Sexual crimes in the Catholic Church, a tragedy announced and consolidated centuries ago | Opinion

Our gaze always tends to focus on the present moment. It is there that we have our most direct and immediate questions. However, almost everything we do is related to the past, with traditions, heritage, culture. It is not that we should relativize, in the sense of devaluing, the acts based on the justifications of the past, but we should try to understand how, sometimes, the acts of the present are legitimized and made, within institutions, normal through attitudes that drag on to the over centuries.

The astonishment that we see today in the words of many politicians and clerics is just the result of either frank and clear ignorance or the mask that it is important to put on so as not to see the evil eye of public opinion fall on you. Manuel Linda’s declarations of devaluation still echo in our memory, for example, in 2019 (statements to TSF on April 20).

Contrary to the position of denial in which the Portuguese Catholic Church was, as if nothing had happened in Portugal, contrary to what happened in so many other countries, the picture is truly endemic and comes from a behavioral normality cemented over time.

The signs of repeated practices, over centuries and centuries, with the total connivance of the hierarchies, are known and have been the subject of investigation. It cannot be said that it was not known, much less assume that this past did not flow into the present. It has arrived at the present time by maintaining the essence of what were the practices of almost 500 years ago, at least since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when celibacy became, in fact, mandatory.

Some research work has been carried out on sexuality in the Modern Era. There are few works that, within this chronological framework, have focused on Catholic priests, but there are some studies that open doors to an expanded reading in time that explains part of the phenomenon that confronts us today. One of the most disturbing aspects is the “request”.

Spiritual fragility and confession

Isabel Drumond Braga and Paulo Drumond Braga have carried out several studies since the late 1990s on the so-called “solicitation” crimes (1). In addition to the works of these two historians, research by Jaime Ricardo Gouveia (2) and, more recently, by Bruno Abreu Costa (3) can be added. In all these works we find the practice of this type of crime, its violence and its concealment and devaluation, marks that have lasted until today.

The “solicitation” is the attempt to obtain sexual “favors” at the time of confession. The act could not have taken place at that time and place, but the context, whether one of isolation or of spiritual fragility, was the right one to achieve a compromise that would come true later. Today we can have access to a minuscule part of these crimes through the scarce denunciations that evolved into proceedings in the Inquisition.

Let us follow the study of Bruno Abreu Costa, describing an exemplary situation in the methodology used, that of Father Bento de Lira, parish priest of S. João Batista da Fajã da Ovelha, Calheta, Madeira, in 1620 (the spelling of the time was maintained , as the researcher transcribed it from the manuscript): “Pedro da Silva Sampaio, the inquisitor in charge of the process, questioned Bento de Lira, ‘which female person sees seven years of being in her knees? [joelhos] to confess sacramentally, with him at his feet, asked him if he wanted to have friendship with him, giving him to understand that shea for dishonest acts of fornication […] after requesting it, she confessed and he sacramentally absolved him’.”

Great procession of auto-da-fe of condemned by the Lisbon Inquisition
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Not that it wasn’t earlier, but I believe that crimes of a sexual nature have increased with the Council of Trent and with the generalization of celibacy and chastity. In this chronological framework, the lack of applicable legislation and the significant number of cases led the Portuguese Inquisition to seek from Rome the right to prosecute and condemn “soliciting” priests. The authorization appears in 1599, jurisdiction increased in 1608. In 1612, showing the existence of another practice, the scope of this offense was extended to the “solicitation” of men.

With regard to the age of the victims, the predominant one is clearly the harassment of fragile young women, widows or single mothers, but also young teenagers in a very significant percentage. They are not exclusive, but this normality leads Father Lira to point out in his defense that his victims were over 12 years old.

The development framework of the processes themselves also tells us a lot about the present. As Bruno Costa tells us, “accusatory witnesses were always questioned about the ‘fame’ of the defendants. By fame is meant the public image of the clergyman, his reputation and, in some situations, the rumor that circulated in the parish about his public and private life”. “Fame” was central, not victims. By the way, the word victim or any synonym are not used in these processes.

But more, it was the norm in these inquisitorial processes that secrecy was mandatory, from the interrogations to the sentence itself: “Reading of the sentence and the term of abjuration were done behind closed doors”, tells us the investigator. He adds: “Allied to this fact is the obligation to keep the sentence itself confidential, which could convey the image that your parish priest had been cleared of all accusations, allowing you to safeguard his honor and reputation.”

Finally, the penalties were very mild, in addition to nothing compensatory for the victims. Usually, it was a mild abjuration, with an oath not to commit the same crime again, showing regret for what happened. Besides, the penances were of a spiritual nature (confessing, communion, fasting for a certain time). Sometimes it was also said that they should “avoid, when possible, confessing to women, especially unmarried women”.

