Stories of sexual abuse and the protection of sexual abusers by the Society of St. Pius (SSPX) have recently been given a certain amount of publicity due to the hard journalistic work of Church Militant's Christine Niles. The episodes that have come to light are horrifying and are documented by unimpeachable evidence — court judgments, credible eye-witness accounts and the statements and documents of the SSPX leadership. They demand explanation, and it may be helpful for a person like myself, who has some knowledge of the history of the SSPX and some familiarity with SSPX milieux, to attempt such an explanation.
I will state at the outset that I agree in substance with the doctrinal and liturgical positions of Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, I think that he was correct to found the SSPX in order to carry on these positions; I think he was correct to persist with the SSPX when Rome tried to suppress it; and I think he was correct to consecrate bishops in defiance of the Holy See in order to carry on his religious society.*
Indeed I have publicly defended the theological positions of the SSPX in the past; I have been a regular attendee at SSPX Masses; and two of my daughters were baptized at SSPX chapels. I make these statements about Abp. Lefebvre in order to rule out any claims that my position on sexual abuse in the SSPX is motivated by theological animus against the Society. The question of their truth or falsity is quite independent of the question of the nature, extent and causes of sexual abuse in the SSPX, so I will not pursue them further.
The facts documented and in some cases uncovered by Church Militant have shown that in the SSPX there is a culture of covering up sexual abuse, protecting sexual abusers from the law and providing sexual abusers with opportunity for further abuse. This is both a culture and what amounts to an official policy of the clerical leadership, although I do not suppose that the policy is written down anywhere. The statements made by the American district of the SSPX in response to the Church Militant stories have confirmed this to any informed and reflective observer.
Consider its most recent statement. This is arrogant and dishonest, and fails to address any specific charges. The following paragraph, in particular, is a straightforward lie:
The Society deeply regrets that some of its members may have engaged in serious misconduct and, in the worst cases, criminal or delinquent behavior. It is a blemish on the Catholic priesthood, on the Church and on the work of Abp. Marcel Lefebvre. However, that does not mean that the Society encourages them, that it protects them, or, even less, that it covers for them. On the contrary, it strives each time, according to the seriousness of the cases, to sanction them and to deal with them, according to the rules of justice, having first of all concern for the victims.
The activities of the SSPX in protecting and covering for pedophiles in its midst are clearly documented in legal proceedings.
The case of Fr. Frédéric Abbet in Belgium is an example. Here the SSPX obstructed efforts of victims to find out about Fr. Abbet's crimes. After learning that he had molested boys, Bp. Fellay assigned Fr. Abbet to a residence next to a boy's school where he committed further crimes. Bishop Fellay did this despite the order of an internal SSPX tribunal that ruled that Fr. Abbet should have no contact with children for at least a decade. He even overrode the tribunal's very sensible ruling that Fr. Abbet should not be allowed access to the internet, thus showing that he had gone into the case in detail and intended to remove every hindrance to Fr. Abbet's committing further crimes.
The SSPX statement is intended to rally the supporters of the Society to deny the truth about the SSPX and sexual abuse and to intimidate victims who are thinking of coming forward with their stories. It shows that the decision of the Society is to try to face down their accusers in order to continue with their policy towards sexual abuse. This response is made all the more striking by the fact that the statement replaces an earlier, much more reasonable-sounding one that was put up and then taken down. It is likely that the earlier statement was the work of the Society's competent PR man, James Vogel, and that its replacement comes from the clerical leadership.
External observers will find this puzzling. Aside from the iniquity of this strategy, its hatefulness in the eyes of the Lord Whom the Society is supposed to serve, and the severe divine vengeance that it will bring down upon its perpetrators, it is clearly too late for it to work. There are too many victims coming forward, too many police investigations and too much publicity.
There is a stage in all these kinds of scandals where it is too late to cover things up and put the toothpaste back in the tube, and this stage has now been reached with the SSPX. Why is the SSPX pursuing this strategy, and why did it adopt this policy towards sexual abuse in the first place? These are the questions that this essay is intended to answer.
