A ‘Reckoning’ on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

Dec 19, 2022 | 5 comments

Are Irish bishops truly serious in echoing the view of Ireland’s National Synodal Synthesis – that a conclusive ‘reckoning’ on the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children has yet to happen in the church? If so will they now call upon the Pope and the Universal Synod of Bishops to remove the obvious barriers to such a reckoning that the hierarchical church has maintained since the abuse crisis began in 1984?

In a December 2022 statement Irish bishops repeat the assertion of the Irish National Synodal Synthesis that a ‘reckoning’ on abuse in the church has still to happen. They quote the following paragraph from the National Synthesis:

“There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.”

Who do Ireland’s church leaders suppose should initiate such a ‘reckoning’ after three decades of church scandal, when everywhere the hierarchical church has deliberately dealt with survivors individually – often imposing non-disclosure agreements on receivers of settlements – and failed to provide victims of abuse in the church – or the people of God – with any corporate representative structures?

No Irish diocese has ever even projected a full reckoning on the issue of abuse, to end the isolation of survivors with a view to final reconciliation. This effectively means that the Irish church remains divided into three separate bodies: first, clergy; second, clerical abuse survivors; third, the now radically declining body of church goers.

The 2022 synodal process managed to involve only seven Irish survivors – and their submission was an indictment of the ongoing typical treatment of survivors as adversaries – by church servants who too often showed an inclination ‘to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church‘.

And no Irish diocese yet has a permanent forum where anyone could ask why this is still so.

This is the deliberate maintenance of an imbalance of power between survivors and Irish church leaders, and the isolation of survivors from the wider church-going community.

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

Meanwhile there has never been even a hint of an in-house attempt to uncover and reveal the root of the ghastly mishandling of the issue via secrecy and recycling of malefactors. What reason do survivors have to believe that they will live to see such a reckoning?

Jesus’s warning on giving scandal to children

Ad nauseam we have been assured that celibacy does not cause clerical child abuse – but what caused the cover up by bishops everywhere, which empowered abusers and protracted this disease for centuries? When and why did it become standard procedure for the hierarchical church to ignore what Jesus had said should happen to those who caused children to stumble (Matt 18:6) – and to hide, systematically, the fact that the ordained could ever do this?

Did the rule of celibacy and the elevation of celibate clergy as more perfect models of Christ truly have nothing to do with the intensification of the practice of secrecy since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s – as outlined by Tom Doyle in his brief history of this issue?

Given that Rome has not ever offered even a hint of interest in discovering the roots of this malignant secrecy, the onus must surely rest with the hierarchical church to prove that this had nothing to do with the preservation of the myth of a celibate clergy.

The obvious block on the disclosure of the full historical record, at the highest level, is a barrier to belief that living survivors will ever see a full reckoning. Those at the local level who don’t control access to the full historical record can speak of a reckoning easily enough, as another pious thought –  just something for the historians of the 2100s to get into.

Given the imbalance between the Irish hierarchy and the sufferers of abuse, the former can defer to the notion of a ‘reckoning’, while knowing full well that in their own time everything is being done at the centre to block all means of getting there.

So if Irish bishops are serious about a full reckoning, will they now call for a full disclosure of the historical origins of the greatest mistake ever made by church servants – the hiding of a phenomenon that has plagued the church for centuries and will continue to paralyse it until the mistake of secrecy is traced to its poisonous source, and rooted out?


Sean O’Conaill
19th December, 2022


  1. Peter Torney

    Thanks, Sean, for this interesting and enlightening piece. The issues of secrecy and its emergence are indeed a peculiar puzzle in this terrible saga of abuse.

    But, the article in your link to Thomas Doyle is clear, that the Church has known about sexual abuse by clergy for centuries and spoken about it openly. There seems to have been a volte-face towards secrecy in the the late nineteenth century for reasons we don’t yet understand. Perhaps there are answers somewhere in the existing historical literature in this field.

