IAN KIRKWOOD: the impact of paedophile priests on a faithful congregation

AS the Royal Commission hearings into events at the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese of the Catholic Church drew to a close, I found myself wondering about the sanctity of priests, and what a devout, doctrinal Catholic would think about the sins of their priests, from a theological point of view.

IN GOD WE TRUST: Picture by Arsineh Houspian, Fairfax Media.

IN GOD WE TRUST: Picture by Arsineh Houspian, Fairfax Media.

Despite the march of science, some practising Christians still adhere to a literalist reading of the Bible, meaning that they take both the Old and New Testaments as the literal word of the one God. They believe in Heaven and in Hell, and accept that God created the world in seven days, shortly before he put Adam in Eden and fashioned Eve from one of his ribs.

Even if most Catholics now recognise the mythical aspects of Christianity, many of the church’s 1.2 billion adherents still place great store in the rituals and symbols of the church despite the reprehensible behaviour of many of its priests and brothers.

As an example, one of the aged Marist Brothers whose conduct was examined at the Newcastle royal commission hearing – Darcy John O’Sullivan, known as Brother Dominic – was jailed on Friday for crimes he committed in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The chairman of the commission, Justice Peter McClellan, said more than once during the hearings that the inquiry was very interested in the Catholic use of the confessional, which critics say was relied on by the church to absolve the sins of its priests while keeping the church’s problems away from public scrutiny.

Interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live for his latest book The Dark Box: A Secret History of the Confessional, the prolific British writer and former trainee priest John Cornwell said: “Many of the priests who were offending were squaring their moral and pastoral lives and their offending lives by going to confession. Several years ago an ex-priest admitted in court under oath that he had confessed to sexual abuse 1400 times to 32 different priests.'’

So what does having a known paedophile for a priest do to the congregation? Or, more to the point, does having a priest later revealed to be a paedophile – and perhaps a paedophile that never confessed his sins – somehow negate the blessings and sacraments that a priest bestows on his flock?

To give a blunt example: would someone given the last rites by a paedophile priest still go to Heaven? Or would it be a “burnt offering of the wicked, not accepted by God”?

In correspondence this week, the Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Bishop Bill Wright, said: “The heart of [my] question was whether the sacraments received from a priest guilty of abuse would be valid. The church has had to think its way through similar questions almost from the beginning and across the whole gamut of human sinfulness from apostasy through adultery to violence and murder. And the answer has been that the sacraments, celebrated more or less in the correct form, are valid even if the minister of them is personally unworthy of his office.”

Bishop Wright says a priest offering sacraments is acting in persona Christi, meaning he is taking the part of Christ in confession, mass, confirmation and holy orders.

 “But the actual gift in the sacrament is given by Christ, not by the priest who, however worthily, represents him in the rite. Of course, if a priest celebrates the sacraments while he knows he is in a seriously sinful state, he is compounding his sin.” The Bishop says “every priest is, to a greater or lesser extent, a sinner” and is grateful the sacraments rely not “on his personal holiness but on the grace of Christ freely given”.  

The full text of Bishop Bill Wright’s response to my question is as follows:

“It is always distressing to find that some special moment in life, of which you may have precious memories, is marred in retrospect because one of the key people involved has been discovered to be someone whose personal life was evil, corrupt or criminal. It may be the doctor who delivered your baby, the celebrant of your marriage or the first person to give you a job and encourage your career. It is sickening to find that you were deceived by someone you thought was a good person and that you were, unknowingly, associated for a time with them. People may feel some of these emotions about having received sacraments from an abuser priest.

The heart of your question, however, was whether the sacraments received from a priest guilty of abuse would be valid. The church has had to think its way through similar questions almost from the beginning and across the whole gamut of human sinfulness from apostasy through adultery to violence and murder. And the answer has been that the sacraments, celebrated more or less in the correct form, are valid even if the minister of them is personally unworthy of his office.

The essential point is that the sacraments are acts of God, gifts of Christ. The power at work in them, the grace, is that of Christ, not of the person performing the rite. God’s capacity to give his gifts cannot be made dependent on the worthiness of the minister.

In the cases of Baptism and Marriage,  the minister does not have to be a priest. Anyone can baptise, even a non-Christian or an atheist if they were willing to do so, provided they do what is required and ‘intend to do what the Christians do’. Obviously, who the minister actually is remains secondary in that instance. And in Marriage the couple literally marry each other. Since the 16th century, for reasons of social order, they have been required to marry in the presence of a priest-witness, unless they can’t get a priest for ‘a long time’ (more than a month!), in which case marriage without a priest is valid in the eyes of the Church.

In the other sacraments a priest is required. By his ordination he is empowered to act in persona Christi, taking the part of Christ in those actions that Christ performed personally; forgiving sins (‘Confession’ and anointing); giving his body and blood as Communion (Mass); or bestowing the Holy Spirit on disciples (Confirmation and Holy Orders). But the actual gift in the sacrament is given by Christ, not by the priest who, however worthily, represents him in the rite.

Of course, if a priest celebrates the sacraments while he knows he is in a seriously sinful state, he is compounding his sin.

Final thought: Every priest knows that he is not personally ‘worthy’ to do the sacred things he does. Every priest is, to a greater or lesser extent, a sinner. He is, therefore, grateful that the efficacy of the sacraments does not rely on his personal holiness but on the grace of Christ freely given. ‘We are only the earthenware vessels . . .’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)”

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, 4:6, 4:7

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

(King James Version)

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