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Literary references to clergy sexual immorality

Older people often say to me (and it was said by popes and their spokesmen, too) that clergy sexual abuse is a modern phenomenon.  Conservative Catholics like to attribute it to a post-Vatican II liberalisation of morals; Protestants similarly draw a parallel to a post-70s world, with its loosening of sexual morals.  And although there were texts published earlier than these dates which provided some research into the problem (1962, 1898), these are still considered, by those who wish to remain optimistic, the exception rather than evidence of a confirmed pattern.  Hence the purpose of this page is to demonstrate from a variety of literary references that clergy sexual abuse was so common in our culture that it became a) the subject of comedy, and b) the basis of casual references to a societal subtext that was so constant it was accepted without question.  Both of these contexts depend, for their authors' success, on people assuming the underlying truth of the phenomenon of which they speak, and thus become a loud voice of proof that such a phenomenon did indeed exist from earliest times.

However, sometimes when a relationship with a priest is portrayed as a love relationship, people find it hard to make a distinction between a consensual relationship between a priest and another adult, and an abusive relationship.  The key defining characteristic of an abusive relationship is that there is an imbalance of power between the parties.  This is particularly obvious where there is a significant age difference, but it also applies to the priest-parishioner relationship (imbalance of rank).  Other forms of power imbalance which often occur are emotional (where one party is particularly vulnerable due to their emotional circumstances), physical (if physical force is used to compel or persuade - even subtly - one party) and charismatic (if one party is recognised as being particularly charismatic or attractive, there is a tendency on the part of the other party to feel singled out and special; vicariously attractive, in fact.  This is common in adult abuse situations). 


  1. The word "nepotism" is defined as "undue favouritism to one's relations and close friends, originally by a pope" (Chambers Dictionary, 9th edition).  The word comes from the Latin "nepos, nepotis" meaning a grandson or nephew, and originated when popes justified conferring position and/or title on their illegitimate offspring by calling them nephews.
  2. "Thou shalt not seduce young boys" --Didache II:2, 120AD.  The Didache was an early church teaching text, and it appears that child sexual abuse in the church was a problem even then.
  3. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, description of the Friar (religious brother):
    A friar there was, a wanton and a merry,
    A limiter, a very festive man...
    He had arranged full many a marriage
    Of women young, and this at his own cost... (the implication being that these were young women he had made pregnant)
    And he could romp as well as any whelp.
  4. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, general prologue lines 501-2, words of the good parson:
    For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,               Translation: For if a priest, on whom we trust, should be foul
    No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;                                               It is no wonder for a layman to go bad;
  5. Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk, 1836, wherein Maria was a young novice who was called into "service" quite regularly by the adjoining monks.  The book was digitised in the early 2000s, but the link which existed then no longer exists. A search may turn up the text online.
  6. "The Priest and the Acolyte" by John Bloxam - a short story in The Chameleon, 1894.  Bloxam was a friend of Oscar Wilde and fellow lover-of-men, at a time when there was a move among gays to promote the moral goodness of their cause by flaunting their (at that time, subject to criminal prosecution) sexual preference.  The inclusion of this reference is not intended to suggest that homosexuality is wrong; it is the age and rank disparity which defines the relationship as abusive.  The story can be read hereWarning: This story may be triggering to clergy abuse victims.
  7. Dimboola, Jack Hibberd, 1969.  A play about a country wedding, about which it has been said "Sixteen characters of all age groups make up the "bridal table from hell" and while one might not like to think that we are laughing at ourselves, we all know one or more of the characters portrayed".  The Catholic priest is both an alcoholic and sexually questionable:
    Astrid: Mummy, Father O'Shea is looking up my dress.
    Mavis: Whaaat!
    Fr O'Shea: Just looking for my rosary beads, Mrs Mavis.
    Aggie: Pervert.
    Bayonet: They're all the same.
    and also at the end of the play, he accepts an invitation to have sex with Aggie.
  8. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough, 1977, is a classic story of a sexual relationship between priest and parishioner, where the relationship was formed when there were even more power imbalances than when it was finally consummated.
  9. "Oh dear, a vicar in trouble.  I suppose it's the choirboys again.  I always think the Church runs a terrible risk having choirboys." -- T.C.Rowley, in Rumpole and the Man of God, John Mortimer, 1979.
  10. "The world's full of [hypocrisy]. Christians who fail to give all their worldly goods to the poor, Communists who deal on the stock exchange, Catholic priests who surrender to their housekeepers..." (emphasis mine).  Horace Rumpole, in Rumpole and the Camberwell Carrot, John Mortimer, 2001.  Note: This may well merely describe a breach of vows of celibacy, rather than an abusive relationship.  What would define it as abusive is if the "housekeeper" was a parishioner of the priest before or during their sexual relationship.
  11. Various mentions in Agatha Christie whodunnits.


And just one final thought to ponder on:
"Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion." --Proverbs of Hell, William Blake, 1790

Note to readers: I welcome further additions to this list.  If you know of a mention of clergy sexual immorality (whether with children or adult parishioners) in literature of any genre, any era, please email me with the quote, author, title and year of publication.

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