Systemic abuse – the reality now confronting the Church

I think the major Christian denominations are being let off far too lightly so far in the scrutiny they are being subjected to by the media. I think the Roman Catholic Church is riven systemically with forms of power and control, theologies, traditions, expectations, and institutionalised assumptions about which there is very little self-reflexion. The result is a culture which accepts behaviours and ideas which are deeply destructive of Christian qualities and the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to know where to begin in writing about this, there is so much that emerging into the public realm now. This morning on the Today programme John Humphries interviewed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. The Cardinal was blithely and dangerously naive in the answers he gave. At the end of the programme Humphries interviewed Ben Summerskill, Chief Executive of Stonewall and Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust. Mike is gay but his line in interviews is that sexuality is fluid and no-one is really gay. Ben Summerskill failed to question Mike’s flawed premise which is fatal. Humphries tolerated ideas which as a gay Christian I find intolerable and which directly contribute to the mess Cardinal O’Brien, the Roman Catholic Church and the next Pope now find themselves in.

I hope to God the media and lay Catholics maintain pressure on the hierarchy and pursue questions about secrecy, celibacy, and homosexuality in the Church.

At least Humphries used the word gay about Cardinal O’Brien. If O’Brien isn’t gay, what is he? If he wasn’t responding to emotional and sexual desires when he approached at least 5 different priests (and I have no doubt there are many more), what was he doing? What other impulse might have been going on inside him if the man isn’t gay?

So, O’Brien is gay and the accusations made against him, accusations he first denied with threats of legal action against the Guardian, accusations he now accepts are true, go back 30 years or more.

There are fundamental things which the Roman Catholic Church is not facing up to, things which are now reaching epidemic proportions, and interviewers have great difficulty understanding the most profound implications of what is being revealed now.

There are many gay priests in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, not only in Western countries but in every country and certainly across the whole of Africa. I am in conversation with a number of gay Roman Catholics, priests, ordinands and potential ordinands. I am not able to name them because that would put them in grave danger and be a total betrayal of trust and confidence. Some of them are already being treated with contempt by the Church simply because they are gay.

Simply? You see, for me and millions like me, I am simply gay. It’s an ordinary thing. I discovered I was gay at the same age my peers were discovering their attraction to girls. I know in the core of my being, Mike Davidson’s fantasies notwithstanding, that I was born gay, as much as any human being is born with a sexual identity.

Until every Church discovers and accepts this, they will be promoting evil and prejudice and forcing people to live in denial of their own being, and in the case of people like Cardinal O’Brien, acting out desire in a way inappropriate for a Roman Catholic priest/Archbishop/Cardinal, but possibly not inappropriate for someone who is simply gay.

This is what the Church is now confronted with. Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are a normal part of God’s creation and the Church has, as fast as possible, to catch up with this truth. All I’ve heard in interviews is denial, prevarication and dishonesty. Qualities such as truth and love and integrity are missing.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor defended the way the Roman Catholic Church has dealt with child abuse in this morning’s interview. He described the robust systems and checks the Church has put in place to prevent it happening again. Cormac, you have no understanding of the dynamics which brought about abuse and which create a culture of systemic abuse in the Church. Priests and bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals are still abusing, young people, women, those below them in the hierarchy. They abuse scripture and they abuse the very nature of the Holy. They abuse sexually and they abuse power.

The Church will not overcome or begin remotely to deal with institutional abusive patterns until it deals honestly and openly with sexuality and gender, welcoming all into the Church at every level of ministry.

I confess I doubt there’s much hope of the Roman Catholic Church confronting its demons in my lifetime, though I pray that I am wrong and the Spirit opens eyes and melts defences. I am much more determined to ensure the Church of England ordains women as bishops in the next 5 years and overcomes its aversion to having gay people at the core of the Church at every level.

Christianity has to overcome profound prejudice and systemic culture of abuse which it remains systemically blind to.


  1. Tim Newcombe says

    Thank you so much for this piece. What a morning, your latest piece and Giles Fraser’s Thought for The Day. The hierarchies will eventually have to face truth and reality.

  2. Davis Mac-Iyalla says

    I and most of my friends in Nigeria have encountered gay priests in Africa for many years, some have become bishops and others retired. If not for the sake of confidentiality and that I have never read in the papers where those bishops/priests are publicly speaking and attacking homosexuality, they would have got the big expose of the year. Enough is enough from the church and religious leaders. What news like this is enabling many Africans that have been abuse by the church to begin to think of how to speak out and if African begins to tell their stories, I doubt that the church is able to deal with what is coming to it.

Join the discussion