Abuse crisis needs more talk, less secrecy, says Kenny

Sr. Nuala Kenny says the Catholic Church has suffered a profound loss of credibility because of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.


Sr. Nuala Kenny says the Catholic Church has suffered a profound loss of credibility because of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

April 30, 2012

The Catholic Church has done more than any other organization in the world to establish protocols and policies to prevent sexual abuse, says Sister Nuala Kenny.

However, it is still failing to face up to the root causes of the clergy sexual abuse crisis 22 years after a Newfoundland commission detailed factors ranging from clerical power to secrecy and denial, Kenny said April 21.

"There has been a profound loss of trust and moral credibility by our Church. And, to tell you the honest to God truth, I still don't think our bishops and priests get it," Kenny said at the annual conference of the archdiocesan Council of Consecrated Women.

About 90 women attended the two-day event and heard three talks by Kenny, the author of Healing the Church: Spiritual and Ecclesial Challenges from the Abuse Crisis, which will be published by Novalis this fall.

"The shape and scope of the crisis is huge," she said. There are tens of thousands of known victims and thousands and thousands of priest or bishop offenders. "Nobody is making this up."

Kenny, a pediatrician, was a member of the five-member commission that examined clergy sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage and in the St. John's, Nfld., Archdiocese in the late 1980s. She also helped develop the guidelines approved by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in 1992 that were the first national Church guidelines in the world to deal with clergy sexual abuse.

Two years after that, she helped write Breach of Faith, Breach of Trust, a discussion guide to help parishes break the silence and openly discuss clergy sexual abuse.

The guide has rarely been used, she said. "In some dioceses, the bishop said, 'I'm not using that at all.'" In others, people said, "Talking about it will make it worse."

"We have not yet broken the cycle about not talking about this in our Church."

After developing the discussion guide, she went back to her work as a pediatrician and professor of medicine at Halifax's Dalhousie University. It was the arrest of Bishop Raymond Lahey in 2009 on child pornography charges that spurred her back into action.

Kenny convinced the CCCB, with the help of Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, to put the issue on the agenda for its 2010 plenary. Again, she called for the development of a discussion document so priests and the faithful could process the abuse crisis as "a call for spiritual transformation and renewal."

A year and a half later, she said she is still waiting for a response to that recommendation.

With the abuse crisis, when people provide "superficial answers," such as that it is caused by clerical celibacy, homosexuals in the priesthood or a failure to ordain women, they're missing the point. "You're trying to provide a prescription before you've done the proper diagnosis."


The 1990 Newfoundland commission saw clergy sexual abuse rooted in a combination of causes such as power, the failure to educate both priests and the faithful, sexual issues, lack of social support for priests, and the management and avoidance of scandal.

Those factors led to the moving of offender priests to other parishes and a failure to believe those who had been offended against, she said.

"All sexual abuse is an abuse of power," Kenny continued. "We have a particular form of abuse of power in the Church and its name is clericalism."

Clericalism is characterized by clergy receiving power and authority because of their position and being seen as having all sorts of expertise because of their position, she said. It also includes a resistance to criticism and change, protection of the institution's image, secrecy, a lack of accountability and loss of touch with the organization's mission.


Clericalism, however, is not the fault of the clergy alone, she said. It also involves the failure to believe children who said they were abused by a priest and it involves telling children who did report abuse not to tell anyone because it might create scandal.

Parents would be complicit when they breathed a sigh of relief, but said nothing, when an abuser was moved to a different parish.

It will take much more than prevention of future cases to deal with harm caused by clergy sexual abuse, she said. "When the offender is a man of God, an alter Christus – respected as though he were Christ himself – and Christ is raping you, imagine the spiritual harm. We haven't even begun to understand that."


Women have an important contribution to make in dealing with the abuse crisis, she said. Typically, boys focus on rules and punishments, while girls focus on relationships.

An all-male hierarchy in the Church will focus on establishing policies, rules and harsher penalties. "What does that have to do with relationships? What does that have to do with mutual need?"

Women do talk about issues that are eating at them, Kenny said. "Getting men to talk about emotional issues is like trying to do dental extraction with toothpicks."

Women are helping to carry the Church, but they have no central role in solving issues that involve emotions, she said. That has to change.

Letter to the Editor - 05/21/12