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Different degrees of heinousness

• If a doctor or a psychiatrist has a sexual relationship with a patient, he can be disciplined or struck off, even if the patient solicited the relationship.

This is because the power dynamics make true consent from the patient impossible, even when the patient is an adult.

If a priest engages, while operating in his pastoral capacity, in a relationship with an adult, there is always an abusive dimension to it for the same reason.

A priest who engages in a sexual relationship with an adult he meets socially may be breaking his vow of celibacy, but is not being abusive.

I am pointing this out in response to Mary Kenny's article on clerical sex abuse (Irish Independent, May 12) in which she seems to imply that a knowing 15-year-old can give valid consent to sexual activity with a priest operating in his pastoral role.

Reprehensible as the abuse of a pastoral role is with another adult, to groom and manipulate an underage adolescent -- or, even more horrifically, a child -- into sexual activity is a psychological, emotional and spiritual crime, as well as a physical one. As Ms Kenny points out, there is an important difference between pederasty (in which adults pursue sexual relationships with underage adolescents) and paedophilia (in which adults pursue sexual relationships with children) and this difference is frequently glossed over.

This difference and the various sorts of sexually abusive acts may indeed need to be categorised as Ms Kenny suggests; however, such grades or categories will simply facilitate the evaluation of different degrees of heinousness.

I would suggest that those priests who have recently set up an organisation whose goal is the liberalising of certain church doctrines should also set up a professional regulatory body in line with those of the medical, legal and teaching professions in order to provide proper regulation of pastoral relationships.

This would bring clarity to those who need it most: the hierarchical priesthood itself.

Meanwhile, I suggest that the undoubtedly well-meaning Ms Kenny should read 'The Road Less Travelled' by psychiatrist M Scott Peck, which deals very sensitively with the psychological impact of abuses of power by those in the caring professions.

Niamh Middleton
Clontarf, Dublin 3

Irish Independent