Tempted by the devil

Jaime Ricardo Gouveia brings us the case of Father Pedro de Aguiar, who confessed, in 1691, to having asked for two women, albeit by temptation of the devil: “[…] Tempted by the devil considering the sin of sodomy, he in fact penetrated the said Maria da Silva through the treacherous channel with his virile member. […].” In this case, the applicant was only admonished not to do the same thing again.

There were few cases that involved harsher penalties. For Father Bento de Lira, “it was decided […] that the defendant should lightly repudiate past acts in the presence of several inquisitors […]. In addition to this penalty, the former parish priest would be deprived of the care of souls, not being able to administer the sacraments; he would be suspended from his orders for six months, unable to give mass; and he would be banned from going to the parish of Fajã da Ovelha, ‘lest he renew with his presence in the minds of the faithful the memory of the scandal and bad example he set them’. With feathers set in Regiment 1640, the Inquisition stipulated this type of punishment for these crimes, exactly what we found in this case. There is no record that, neither during the process nor as a penalty, any of the priests I found in the bibliography were arrested. Even relocation to another bishopric did not always happen, and banishment, also provided for in the Regimentwas just a theoretical framework.

The “solicitation” is the attempt to obtain sexual “favors” at the time of confession
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In an environment of great protection, the archives of the Inquisition keep 229 processes referring to “request”. Already the Applicants’ Notebooks, the register of those accused of this crime, between 1611 and 1700, registers 920 accused clergymen, of which only 8.9% evolved to processes in the Inquisition, according to the survey of Jaime Ricardo Gouveia. Maintaining the dominance that still exists today, most of the victims that we find in the Inquisition only denounced the abuses several years later, sometimes more than a dozen years after the facts. Fear of reprisals, fear of social gaze and disapproval, fear of “loss of honor”, ​​fear of having been the engine of “sin” created a climate in which the victim was silent.

With only concern for “fame,” abusive priests were clearly protected. The victims, many of them children or teenagers, were the target of strong pressure during interrogations to assess whether they had any reason against the priest they denounced and whether his statement was really true. The authority of the priest was always a value against those who accused them — see the magnificent study “Ribs of Adam: the discrediting of female testimonies in the Portuguese Inquisition”, by Jaime Ricardo Gouveia.

Century after century, possibly accentuated with the post-Trent moral closure, practices were maintained, whether those of harassment and sexual abuse or those of cover-up. As the 20th century turns, in a society that looks at victims based on humanist thinking and human rights, it is important to understand that this is not just a current phenomenon. No, we are in a swamp of customs that, in a very complex way, define one morality and, so often, practice another, safeguarding this incongruity behind the protective curtain of institutional weight and the prestige and religious superiority of those who committed the crime. Jaime Ricardo Gouveia gives us the case of an Alentejo woman who said: “[…] Coming to seek God at confession, he will find the Devil […].”

The “crimes of the Amaro priests”, playing with the title of Eça de Queiroz’s classic, were something well known by all of society, especially by the clergy. Whether in the most normal escape from chastity, which is imposed and which fights against the nature of sexual attraction, a constitutive dimension of our species and of each individual, or in harassment and rape, especially of minors, it must be understood that the phenomenon in This debate is not new, nor can it be resolved with palliatives.

The Catholic Church, if it wants to be in the world and (co)respond to it, has to open, without fear, the debate on the sexuality of its clerics, an anachronism without any theological support, nor rooted in a long tradition that comes from the earliest times of Christianity.

1. “A Requester in the Inquisition of Coimbra in the 17th century: Father António Dias”, Vertex, n.º 66, Lisbon, 1995, pp. 97-100, and “Confess and Request in Colonial Brazil”, Portuguese Inquisition. Time, Reason and Circumstance, Lisbon, São Paulo, Preface, 2007, pp. 331-342.

two. “The repression of the crime of solicitation by the Holy Office in the diocese of Porto (1551-1700)”, in Vítor Oliveira Jorge and José M. Costa Macedo (eds.), Beliefs, Religions and Power, Porto, Afrontamento, 2008, pp. 219-233; The Sacred and the Profane clash in the Confessional. The crime of solicitation in the Tribunal of the Inquisition, Coimbra, 2011; “The clerical solicitation in Loulé (16th to 18th centuries)”, in Proceedings of the 4th Loulé History Meeting, Loulé, Loulé City Council, 2021, pp. 159-176; “The exclusive jurisdiction of the Portuguese Inquisition over the crime of solicitation: De facto or de iure?”, Historical Investigations. Época Moderna y Contemporánea, 42 (2022): 507-548.

3. “Sins of the Body, Crimes of the Soul: the Crime of solicitation in Madeira (17th century)”, CEHA Yearbook, 7, 2015, pp. 129-152.

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