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The Burden of Betrayal, by Barry O’Sullivan

05 October 2018

Jenny Francis on the impact of scandals on fellow clergy


WITH each revelation from Professor Jay’s IICSA investigation — the latest was publicised as I began this review — it’s small wonder that many are shocked and angry at the extent of child sexual abuse and feel particularly let down by offending clergy, of any denomination. The latest reports censured two famous English Benedictine boarding schools, and somehow the fact that the perpetrators were monks, abusing their pupils over decades, while their religious Superiors developed a culture of non-cooperation and secrecy, made it all feel much worse.

As with all examples of child sexual abuse in the Church, we must be sickened by the behaviour itself, and hurt and angry at the ineffectual way in which the various hierarchies have previously dealt with it.

Dr O’Sullivan has extensive experience as an RC priest involved in child safeguarding and protection, as well as work with sex offenders. Through his work, he encountered the concept of “secondary victims”, described by a psychoanalyst in the United States, and thought it merited research to understand it better.

He set up a qualitative research project for a Ph.D. in which he selected six RC priests from very different backgrounds and interviewed them himself. He was concerned lest being an “insider” might skew the results, but instead it seemed to help his fellow clergy to talk openly.

He began to appreciate that the customary lack of support and guidance from those in authority over them meant that they felt peculiarly isolated and subject to the derision of parishioners and the public who tended to see all RC priests as sex offenders, by definition. The bumbling failure of their Church to deal with the crisis or to appreciate the sense of betrayal which non-offending priests expressed nearly destroyed many.

The book is painful and difficult to read, not least because it was originally a research project, as its structure reflects. It opens our ears, however, to the distress of all caught up in so many aspects of this unfolding crisis, and, as members of a fallible Christian Church, we must try to think, pray, and act as sensitively as we can.

The Revd Jenny Francis is a retired psychotherapist and a priest in the diocese of Exeter.


The Burden of Betrayal: Non-offending priests and the clergy child sexual abuse scandals
Barry O’Sullivan
Gracewing £14.99
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