St Peter Damian on clerical sex abuse

Vatican spokesman, Frederico Lombardi commented that last week’s focus on the film ‘Spotlight’ and Cardinal Pell’s testimony before the Royal Commission “would help in the long march in the battle against abuse of minors in the universal Catholic Church and in today’s world”.

St Peter Damian understood this battle and is a strategist and tactician on what we should do, why we should do it, and the cost if we don’t.

St Peter Damian’s insightful work has the intimidating title of ‘The Book of Gomorrah’ and was penned in the 11th century in Italy. Damian fought against sex abuse in the Church in his day and this work echoes the outrage felt in our societies today.

The tone doesn’t suit modern ears attuned to the language of diversity but his arguments are compellingly Christian and formed around the scriptures and the Church Fathers in judgement, mercy and hope. To dismiss him as ‘homophobic’ would be to miss his essential insights. It might need an R16 label!

It is a page turner and bluntly describes sexual vice but sends the right message. For victims and survivors who need to hear the language of accountability Damian offers it.

He is an apologist for the love of God and neighbour and is incensed by corrupt priests who attack God and destroy their neighbour. The cause of the problem of sex abuse in the Church as the inordinate love of pleasure for oneself rather than the love and fear of God.

St Peter Damian is clear that superiors should not show excessive mercy and certain that those who hide the sins of others are as guilty themselves by perpetuating evil. Damian says, “Such impious piety, without a doubt, does not reduce the wound, but administers a stimulus for its enlargement…rather grants the liberty of perpetrating it”.

There is no tolerance for cover-ups here! He is certain that the Church should never admit those of homosexual persuasion to holy orders. Neither does he blame sex abuse on the influence of a corrupt society. The problem is the essential failing of individuals in the Church.

It was hard to read that the service of a corrupt priest is the ruin of the people and that God does not wish to receive sacrifice from him (Damian is not testing the validity of the Mass but the impiety with which such corrupt priests offer it).

Damian says it is the spiritual fatherhood of the priest which makes these abuses most abhorrent; he compares reprobate priests who commit evils with their spiritual children as comparable to a father’s incest with his carnal sons and daughters.

Damian then exhorts those who have fallen to have confidence in the Lord’s mercy which never despises penance. The penance mentioned was exceedingly rigorous and varied according to the level of abuse.

Damian held that those priests who had abused children even in a minor way could never be trusted; he said they should always be in the presence of two spiritual brothers. How correct he was here!

St Peter Damian recommends to priests, for the sake of the love of God and Christian charity the contemplation of the virtue of chastity. This is his battle plan.

In this he seems to be a proponent of virtue ethics which subsumes and transcends the law. The Christian life is a high calling morally and spiritually for all. For priests in particular it is because they offer the sacred mysteries for the Church.

  • Lynda Stack graduated as a distance student with a BTh from Good Shepherd College. She is now studying for a Masters at the JPII Institute in Melbourne. Lynda is married. She and her husband have two adult children who are living overseas.
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