top of page


Fr Billy Swan

‘A terrible evil’. It’s the only way that comes close to describe the crime and sin of the sexual abuse of children, teenagers or vulnerable adults. In the last week or so, another wave of revelations of historic abuse has come to light, beginning with Blackrock College but with more cases emerging from elsewhere with some passing through the courts.

One reaction we might be tempted to choose is to block it all out. It’s too dark and painful. This might be understandable but for Christians, this is not an option. For despite how evil and horrible these crimes are, we as a Church must face them with courage and resolve.

This weekend, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year and like a priest coming last in a liturgical procession, Christ comes with his kingdom to do battle with and defeat the powers of darkness. Christ the king is a warrior, the new David, a solider who goes into the belly of the beast. He did not shrink from the power of evil but came to meet it and defeat it. He brought the light into the darkness – a light the darkness could not overpower (John 1:5).

With this in mind, we in the Church must not just deal with the fallout of revelations and hurt and anger they cause, important as this is. We must also probe and tackle the root causes of this terrible evil.

Below I offer six reasons why I believe abuse can occur and did occur in the Church. In the stories from victims in Blackrock and too many other places, there are a number of underlying issues that arise again and again, in one place and country after another. Patterns emerge that cannot be ignored. In going forward and for sake of the Church we love, attitudes of ‘this too will pass’ or ‘there will always be sin in the Church’ are unacceptable. Yes, there may always be sin in the Church but this must not translate into complacency or a resignation that these sins will inevitably happen and so there is nothing we can do. As the Book of Proverbs says: ‘My mouth shall meditate truth and my lips shall hate wickedness’ (8:7). St Thomas Aquinas once said that this hatred of wickedness belongs to the virtue of charity (Summa Contra Gentiles, 1ff). After these terrible revelations in our Church, it can no longer be ‘business as usual’. We need to identify the root causes of abuse, hate them passionately and with charity firmly address those causes that have wreaked so much devastation in peoples’ lives.

A World Problem:

The first step to appreciating the breath and width of the sexual abuse crisis is to acknowledge that it is a global problem, not a local one. The problem of sexual abuse of minors is not just a Church problem. It is a problem of society and indeed for humanity. Tragically, it is happening daily and all over the world. And while the focus of attention is now on the Spiritans and the Church, any attempt to scapegoat the Church is a distraction from the wider scale of the problem in societies.

Because abuse is a global problem, countries where the abuse crisis has yet to hit need to act as if it had arrived on their doorstep for the safety and protection of the vulnerable which must take priority. Church and government leaders must not act only when they have to or when the bomb goes off. The time for action is now to safeguard the vulnerable.

The Abuse of Power:

On reading the reports of sexual abuse and the specific stories of how abuse came to happen, one familiar dynamic emerges. Instead of empowering young people, abusers overpowered them with emotional manipulation prior to abusing them sexually. This terrible abuse of power enabled them to go on to wreak such terrible damage in the lives of the vulnerable and the young who were not strong enough to say ‘no’ to their advances. Their elevated office in the priesthood and positions of authority within institutions and communities provided the perfect conditions for abuse to occur. In our seminaries, clergy conferences, parish safe-guarding training, the issue of the use and abuse of power needs to be met head on and discussed with courage and with repentance. As Church, we are not about power but about service of the needs of others in Jesus’ name. Yes, we have authority but not as a plaything to aggrandise our egos but to affirm peoples’ faith and the communities we serve. These are God’s people to whom we are accountable, who we serve and whose needs come first.

Lack of Accountability:

In the Church’s hierarchical system, every priest is meant to be accountable to his bishop or religious superior and every bishop/cardinal is accountable to the Pope. Therefore, if a cleric is a bully or abusive then it is up to the bishop, or Pope to call him to account. It is painfully obvious that this simplistic model has weaknesses and has not served to halt the actions of abusive priests or bishops who failed to act when they needed to. In this crisis, a burning question has emerged: to whom are we accountable? On the vertical scale, we are ultimately accountable to God who judges us now and on the last day (cf. Rom. 14:12). On the horizontal level, we priests are accountable to our bishops and bishops/cardinals to the Pope, but this is not sufficient as we have seen. Natural justice demands that we be not only be accountable to ‘the man upstairs’ or the person who is ‘our boss’ but also accountable to those we serve. With this in mind, the importance of collaborative structures is seen in a new light where we can transparently give an account for our stewardship. This is a time to recognize that priesthood or teaching is not a license for a private practice. Surely the time has come to commit ourselves to a code of professional ethics with at least some degree of supervision like other care-giving professionals. Many priests I suspect will find this an intrusion and a mechanism to find fault with their ministry. But this need not be the case. Structures of supervision can detect when there is a problem that needs to be addressed but also can serve to encourage good priests to become even better priests and to become familiar with best practise in all aspects of priestly ministry. For too long, priestly and episcopal ministry has suffered from a lack of accountability. History tragically proves that many abusers did not just abuse but abused over long periods of time, in some cases for decades. No one held them to account for their attitudes and actions until it was too late. We all need to be accountable to someone to prevent any abuse of power we are all capable of. Thankfully, the great work being done by safeguarding offices in diocese around the country is addressing this problem with Garda vetting, updating, training safe-guarding officers and constant vigilance all ensuring greater accountability to correct tragic mistakes from the past and to ensure that environments are safe for young people.

