleforth and Downside, which was covered up in the interests of preserving the schools’ reputations. Other Benedictine schools are being investigated and there is undoubtedly more to be revealed.

The emergence of yet more stories of endemic sexual abuse and cover-ups in the institutional church points to widespread corruption in the ranks and institutions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy at all levels. We recognise that many good priests and bishops suffer intensely as a result of these revelations, but we also know that many collude in a regime of silencing, censorship and blind institutional loyalty. This has prevented a regime of abuse and its manifold causes being openly challenged and changed. This culture of denial extends from the most junior seminarians to the most senior cardinals, and it is exacerbated by clericalism with its abuses of priestly power and its expectation of obsequious obedience from members of the laity.

The underlying causes of these ongoing abuses and the collusion of so many senior members of the Catholic hierarchy are complex and multi-faceted. However, we believe that deeply rooted questions of misogyny and clerical attitudes towards women and girls urgently need to be interrogated, along with other aspects of priestly formation and church teachings on human sexuality and gender. Misogyny flourishes in all-male communities and continues to distort priestly attitudes towards many aspects of embodiment and sexuality. We believe that it constitutes a major contributory factor in the sex abuse crisis which is not sufficiently acknowledged.

Women are and always have been involved in sexual relationships with priests, and women and girls are often victims of sexual predation by priests. Not only that, but when children are sexually abused, their mothers also suffer intense anguish.

Stories of heterosexual abuse make for harrowing reading. In the Pennsylvania report, as summarised by Mary Pezzulo, there is the following account:

Father Thomas Skotek raped a young girl and then arranged her abortion. The bishop, James Timlin, sent a letter of consolation and sympathy, not to the victim but to the rapist.  

There is also an account of a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg who

abused five sisters in a single family, despite prior reports that were never acted on. In addition to sex acts, the priest collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood. Eventually, his house was searched and his collection was found.

In the mid-1990s, reports emerged about the widespread abuse of nuns by Catholic priests, particularly but not exclusively in the African Church, but these attracted little attention. More recently, religious sisters and nuns have once again been emboldened to speak out and the Catholic hierarchy is being confronted with accounts of the sexual exploitation, abuse and rape of women religious by priests, but yet again attention is being deflected by other scandals and issues. In India, Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar remains in post, despite the fact that a nun has complained to the police that he has raped and sexually abused her.

We are not naive enough to believe that this poison in the bloodstream of the Church we love and serve will be easily eliminated. We may only have scratched the surface of the problem so far, and there may be worse crises ahead. With this in mind, we call on all Catholics—priests and laity alike—to speak out and to refuse to collude by their silence in the deception and betrayal of Catholic life today, perpetrated by those who prey on the vulnerable and rely on the collusion and denial of bystanders.

The Röttgen Pietà (14th century)