Church Life and Pastoral Care, Ecclesiology

Clericalism and the Sexual Abuse Crisis

Published on: August 23, 2018
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If we follow Augustine’s and John Henry Newman’s line of thought, the Church is fundamentally the body of Christ, with Christ as head and the faithful as the body. In Newman’s conception, the faithful consists of the entire Church, hierarchy and laity. The laity thus have an essential role to play in all aspects of the Church. The most recent rounds of sex abuse scandals have brought Catholics’ attention again to the question of the role of the laity in church life.

Indeed, Catholics’ anger at bishops in the past month has not been directed so much at the abusers as at those who facilitated this abuse, what some are calling the “second abuse.” Bishops and chancery clerics allowed this abuse to continue because their primary concern and attention was directed towards their fellow priests and not the abused laity.

Catholics know the reality of sin. We live in a fallen world and the rate of abuse among Catholic priests is comparable to that in other branches of Christianity, in our public and private schools, and in the scouts. What’s different about the Catholic abuse crisis, and what infuriates the laity above all, is the cover-up of abuse and the contempt not just for the victims of the abuse, but for the laity as whole.

We see over and over again in the grand jury report dioceses refusing to take action against abusing priests until the lay victim “began to speak to parties empowered to scrutinize the conduct of the Diocese: her own attorneys, law enforcement, and the press” (Grand Jury Report, 29). In addition to the well-known shuffling of abusive priests before 2002, we find in the course of the grand jury report a monsignor expressing to his bishop his indignation at the anger of a father whose son was abused (“the father yelled at me!”) and a bishop reassuring his abusing priest that there is still a place in the diocese for him. The clear pattern is that pastoral concern is limited to the priest who is sorry for his sins.

There is a Christian truth at work here but there are two problems. The first is that it employs a rather weak theology of forgiveness without justice. A more robust notion of forgiveness would require repentance and reparation. The second is that such an approach overlooks the abused and the potentially abused laity.

Why is the laity overlooked? Because the laity are not considered to belong to the Church in the same way that the celibate clergy is.

Today’s prelate is likely to think that the laity’s role is to, sit, listen, and donate. This is clericalism, and its shadow can be seen all over the documents relating to the abuse crisis.

We Catholics are often reassured by our bishops that the problem was solved with our 2002 Dallas Charter. It must be admitted, thank God, that the incidence of abuse does seem to have declined drastically since 2002. But what was the Dallas Charter? Mainly it consisted in re-educating the laity on sex abuse notification.  That is the laity are called to reform, not the bishops. The grand jury report demonstrates that the habits of denial, obfuscation, and self-justification continued well after 2002 and were not corrected by notification procedures.

This clericalism can also be seen in the fallout from the accusations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused not only minors, but especially preyed on seminarians, mostly in their twenties. We have learned over the past few weeks that Cardinal O’Malley was informed by a seminary professor of McCarrick’s abuse and did not act on it. Claims that an archbishop’s correspondence is so large that he couldn’t have read the letter now ring hollow. Journalists report that McCarrick’s behavior was common knowledge among the Catholic hierarchy but that none would report or go on record about it. Indeed, to whom could one report the abuse? McCarrick’s fellow cardinals? Many of the clergy aware of the abuse were concerned about their careers (such an awful word to use about the hierarchy) and refused to jeopardize their positions. This network protecting a prince of the Church is an extreme abuse of power.

The red thread running through these stories is clericalism: bishops concerned about their fellow priests rather than the laity, about their own careers rather than victims of abuse, about the reputation of the professionalized Church rather than professing the truth. The origins of this clericalism may be found in the modern seminary system that developed after the sixteenth century Council of Trent. Future priests are trained in isolation from women and indeed the rest of the laity. This insularity continues in the life of the diocesan priest who does not have the accountability of a spouse or members of a religious community.

The sin of clericalism is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of hierarchy. Instead of viewing hierarchy as a form of self-emptying love (kenosis), clericalism views the hierarchy as a structure of power. In this way, although the danger of clericalism has been especially pernicious in the Catholic Church, all branches of Christianity that have a high regard for hierarchy are susceptible to clericalism and the inherent risk of the ‘second abuse.’

What’s been lacking in the Catholic Church, and what other branches of Christianity including Orthodoxy might do, is to cultivate an asceticism of institutional self-critique. This might happen by, for instance, opening up chancery archives to lay investigators and reconsidering the sources, such as the seminaries, of the structures that enable clericalism. Only then will they begin to atone for the sin of clericalism.


Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University