One explanation might be the following. The leadership of the SSPX lives in a somewhat isolated environment that it has previously been able to entirely dominate. This domination creates arrogance among the leadership, and means that they can often dispense with real ability. It also circumscribes their conception of reality, making them think that the whole world is like the artificial environment that they have created and that they are able to control. So part of the explanation for the current state of affairs in the Society is that the leadership are arrogant mediocrities who are not capable enough to react to a new and difficult situation or even to really grasp the situation that they are in, and who are just falling back under stress to the strategies they have always used before.
There is probably some truth in this explanation. But things have now gone too far for it to fully explain the Society's stance. Once police investigations and criminal charges begin, delusion and incompetence usually have to give way. What we see now is a deliberate defiance of attempts to oppose the SSPX's favorable policy towards sexual abuse. Why is this happening?
The first step in explaining the Society's actions is a proper characterization of their underlying motives and goals. The actions of the leadership of the Society and of many of their followers show that they have internalized the psychology and dispositions of a sexual abuser.
As a general characterization, sexual abusers are not just people with a lamentable weakness of the flesh that they fail to control. They are serious criminals, and they have the mentality and behavioral patterns of a criminal. These include total absence of empathy for their victims and a capacity to lie without the slightest guilt or hesitation. There are also characteristics that belong to sexual abusers in particular. They not only victimize people, they hate and despise their victims. If this were not so, they would not get pleasure from damaging and tormenting them. They hate them because they hurt them, rather than vice versa.
What is more, they think that anyone who objects to, interferes with or condemns their abuse is doing them a monstrous injustice. If this happens, they consider themselves to be ill-treated, and to be entitled to vengeance against the objectors and compensation from the world in general.
This conception of things can be seen to govern the way that the SSPX has dealt with sexual abusers in its ranks. Consider the example of Bp. Fellay and Fr. Abbet. One can understand why the SSPX from a selfish point of view might have discouraged the victims of his abuse and tried to silence the whole affair. This would avoid scandal and possible financial losses for the Society. But why then move Fr. Abbet to a post where it was certain that he would commit more offenses? Why remove every restriction that might hinder his committing further abuse? Would this not risk causing further scandal, as in fact, it did? Why overrule the SSPX's own tribunal to make this seemingly counterproductive move?
Similar questions are raised by the case of Fr. Phillipe Peignot, who was ordained a priest for the SSPX in 1982. He sexually abused five boys in 1985–87. These crimes were known to Fr. Paul Aulagnier, his superior (Fr. Aulagnier was the district superior of the SSPX in France from 1976–1994), but he was not removed from any priestly responsibilities. Further sexual abuse by Fr. Peignot was reported to Fr. Aulagnier in 1990, and these reports were made known to the then-superior general of the SSPX, Fr. Franz Schmidberger.
The victim of this abuse was assured by Fr. Schmidberger that Fr. Peignot would not be allowed to have any further contact with children. However, Fr. Schmidberger reversed this decision shortly afterwards, allowing Fr. Peignot to work at scout camps. When a later district superior of France attempted to restore the ban on Fr. Peignot's having contact with children, Bp. Fellay — who had by then become the superior general — overrode the ban again.
The reason for these decisions is that Fr. Schmidberger and Bp. Fellay understood the sexual abuse being committed in the way that the sexual abuser understood it. To impose any sort of punishment for sexual abuse, from the point of view of the abuser, is a crying injustice to the person punished. It is also unfair because it is giving the victim what they want. Since the victim is seen as an enemy who deserves punishment himself just because he is a victim, it is wrong — in the sexual abuser's understanding of things — to gratify the victim's vindictive and unreasonable demands by imposing any sort of punishment on the person who abused him.
Instead, they believe the opposite should be done. The abuser should be treated in a way that erases the injustice of the accusation, and that demonstrates that the victim's evil pursuit of the abuser is being rejected and countered in the way that will hurt the victim most. This is done by placing the abuser in a position that gives him the opportunity to abuse again — in Fr. Abbet's case, by moving him to a priory conveniently attached to a boy's school.
