Fr. George Wilson

Fr. George Wilson

October 31, 2011

MONTREAL – A former Roman Catholic priest, who as an adolescent was molested by his parish priest, warns that unless the culture of clericalism and celibacy within the Church are reformed, a second wave of abuse is around the corner.

Randall Penney, who left the Church in 1993 after 11 years as a priest, was among those who addressed the Trauma and Transformation conference, examining the sexual abuse of minors.

Penney said the abuse scandals within the Church laid bare an essential pathology that is unique to the culture of clericalism. Unless that culture is challenged, he believes, there will be no halting, much less recovering from the abuse scandal.

Clericalism has been defined in several ways since the term was first coined in the 1860s. Today it refers to a vision of the Church that places the emphasis on institutional structures and the privileged position of clergy over laity.

"Clericalism is exclusionary; it is synonymous with privilege; it is never trustworthy, and it is a licence for dishonest manipulation of opportunity," Penney stated.

As a 14-year-old, Penney was abused by his parish priest, Father James Hickey. Then as a priest, Penney later came forward and filed a complaint against Hickey, who was charged in 1989 and convicted of abusing eight altar boys. For a decade, the Archdiocese of St. John's, Nfld., fought the victims' claims for compensation. Hickey died in 1992.


Penney, now assistant director of mental health services at a youth centre in Waterloo, Ont., said the Church needs priests "who embrace their humanity, their sexuality, their weaknesses, their shortcomings, their insights, not those who deny, hide, mask or run away from them."

It's an approach that challenges the way some seminaries currently prepare men for priesthood.

Seminary professor Sister Katarina Schuth noted "the way that young seminarians see themselves now is sometimes and very often in a very inflated way. The denial that they will ever be offenders . . . can be a little bit of blindness to the dangers that are there."

The role of women in seminaries has also been reduced lately, observed the teacher at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "I think that's a concern."

Jesuit theologian George Wilson proposes that laity be included on the decision-making board that recommends candidates for ordination.

"We would want to create a condition in which laity and priests identify as peers, committed to a common mission, rooted in the mentality and heart of Jesus," said the author of Clericalism and the Death of the Priesthood.

The laity, however, have played a pivotal role in maintaining the culture of clericalism, Wilson contended. "The clerical status may be claimed by the clerics, but it was conferred by the laity. It exists only because the laity give it. We're all complicit in this together."

That theme was echoed in Archbishop Anthony Mancini's address. "The faithful, too, have a responsibility to engage their priest, to criticize him, and to develop a relationship with him as they would with a brother or a sister."