The grim truths behind clerical child abuse

The grim truths behind clerical child abuse Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald TD, with author of Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organisational Culture Dr Marie Keenan

Marie Keenan’s new book on abuse raises some challenging questions, writes Phil Garland

”One bad event is followed by another”: this comment is on the opening page of the introduction of this extremely detailed and scholarly work by Dr Marie Keenan on clerical child sexual abuse.

There are many State reports, books and media coverage on the issues of child sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Church which outline the situations and the problems – but very few responses offer solutions to breaking the cycle and ending the sequence of ”bad events.”

Marie Keenan seeks to offer a way forward based on significant academic and practice experience.

Dr Keenan provides a detailed analysis of the background of clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, its organisational structures and a detailed synopsis of significant international and State inquiries which clearly condemns the manner in which the Church has responded (or not responded) to the issues of significant harm to children.

Dr Keenan adds in a significant component of interviews with clergy who have abused children to get a sense of why this happens.

She then offers a potential solution – the real issue is the need for a seismic shift to make an enormous cultural change within the Roman Catholic Church.

She identifies this clear issue by referencing Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin who articulated that ”occasionally you have these seismic moments when you have a real change a qualitative leap to a different view of the Church.” This is a seismic moment and Dr Keenan is offering the leap for the Church to progress.

Before providing the solutions, Dr Keenan challenges the way the Church is addressing child sexual abuse. She presents that the Church has focussed on an organisational and procedural approach by putting in place policies and procedures which do enhance the protection of children but it needs to go further.

In addition, she states that there have been a ”new group of casualties” who are falsely accused priests who are damaged by the way they are handled by their own authorities.

Dr Keenan also questions how the same Church authorities have dealt with former perpetrators.

Dr Keenan presents a new model with relevant strands. She expresses that celibacy should not be mandatory – it should be optional; change the way we work with perpetrators or we bring them into the ”unknown underworld of no man’s land” and emphasising the need for a new approach to therapy and rehabilitation and to transformative justice; and the need for a radical, structural and institutional reform needed with a new ecclesiology and a greater accountability with a stronger position of women.


Having read the book and reflected on how this is presented, there is a strong rationale about how we as a society deal with perpetrators.

The tough bullet to bite is that we need to minimise this happening by clearly supporting a society without keeping it under the radar – brilliantly presented by ‘In Plain Sight’ from Amnesty.

The second approach is to engage constructively with perpetrators to ensure that no more abuse happens. This is what Dr Keenan presents as a core challenge in this book.

Providing support to perpetrators is often seen as supporting their actions. Dr Keenan is clearly expressing that the mechanism to break the cycle is to engage with these men who are completely isolated.

I welcome her approach as it adds to the broad discussion. Dr Keenan’s book will not be widely received by many who want to promote the blame game.

The reality is that the book has clearly shown that the problem is a global issue and that clerics are not the substantive group of perpetrators. In recent weeks, The Iona Institute research says that 27 per cent believes that 40pc of priests are perpetrators.

Yet, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland data indicates that, in 2010, their research of 1,159 survivors indicate that 4pc are clerical and 48.8pc are a family member.

So, our general social perspective on the issue is inaccurate and there will need to be a whole study of this.

The content of this book is extremely comprehensive and detailed.

No one book can cover every base and provide the full and complete answer to the problem.

One area that I would like to see more information about is the analysis of the interviews of priests. There were only nine participants.

There is not enough analysis of this aspect of the research. However, this does need further academic research which Dr Keenan has initiated.

I attended the book launch and as I listened to the formal speeches I noticed that the audience included survivors, academics, priests, bishops, journalists.

The book was launched by the first ever full cabinet Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald. This was a fascinating discussion about society and the Church, perpetrators and survivors.

As I left the launch, I reflected as to how far we in Irish society have moved on. There would never have been this kind of open dialogue 10 years ago.

If you are an academic, a practitioner, policymaker or an ordinary Catholic, this is a book to consider reading. If you are a bishop I think it should be compulsory.

Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organisational Culture, by Dr Marie Keenan (Oxford University Press, €60/£40/$59.95)