We can see this outlook with many other cases where priests of the Society are found to be guilty of sexual abuse and are not only protected but moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, where they can continue abusing. Father Peignot, for example, was repeatedly assigned as a chaplain for boy scouts and scouting events after his sexual molestations became known to the SSPX authorities. There are many tasks for which the Society needs priests. He could have been put to work in a parish, in a convent or in some other capacity, rather than the one place where he would have most opportunity to abuse young boys. It also emerges in the astonishing practice of SSPX authorities protecting sexual abusers who are not priests, but simply laymen with some connection to the Society. This seems to be a new departure in corrupt behavior within the Church.
The mentality of the sexual abuser is also shown in the way that the Society treats victims of sexual abuse. From a self-interested point of view, a good approach to these victims would be to mollify them as far as possible, to make them think that the Society sympathizes with them, is on their side and is shocked and dismayed at their abuse and doing its best to stamp out this evil. However, the SSPX consistently takes the opposite approach. It attempts to undermine and crush victims wherever possible. This is a workable strategy in some respects, but it is high-risk since the strategy is very damaging to the Society if found out. It is chosen because it conforms to the sexual abuser's desire to attack the victim and to get revenge for the injustice of being accused.
This diagnosis of the motives and actions of the SSPX might seem outlandish to anyone who has not studied the facts in detail. However, the more one knows about the way the SSPX deals with sexual abuse, the more one sees that it is in fact correct.
Why would the authorities of the SSPX think and act like this? In one way, this question is easy to answer. It is because sexual abusers are influential enough within the Society to be able to determine its policy and shape its conception of sexual abusers and their victims. They form the culture of the organization. As a result, the persons in authority conform to and implement policies that reflect the outlook and interests of these abusers.
This phenomenon has been seen elsewhere in the Church. It occurs when sexual abusers are either at the top of an organization or else become influential enough that their interests cannot be sacrificed despite their not occupying the top post. The former situation is easy enough to understand. It occurred in the Legionaries of Christ, which was founded and led by a sexual abuser who had total control of its actions and personnel. The latter situation is more complex and requires some analysis. I will assume that the SSPX was not run by sexual predators from the outset and that it is the latter situation that is relevant here.
One should begin this analysis by acknowledging that when most people encounter evidence of sexual abuse, they don't want to hear about it and do their best to deny or ignore it. This is one of the most shocking discoveries made by those who are themselves abused or who attempt to help victims of abuse. The reason for it is that recognizing the existence of sexual abuse leads to accepting difficult, upsetting and threatening responsibilities.
Most people do not want to do this and indeed often do not have the psychological wherewithal required for it, so they choose to ignore or deny the abuse or distance themselves from the situation. In order to justify this denial, they often attack the victim, whom they resent for having placed them in an uncomfortable situation.
The individual authority-holders in the SSPX are as prone to this reaction as anyone else, and they are also affected by the serious consequences for their institution if the accusations turn out to be true. This gives sexual abusers an initial advantage when their victims accuse them.
However, this factor comes into play when sexual abusers have already been incorporated into an organization. It does not explain how they got there in the first place, and it does not explain how they come to be present in an organization in large numbers and to determine its approach to sexual abuse.
Any explanation of how this came to happen with the SSPX must begin with the founder, Abp. Marcel Lefebvre. I will assume that it did not happen with his knowledge or as a result of his decision. I could be wrong, but this assumption fits with what is known of his past. He was a successful missionary and bishop for decades, and there does not seem to be a record of his appointing and covering up for sexual abusers in these roles. Nonetheless, the influence of sexual abusers in the SSPX is so strong that it must have established itself when he was the superior general. How might this have happened?
What follows is speculation from the facts that are available. The explanation I will propose is that the influence of sexual abusers in the SSPX resulted from the general shortcomings of the men trained and ordained as priests of the Society, shortcomings that were not properly guarded against or even understood by Abp. Lefebvre.
