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Durham University

Centre for Catholic Studies

Boundary Breaking

The Sex Abuse Crisis Within the Roman Catholic Church


Recognising clearly that the phenomenon of sex abuse is confined neither to Catholicism nor to the Christian churches, this initiative is prompted by the belief that, whilst the Roman Catholic Church has made exemplary progress in relation to such matters as: the screening of candidates for priesthood and religious life, the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, the handling of allegations, appropriate engagement with survivors, and the treatment of the psycho-sexual pathologies of perpetrators, there is nevertheless significant work still outstanding which requires focused interdisciplinary research.

First there is the need to complement the due focus on the individual perpetrator, survivor, and relevant superior by turning to examine whether this crisis exposes collective, systemic weaknesses and distortions in the habits, cultures, and organizational realities of Catholicism and, if so, whether aspects of its ecclesiological teachings are implicated in these practical weaknesses.

Second is the need to widen the debate beyond clerical sexual abuse of children and minors to include other forms of clerical boundary breaking such as: clergy children and sexual behaviour between priests and vulnerable adults (e.g., in the context of spiritual direction and/or confession).

Colloquium and Edited Volume

A scoping and planning network colloquium has been initially undertaken with a view to developing a multi-disciplinary research programme on the formational, ecclesial and theological implications of the clerical sexual abuse crisis with particular reference to the Roman Catholic Church: Boundary Breaking. Bringing together specialists working across a variety of disciplines including criminal law, ecclesiology, psychology, sexuality, sociology, spirituality, and theology, the colloquium considered:

  • The Ecclesial Context for the Project: the Work of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
  • Seminary Formation and Sexual and Interpersonal Development: Where Are We? Where Do We Go?
  • The Spiritual Dynamics of Sexual Abuse
  • Psychological Issues Related to Abuse by Clergy
  • Sexual Abuse and Organisational Culture
  • Criminal Justice and Clerical Sexual Abuse
    • Prosecuting Historical Cases
    • Catholic Church Testimony to Australian Sexual Abuse Inquiries
  • Restorative Justice
  • Exploring the Potential Relationship Between Pathologies in Catholic Ecclesial Culture and Aspects of Catholic Doctrine

In January 2017, CCS members Prof. Chris Cook, Prof. Paul D. Murray, and Dr Marcus Pound signed a contract for an edited volume with Routledge to publish a series of papers that reflect and grow out of this colloquium. The expected date of publication is November 2019.


The CCS is beginning a three-year research project analysing the claimed complicity of Catholic ecclesial self-understanding and wider Catholic cultural habitus in allowing clerical sexual abuse to be at once endemic, hidden, unthinkable, denied, and mismanaged.

Over the course of the three years the project will undertake a comparative study of existing reports on abuse within secular and religious organisations as the basis for clarifying what (as existing research suggests) is distinctive in these regards about the Catholic context (e.g. in relation to the degree of institutional denial, coverup, and mismanagement). The specific focus will be on identifying structures, doctrines, and practices within the Catholic system, or life-world, which have facilitated the situation of widespread Catholic clerical sexual abuse, to be tested through a series of empirical studies.

The objective is to explore how the web of doctrine, structure, and practice that constitutes the Catholic system might be capable of being “rewoven” with “dynamic integrity” in ways that can overcome and safeguard against the systemic weaknesses and pathologies identified, whilst also protecting the vital core Catholic instincts and commitments which are in play. In this sense the project will be both “critical” and “constructive”, developing a multi-stranded diagnostic for the ills and recovery of the ecclesial body of Christ.

The project will be served by a global digital research portal to serve as a platform to update and disseminate the research project as well as collate existing research on Catholic sex abuse to serve as a key educational resource for further research initiatives.

The project is being led by Dr Marcus Pound (Principal-Investigator) and Prof. Paul D. Murray (Co-Investigator).

Left to right: Prof. Hans Zollner, Marie Collins, Prof. Sheila the Baroness Hollins, Peter Saunders