Book Review: Shame, anger and fear at the abuse crisis
The Burden of Betrayal: Non-Offending Priests and the ClergyChild Sexual Abuse Scandals, by Barry O’Sullivan. Gracewing, 2018, £14.99, reviewed by Keith Barltrop.
“I challenge anyone to come up with a more devastatingly effective strategy for attacking the mystical body of Christ than the abuse of children and young people by priests. This sin had countless direct victims of course, but it also crippled the Church financially, undercut vocations, caused people to lose confidence in Christianity, dramatically compromised attempts at evangelisation, etc., etc. It was a diabolical masterpiece.”
These words of Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, were alluded to in his keynote presentation at last year’s National Eucharistic Congress in Liverpool. They remain for me the best short description I have heard of the clerical sex abuse scandal.
Fr. Barry O’Sullivan’s approach in The Burden of Betrayal relies less on the imagination and striking phraseology than does Bishop Barron, but his deeplyresearched study is an extremely valuable and ground-breaking piece of work, putting the spotlight on one particular element of this Satanic masterpiece, its effect on fellow clergy.
Quite rightly, the primary focus in all studies of sexual abuse must be its effect on the direct victims themselves, children and young people, whose stories need to be heard and re-heard and taken seriously. The more we know of the devastating effect of child abuse on victims’ lives, the more tempting it is to sideline others who are affected in a secondary way: victims’ families, perpetrators’ families and friends, fellow-clergy, and the Church as a whole, where, as Bishop Barron says, there is a knock-on effect in practically every area of the life of a Church to which priests have dedicated their entire lives.
Originating in doctoral research at Manchester University, The Burden of Betrayal is the first systematic study of the effects of clerical abuse on non-offending brother clergy. O’Sullivan is candid about the limitations of his approach: it was restricted to interviews with only six out of nearly 5,900 clergy in England and Wales, and is open to question in that he is a priest himself, what is technically known as an ‘inside researcher.’
On the other hand, what it lacks in breadth, his study makes up for in depth, and his sample size is justified according to the criteria laid down by his chosen research method, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Furthermore, it was conducted under the usual strict academic controls of a professional doctorate.
The result, while not exactly bedtime reading, is a graphic portrayal of the various effects of clerical abuse on fellowclergy, their implications for pastoral practice, and the possibilities for learning from the horrendous scenarios which have unfolded before our eyes over the last few years.
Cover-ups and mishandling
And to say that this book is timely would be a major understatement. As I write, the long-awaited Vatican ‘Summit’ on the Protection of Minors has just ended, with what lasting effects we will have to wait and see. On the very day it opened, a carefully timed bombshell exploded in the form of Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican, an exposé of rampant homosexuality among the very guardians of morality themselves in Rome. Though careful to distinguish homosexuality from child abuse, its author makes the valid point that secrecy in one area leads easily to cover-ups in others, thus facilitating the whole wretched mishandling of child abuse allegations in which bishops have been caught up, another major theme of The Burden of Betrayal.
Negative feelings and misperceptions
Fr. O’Sullivan’s status as a fellow diocesan priest, and indeed a diocesan Safeguarding Co-ordinator and psychotherapist, enabled him to win the trust of the clergy he interviewed and to tease out from them various aspects of the effects of clerical child abuse on their own selfimage as priests, their feelings about the perpetrators, and their confidence in the institutional Church’s ability to deal with the crisis.
Negative feelings unsurprisingly predominate: shame, anger both at perpetrators and at bishops who have covered up abuse, anxieties about working with children, and fear of how they themselves may be perceived as part of a ‘paedophile priesthood.’ Nevertheless, O’Sullivan encounters also a surprising amount of resilience and hope that things can improve. He criticises some of the priests for their misperceptions of child abuse procedures, which lead them to fear their bishops will ‘hang them out to dry’ if they are subject to false allegations, but in general reflects fairly and with admirable empathy the whole range of emotions and attitudes his interviewees report.
One factor other priests and I have noticed recently, which I did not find mentioned in his book, is the relative lack of interest in the whole subject in the Church in this country, compared to the USA where it has aroused intense and ongoing anger. When I recently asked a group of lay people in a parish just outside London how they dealt with their negative feelings about
the Church of today with its scandals and whether they thought they could feel happy being part of the Catholic body, they seemed almost to brush off the scandals as yesterday’s news; and in my own parish I have detected very little in the way of strong feelings about them either in the last three or four years, despite – or perhaps because of - my addressing the subject explicitly in a series of talks a few years ago.
One would like to hope that this sort of reaction is the effect of having stringent child protection procedures in place in our parishes – though sadly not in some of our monastic schools – for several years. If so, the suffering of fellow-clergy at the hands of abusive brothers in the priesthood, so comprehensively described in The Burden of Betrayal, could be viewed as a sacrifice that is bearing fruit in bringing to birth a Church where our children are safe. Even so, it pales into insignificance compared to the suffering of the direct victims themselves.
Mgr. Keith Barltrop is Parish Priest of St. Mary of the Angels, Bayswater.