The editor of a respected French Catholic journal told me once that Abp. Lefebvre made the mistake of choosing quantity over quality when he set up the Society. This is true, but itself requires explanation.
The starting point for this explanation is that Abp. Lefebvre never seems to have done a postmortem on the preconciliar Church. He did not identify the weaknesses that caused it to collapse so quickly and thoroughly. He seems just to have thought that the preconciliar systems of training and theology were good ones that had been wrongly abandoned because of weakness, folly or treachery among the ecclesiastical leadership, and that what was needed was for them to be restored. Indeed he thought that they would be restored within a reasonable timeframe and that the postconciliar changes and problems would not be a lasting condition.
He also seems to have overestimated the number of Catholics who thought as he did on religious subjects out of mature understanding and conviction and to have been willing to take at face value the men who came asking to join his Society. It is as if he considered such men to be like seminarians in the 1920s, when the population of Catholics who were committed to the systems and beliefs of the preconciliar Church were much larger, the opportunities and status on offer for seminarians of this sort were far greater and the backing of ecclesiastical authority for these systems and beliefs was solid.
He did not see that in his own totally different situation, the motivations and character of the men who came forward to join his enterprise would have to be radically different from those of the seminarians of the 1920s, and that their professions of faith and commitment would often spring from motives and personality traits that did not appear on the surface and that were less than ideal.
Nor did he take into account the implications of the fact that the preconciliar system of priestly training was built on the inculcation of blind obedience and conformity. It is one thing to have such a system for training leaders in an important, powerful organization that is a dominant force in many countries. In that sort of situation, you can still attract serious, capable people who are willing to put up with the training and will survive it somewhat intact. There is also a corrective to the effects of this training, resulting from the fact that the senior leaders eventually have to discharge important responsibilities.
The pressure of these responsibilities does at some point select for men with character and initiative. The situation of a small, marginalized, despised community where leaders are trained and selected for blind obedience and conformity is very different. Sociologically, this kind of community has the characteristics of a cult. In consequence, the men who come forward as seminarians for a Catholic community of this kind will often be ones who want to be leaders in a cult. Richard Williamson, whom Lefebvre ordained as a bishop, is a clear example of this phenomenon, but there will have been many others.
The political connections of many of the first followers of the SSPX would also have brought problems of which Abp. Lefebvre was not aware. In France, many of these followers were former supporters of the Vichy regime in the Second World War. They were inclined to affiliate themselves with the SSPX in part because of an old alienation from the Holy See that had been produced by the condemnation of Charles Maurras' Action Française, and in part out of resentment towards a French hierarchy that had rapturously supported Pétain and then left all the Vichy followers in the lurch after the Allied victory.
Archbishop Lefebvre did not himself belong to this section of French society. He had been a missionary in Africa during the Vichy period, which meant that the question of involvement with Vichy did not really arise for him, and indeed his father had worked for the French Resistance and was beaten to death by the Germans in the Sonnenburg concentration camp in 1944 as a result.
But he did not seem to recognize what loyalty to Vichy and the far-right meant in the 1970s. It is as if such loyalty to him meant no more than a generic conservatism of the 1920s that included some sympathy with Action Française. In particular, he did not grasp the moral significance of committed anti-Semitism after the Holocaust.
One of the worst stains on Vichy France was the fact that it stripped Jews of civil rights in its Statut des Juifs and handed over Jews to the Germans to be murdered — without even having to be asked to do so by the occupiers. Many Vichy supporters after the war rationalized away these anti-Semitic crimes without either facing up to them or approving of them. But some of them not only approved of these crimes, but approved of the Vichy régime because it had committed them.
It would not be fair to reproach Abp. Lefebvre for not excluding supporters of Vichy France from his movement. For one thing, the majority of Frenchmen had belonged to this category at one time. But he does not seem to have exercised enough discernment with respect to this group. He does not seem to have grasped that they included very sinister elements, which had to be identified and rejected.