    A couple of points from Doyle’s conclusion are worth quoting in full:

    In spite of claims to the contrary, the canonical history of the Catholic Church clearly reflects a consistent pattern of awareness that celibate clergy regularly violated their obligations in a variety of ways. The fact of clergy abuse with members of the same sex, with young people and with women is fully documented. At certain periods of church history clergy sexual abuse was publicly known and publicly acknowledged by church leaders. From the late 19th century into the early 21st century the church’s leadership has adopted a position of secrecy and silence. They have denied the predictability of clergy sexual abuse in one form or another and have claimed this is a phenomenon new to the post Vatican II era.

    He says the following further down in a new paragraph:

    The bishops have, at various times, claimed they were unaware of the serious nature of clergy sexual abuse and unaware of the impact on victims. This claim is easily offset by the historical evidence. Through the centuries the church has repeatedly condemned clergy sexual abuse, particularly same-sex abuse. The very texts of the many laws and official statements show that this form of sexual activity was considered harmful to the victims, to society and to the Catholic community.


    The whole article (with excellent notes) by Thomas Doyle is worth reading in full, and is available at the link in Sean’s piece above. Why this shift towards secrecy occurred, and the claim that the current spate of abuse is a phenomenon of the post Vatican II era, is something that needs to be understood more fully.

    But I suspect that until it is all brought out into the open, in some form of ‘reckoning’, then this horrific tale is going to run and run.

    Regarding Thomas Doyle – he is a non-active priest and a former Dominican Friar; a canon lawyer; an expert in this field, and for those interested he has published a bibliography on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (revised in June 2021). It is divided into about 40 sections and runs to 186 pages (it started off as a 5-page table of references!), and is available at http://www.richardsipe.com. Richard Sipe passed away in 2018 and his site has much interesting material for those seeking understanding of this painful and distressing saga in our Church.

  2. soconaill

    Thanks Peter.

    It occurs to me that the period of maximum sensitivity and active resistance to publicity (i.e. secrecy) re clerical abuse corresponds more or less with the arrival of mass communications and wider basic literacy from the late 1800s. Could there be a connection?

    We often forget that in earlier eras while there may have been less effort to suppress the publication of church documents, the awareness of those documents and the ability to access and read them was confined to a very small portion of any society by virtue of poor physical communications and mass illiteracy. It is far easier for researchers today to access medieval records than it was for most people who lived in medieval times, when the word ‘clergy’ was also a descriptor, usually, of the minority who could read. In a mainly agrarian society there was therefore far less danger of the kind of instant countrywide scandal that mass media and urbanisation were to facilitate.

    The failure of the papacy to initiate a thorough open study, inclusive of its own records, is also highly suggestive of sensitivity as to what those could contain re the rationale for the secrecy practised in the 20th century. It is surely safe to guess that there must have been undisclosed studies of that terrain, and that the institution’s continuing reticence implies that these were not judged conducive to a restoration of confidence in it. 

    Coming at this from another angle, there must surely have been discussion among theologians and hierarchs re how Jesus’s strong condemnation of the moral harming of children in Matthew 18:6 should impact on the handling of such cases and on the bishop as a ‘shepherd of souls’.  Are we to believe that the potential dangers of secrecy, should the truth ever be revealed to the ‘flock’, were never seen or discussed?  How could any bishop today justify that secrecy in light of the torture inflicted on so many families by what followed?

  3. Peter Torney

    I think your dating of this to the late 1800s is spot on Sean. It would coincide with the beginning of the attack on what was construed as ‘modernism’; the promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors (1864); the declaration of Papal infallibility (1870); the concentration of power and control in the Holy See and the Vatican apparatus through various legislative documents; further pronouncements in 1907 condemning modernism as the ‘synthesis of all heresies’; and last but not least the codification in Canon Law in 1918 requiring that theology and philosophy was to be taught and promoted through the categories of the ‘Angelic Doctor’ Thomas Aquinas, who had synthesised both biblical and dogmatic principles with the ideas of Aristotle.

    All of these things combined created a ‘fortress Church’ that saw the developments of the modern world as a serious threat. Part of the protocol of the official Church at that time was authoritarian control, and secrecy. The sociologist Peter Berger commented in 1970 “while Protestant liberalism carried on its great love affair with the spirit of the age, the basic temper of Catholicism can be described as magnificent defiance”.