Betrayal of Trust:

Closely linked to the abuse of power is the betrayal of trust. St Thomas Aquinas once defined love as ‘willing the good of the other’ (STh I-II, 26, 4). When I was growing up, most young people automatically assumed that every adult willed our good and the good of all. Most did. But tragically, as the revelations have shown, some did not. Perhaps this has been the most painful aspect of the crisis to emerge – that the natural, child-like trust invested in people meant to represent Christ, was so horribly betrayed. Yet, I believe that this is a time when the message of love as ‘willing the good of the other’ is more important than ever and can upheld as the standard of what loving service truly is. It is also an opportunity to realize the importance of trust in any meaningful relationship including our trust in God who assures us at this difficult time through the words of Christ: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and trust in me’ (John 14:1).

Sexual Dysfunction:

In the flurry of media commentary on this crisis, priestly celibacy is one of the main scapegoats – ‘if priests were married, then this would not have happened’. While this conclusion is understandable, it lacks the hard evidence that being celibate is directly responsible for sexual dysfunction. Many who were not celibate have and do committed these crimes. However, what the crisis does reveal is that we do need to look again at the sexual maturity of seminarians, priests and bishops with more scrutiny and with more honesty. Being celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God is a noble ideal but still, real questions remain – how can seminarians and priests arrive at and be sustained in a healthy sexual maturity? What resources are there to support us in this? Do we adequately address the issue of affective maturity in seminaries, at clergy retreats and diocesan conferences or is it still a taboo subject? Where are the affective needs of priests met? Is it wise or healthy to send a celibate man into a large house to live on his own and tell him to simply ‘get on with it’? What are the professional boundaries in place to ensure the best possible relations between the priest and his people? These are just some of the sensitive but important issues that cry out to be addressed in order to learn from this crisis and move forward.

But society is also under the spotlight here. One narrative runs that now that we have done away with Catholic guilt about sex and have set aside oppressive moral laws then we are in a healthier state now than before. The truth is that sexually liberal cultures and societies are not free of sexual dysfunction either. For example, there is increasing evidence of the harmful effects of pornography that is leading to acting out in some cases of sexual crimes and assaults. Therefore, to blame Catholic Christian morality is overly simplistic. There must be a wider conversation about the meaning of human sexuality that cannot be reduced to the issue of consent.

Cover Up:

In the firestorm over the abuse crisis, the sin of cover-up seems to be almost on a par with the abuse itself. Any explanation from authorities that is offered for their actions or inactions are almost always interpreted as excuses and are not heard, even when they acted on inadequate or erroneous professional advice. What we can say now is that any genuine attempts that bishops or religious superiors made in the past to deal with abuse issues by keeping the problem secret and ‘in house’ has failed. The problem is too big and has exploded in our faces. That is why any allegations of crimes of this nature are passed on to the Gardai when they reach a certain threshold of seriousness and credibility. What can we learn from this? That the protection of any pretence of holiness or respectability must give way to the truth, the protection of the vulnerable and the conversion of the person. This applies to all of our lives. Most of us worry more about what people know or think instead of what is true and what is real in us. When there is a problem within a family, there is a natural reaction to conceal it from greater knowledge especially if it is something that could be construed as bringing ‘shame on the family’.

The Italians have a saying that emphasises the importance of the ‘bella figura’ - meaning that a fine impression or good appearance is all important, often at the expense of what is really beneath the surface. Anxiety to protect the ‘bella figura’ of the Church under any pretence has long given way to the humility and honesty needed where the roots of holiness and renewal are found in radical authenticity. This holds true even if the truth about ourselves and our Church is distasteful or dark. In the words of Christ, only ‘the truth will set us free’ (John 8:32).


If a doctor discovers cancer in a patient’s body, he/she will not be content to treat the symptoms or the secondaries. The primary tumour must be found. In the Body of Christ that is the Church, there exists the cancer of sexual abuse that urgently needs treatment. Treatment of the secondaries or the symptoms is not good enough. We need to go to the root causes. This often involves more pain but unless the root causes are tackled, the problem will continue. We may feel that the Church is unfairly targeted and scapegoated by society because of sexual abuse when it is a sin that blights the whole human family. But remember the words of St Peter: ‘The time has come for the judgment to begin in the household of God’ (1 Pet. 4:17). Judgment begins on this issue in the Church but doesn’t end there. In time, the lancing of a boil in the Church can and does lead to a purification of society of the same disease.

On the feast of Christ the King, we hope that together as the Body of Christ we will have the resolve and the courage to go deeper with God’s grace in order to tackle these six root causes of sexual abuse and excise this tumour from the Church. For if the tumour is not removed, the body will die. I believe that God will not allow that to happen which makes me believe that this is a time of hope, despite it also being a time of great pain. ‘Behold, I am making all things new’ (Is. 43:18; Rev. 21:5). God is renewing his Church in these extraordinary and unprecedented times and through her will renew the whole world and make it a safer place.


bottom of page