One can make an educated guess that there was a link between far-right politics, anti-Semitism and pederasty among elements of the SSPX clergy and faithful. It is well known that there was an important homosexual and pederastic element in National Socialist and Fascist circles. The homosexual English journalist Johann Hari has described this association in the case of Ernst Röhm, the commander of Hitler's stormtroopers (the SA) from 1930 to 1934, a man who played a key role in Hitler's taking power in Germany.
From a Jan. 2008 Huffpost article:
As [Ernst Röhm] put it in his autobiography, "Since I am an immature and wicked man, war and unrest appeal to me more than the good bourgeois order." As historian Louis Snyder explains, Röhm "projected a social order in which homosexuality would be regarded as a human behavior pattern of high repute. ... He flaunted his homosexuality in public and insisted his cronies do the same. He believed straight people weren't as adept at bullying and aggression as homosexuals, so homosexuality was given a high premium in the SA."
Hitler had Röhm shot as a threat to his power in 1934, but the association of homosexuality with Nazi sympathies persisted after the fall of the Third Reich.
Jörg Haider, the right-wing Austrian politician who died in 2008, is an example. Hari remarks, "With the exception of Jean-Marie Le Pen, all the most high-profile fascists in Europe in the past 30 years have been gay." In Vichy France, the homosexual man of letters and traitor Robert Brasillach became a hero and martyr to the French far-right after he was very properly executed by de Gaulle. He is still glorified by them.
Far-right extremists who joined the SSPX as priests or who were influential as lay donors may have belonged to a pederastic wing of this element. This would have provided a nucleus and network of sexual abusers. Networks of this kind do not advertise themselves, so it is impossible in the present state of knowledge to say how far this was the case.
For the reasons given above, right from the beginning a significant portion of the men who came forward as seminarians for the SSPX were attracted to the post of leader in a marginalized, closed, authoritarian community, and/or were sympathetic to Nazi and fascist political ideals. These men were morally, intellectually and spiritually warped. Their faults were ones that would naturally make them inclined to sexual abuse as a form of sexual gratification, because such abuse involves the domination, humiliation and destruction of its victims — exactly the kind of activity that appealed to them, made them want to be leaders in a cult-like group and attracted them to far-right political views.
This inclination would have translated into action in many cases. And persons of this kind who did not share these inclinations, or at least did not act upon them, would have had a natural sympathy with those who did act on them. They would also have come from a far-right milieu in which such abuse was not uncommon, and its toleration and concealment was the general rule. That is how sexual abusers came to have an important presence in the SSPX.
Not only was Abp. Lefebvre unaware of the risks of ordaining men of this type, it would have been easy for individuals of this kind to pass off their traits to him as virtues. In an interview with The Wanderer, Fr. Paul Aulagnier observed that Abp. Lefebvre "hated the modern world's revolutionary spirit that refused subjection, submission, subordination to a created order, to a divine order." These warped individuals could easily present themselves to him as sharing this hatred and as 100% on his side in this respect.
Moreover, in the set-up that he established, they got results, up to a point. Their drive for power and love of humiliating their underlings meant that in a religious community set up on preconciliar lines that enforced blind and unquestioning obedience, they could ensure discipline and make things run well in the eyes of their superiors. Their methods and personalities meant they could not produce significant achievements or foster growth in the communities they were in charge of. Their influence would explain much of the huge wastage rate among the priests of the SSPX, estimated to be as high as 40% after ordination. But these failures could be explained away as due to the difficulty of operating in a hostile, anti-Catholic world.
Many people, including the author of this piece, have been astonished and taken aback by the extreme contrast between the moral and theological doctrines that are the reason for being of the SSPX and the Society's practice of protecting sexual abusers. But from the point of view of the abusers themselves, this contrast had important advantages. It provided the ideal camouflage and enabled them to use an appeal to the very doctrines they were violating in order to protect themselves. Since the Catholic faith is, in fact, true, it provides the best and strongest bait to draw people into acceptance of a cult-like set-up. In the twisted psychology of sexual abusers and sociopaths, this deceitful appeal to the Faith they were profaning added an extra pleasure and spice to their abuse.