    I think this is why the winds (or should I say ‘gale’!) of change brought about by Vatican II came as such a shock to the clerics running the Church at that time, and they have been trying to cope with the consequences ever since, mostly poorly.

    But the Genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back. Pope Francis’ thrust towards Synodality is the natural continuity of the process started in the 1960s by Vatican II.

    Your comment Sean that the Bishops and Curial officials must have known and discussed these matters is surely accurate. In fact, Doyle in section 24 of his paper comments that from 1952 – 1957 the cleric responsible for one of the treatment centres advised bishops that these men were so disturbed that they should be involuntarily laicised and not placed in other parishes where they would continue to offend. Yet they were moved around as we now know.

    The reckoning must take account of all this. Furthermore, a serious reckoning of how the victims were treated when they reported abuse is a significant and serious requirement. Alas, our official Church will not fare well in such an account.

  4. soconaill

    What delays a reckoning is surely the very thing that caused the cover-up: a deep fear of shame, of the contempt of ‘the world’ for an institution whose ‘brand’ is moral probity and pastoral care revealing itself as self-interested, deceitful and abusive.

    Your summary of the ‘fortress’ mentality that set in from c. 1864 is very useful Peter. It sent me off to get my head around ‘modernism’, the term of disdain that morphed into a general ‘boogey man’ for all reactionaries. How many of those who still use it could offer a coherent definition?

    Surely there are daft errors about – e.g. the ‘man created God’ silliness – but to suppose the truth can be served merely by holding to strict verbal formulae derived from a specific philosophy ( e.g ‘consubstantial’) is obviously crazy. In the end it comes down to probity and integrity, and Jesus was betrayed the moment it was decided that the rest of us must not know that ordained men could harm children.

  5. Peter Torney

    I’m sure Sean that collective ‘shame’ is in the mix somewhere, but I hold the view that it is clearly trumped by the ‘arrogance’ of power that led to the betrayal of the abused and the sacrificing of the victims and their families on the altar of institutional expedience. A number of reports have demonstrated this fairly conclusively. I’m inclined to think that ‘shame’ was fairly far down the list of affects uppermost in these clerical leaders’ minds.

    For me personally, and I’m sure for many others, the ‘reckoning’ has in part taken place. The destruction of our credibility in many in those clerics who lead our Church, has generated a great lack of trust. For example, regarding synodality, many fear that the process will be completely ‘watered down’, and calls for significant change in key areas quietly discarded. Just look at the opposition that Pope Francis is currently experiencing from conservative traditionalists. The recent revelation of the late Cardinal Pell’s ‘memo’ to the cardinals calling Francis’ papacy a ‘catastrophe’ is just the tip of the iceberg!

    I wish you well Sean on your research into modernism as it relates to Catholic theology of the early twentieth century. As I understand it, the basic argument of ‘modernists’ like Alfred Loisy (1857–1940) and George Tyrell (1861-1909), to cite just two examples of the period, was that history and higher criticism should be employed in understanding both biblical and dogmatic principles. They were attempting to dialogue with the ideas of their time, and by today’s standards this is pretty innocuous stuff.

    But these ideas provoked the most vitriolic and vicious attack from the Holy See most notably in Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis 1907 (available on Internet). Even a casual perusal of this Encyclical exhibits a significant paranoid tone, with enemies identified within and without and so on.

    The Augustinian theologian Gabriel Daly wrote a book on this topic which was very well reviewed – ‘Transcendence and Immanence: A Study on Catholic Modernism and Integration’ Oxford University Press 1980. Alas it is out of print, and I’m not prepared to pay £90 for a second-hand copy! I shall search for it in various libraries!
    However, Gabriel Daly wrote a piece in the Tablet on January 15, 2015 entitled ‘Let Battle Commence’. It is available at the ACP website –


    In addition, he gave a talk to We Are Church Ireland on 15 January 2018 on the occasion of his 90th birthday, which is well worth reading. This whole period deserves further study. It shows our official Church in a poor light, but it is important to understand our history. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) commented – ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.


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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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