Child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church – views from within the Irish clergy


Following over fifteen years of research including therapy sessions with abusive clergy and their victims, psychotherapist and social worker Dr Marie Keenan has published a troubling portrait of child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, using the Irish Church as a case study.

In her 400 page analysis – Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Oxford University Press, New York) – Dr Keenan locates the problem of child sexual abuse not just within the individual psychology of the perpetrators, but also within the very cultural fabric of the priesthood and the organisational structures of the Catholic Church.

“Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is not simply a problem of ‘flawed’ individuals or of individuals with an ‘overwhelming sexual drive’,” says Dr Keenan from the UCD School of Applied Social Science, University College Dublin, Ireland.

“Rather, it is a complex problem weaved together from theological, sociological, psychological, and historical threads.”

In her work, Dr Keenan reveals a portrait of a clerical culture where power relations and governance structures disillusioned and disenfranchised many young men who entered into seminaries trusting of the system.

According to Dr Keenan, as time went on, many young priests became reserved, upset, and often disillusioned by what they experienced and witnessed.

Keenan identifies a culture of ‘absolute conformity’ within the clerical setting where relationships were ‘devoid of honest engagement’ and based more on ‘secrecy and denial of male expression and emotion’.

She highlights a system of authority within the Catholic Church where obedience, rule-keeping, and hierarchical authority were emphasised, and loyalty and conformity to the brotherhood was expected.

But the research also reveals that there were often ‘different rules for different people’ within the clergy.

In the words of one of the clergy whose narrative is included in the research, ‘you had to play the system in order to survive, and it was important to try and make yourself anonymous if possible and keep a low profile’.

According to another respondent, ‘speaking one’s mind was the thing most likely to have somebody told they were unsuitable for the priesthood’.

As part of her research, when Dr Keenan asked two men who voluntarily left the priesthood, why they left, one of them simply replied ‘loneliness’.

“As a systemic and forensic psychotherapist treating the perpetrators of child abuse from within the clergy, I would often ask myself: what happened to the man inside this man?” says Dr Keenan.

“There was a sense that many of the abusive clergy had been ‘emasculated’ by the clerical culture and the wider institutional structures and organisation of the Catholic Church.”

In her work, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Oxford University Press US), Dr Keenan draws on the priests\’ own words not to excuse their horrific crimes, but to offer the first in-depth account of a tragic, complex and multi-faceted phenomenon that threatened the very existence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Dr Keenan offers a series of recommendations that call for nothing less than a new ecclesiology and a new, more critical theology. Only through radical institutional reform, Keenan argues, can a more representative and more accountable Church emerge.

“This work is an absolutely essential contribution to our thinking on this issue,” said the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD who officially launched the book at UCD’s Newman House.

“It is beautifully written… a work of scholarship… thought provoking, and informed and questioning. It humbles every reader with a realisation that to have doubts and questions and uncertainties is essential to good policy making,” she said.