Certain special factors seem to have obtained with the SSPX in the United States. The original attempt to establish the SSPX in the United States was a fiasco that resulted in the departure for sedevacantism of many of the priests ordained for the Society there. Archbishop Lefebvre, according to what I have heard, was inclined to give up on the United States as a result. He was talked out of this by the then-Fr. Richard Williamson, one of the few SSPX priests in the United States not to depart for sedevacantism.
Williamson, from this point on, was the most influential founding figure for the Society in the United States. His anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies are well known but do not exhaust his repellent characteristics. Even the most brainwashed SSPX adherents have been known to observe that his behavior on occasion is bizarre, aberrant and unhinged.
One former novice in an SSPX contemplative convent told me that when Williamson came to give a spiritual conference to the nuns, his talk dealt exclusively with conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The former SSPX seminarian Arturo Vasquez has observed: "I entered the scene of the SSPX in the late 1990s when the powerful triumvirate of Fr. Peter Scott, Fr. Ramon Angles and Bp. Williamson ruled the United States district, turning it almost into a far right-wing cult."
Father Angles is an example of the combination of Nazi views and pederasty mentioned above, venerating Hitler and sodomizing a 14-year-old boy, Michael Gonzalez, who subsequently committed suicide and referred to Angles' crime in his suicide note. The combination of Williamson, Scott and Angles was a recipe for unparalleled disaster, producing SSPX communities in the United States that pullulated with every kind of physical and sexual abuse.
In the case of the SSPX in the United States, one may wonder if a certain Eurocentrism was not at work. Would the extreme and blatant methods of the SSPX leadership in the United States — and the conditions they produced — have been seen as acceptable by the Society in France, for example? Probably not, but expectations were lower for the midwestern United States. And it must also be admitted that Bp. Williamson's methods got results on a material scale. He built up a community that raised money, produced vocations, built and filled seminaries. It must regrettably be acknowledged that this was possible because, in one respect, his methods were suited to the American environment.
Americans have many good qualities, and I hope it will not cause offense to say that, like all other nationalities, they have some weak points as well. One of these is a certain vulnerability to the appeal of religious cults. The country, after all, was founded by Puritans who were cultists, and their influence can be felt to this day — in political correctness, for example, which is a cult of a secular kind. Williamson (an Englishman) knew this, and worked on this weak point to develop cult-like groups in the SSPX in America.
So the explanation proposed for the influence of sexual abusers in the SSPX is the following: They established themselves firmly in the society under Abp. Lefebvre for the reasons given above. The existence and activity of the Society, always a difficult struggle, became even more challenging after the death of its founder. Acting in solidarity, the faction of sexual abusers would have been able to make itself indispensable to whomever was in charge of the Society and to ensure that the leader of the Society was — if not one of its members — at least in full sympathy with it. Bishop Fellay fit that bill perfectly. This power enabled the faction to cause the policy and mental attitudes of the leadership of the Society to conform to its own in matters of sexual abuse, with the results that we see today.
Rather similar developments occurred in many other dioceses and religious orders throughout the world in the 20th century. The only significant differences in the case of the Society are the particular mechanisms through which sexual abusers came to power and influence and the contrast between the Society's professed exemption from the corruption that besets the rest of the Church and the real state of affairs.
What is the future for the SSPX under these conditions? A real reform seems unlikely. Corruption is too well established in the Society, and there is no will in Rome to intervene and force positive changes. One possibility is that the Society will decide to cut its losses and effectively shut down its U.S. operations, preserving itself in Europe and other countries where its activities are more secure. The leadership knows that there is both less tolerance of sexual abuse in the United States and a more severe problem there. It seems, however, unlikely that this strategy can work in the long term, due to the gravity of the information already made public and the fact that these offenses will continue to be committed absent a drastic reform of the Society. The future of the SSPX is as uncertain as the future of anything in the corrupt and largely ruined Catholic Church.
*For Church Militant's position on the SSPX, please see this resource page.