Maynooth Is Funny But It Is No Joke

The main headline story in Ireland this week has related to St Patrick’s College Maynooth, which is the Irish ‘national seminary’. This is where the vast majority of Irish Catholic priests are trained. The Archbishop of Dublin has moved his seminarians from there to Rome, allegedly because there is an “active gay subculture” at the Maynooth college. This includes some attendees at the college using the gay dating App, Grindr.

St Patrick's College, Maynooth
St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

The Maynooth story has inevitably prompted many jokes at the expense of the Church. Comedians have long been juxtaposing gay relationships among the Catholic clergy, against the Church teaching on celibacy and homosexuality. For example, many people have been asking how the Archbishop came to be aware who was on Grindr?

Fr Todd Unctious talking to Fr Ted Crilly
Fr Todd Unctious talking to Fr Ted Crilly

There is a more sinister side to this story though, which does not in any way relate to the ongoing activities of the seminarians. When I read about two seminarians at the college being discovered in bed together, I assumed that two consenting adults were in their own bedroom harming absolutely nobody. The potential for harm arises not from an “active gay subculture” among seminarians but rather from a culture of suppression and cover-up among the hierarchy.

During this podcast, The Freethought Prophet interviewed A.W. Richard Sipe. As anyone who saw the movie “Spotlight” knows, few people in the world know more about this issue than Richard and he talked with us in detail about his 18 years as a priest. His main focus during this time was treating other priests as an American Certified Clinical Mental Health Counsellor and publishing research from his 25-year ethnographic studies.

He found that at any one time, more than half of all supposedly celibate Catholic priests, were involved in ongoing sexual relationships. The vast majority of this clerical sexual activity involved consenting adults. However during our interview, he also associated the suppression and cover-up of liaisons among adult priests, with the cover-up of child sexual abuse by the clergy. Specifically, he said that:

“If there weren’t bishops who were sexually active, if there weren’t rectors of seminaries, if there weren’t confessors who were sexually active (not necessarily with children, but in some form, with men or women in long term liaisons) if that did not exist in the system above, then sexual abuse of minors [on an ongoing basis by priests] could not exist.”

This is the real harm associated with the activities in Maynooth. It is not the culture among the seminarians that Catholics should worry about but the culture of suppression and cover-up among the hierarchy. Research from the Church’s own expert on these matters, shows that only a minority of Catholic clergy are actually celibate. This means that a culture has developed within the hierarchy, whereby they observe sexual activity as a common occurrence among the majority of their priests and they must always cover it up and suppress it.

If a bishop has spent decades in a Church organisation, where most clerics are sexually active and the suppression and cover-up of such activity has become routine and banal, how much more likely is it that this bishop will be tempted to cover-up sexual activity between a priest and a minor?

Most people can distinguish easily between sexual activity involving consenting adults (which is natural and healthy) as compared to sexual activity with a child (which is immoral and illegal). When a bishop teaches that both of these categories of activity are wrong for a seminarian and he becomes accustomed to the ongoing cover-up for the former, it is much more easy to see how the cover-up of the latter also occurs. In fact, in the view of one of the world’s foremost experts on this matter, the Church cover-up of clerical child sex abuse could not have persisted for so long, without the deeply ingrained existing culture of cover-up for very widespread adult liaisons.

This is the real problem with the story from Maynooth and it is no joke.


John Hamill

National Committee, Atheist Ireland

Secretary, Atheist Alliance International

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